marks the 50th anniversary of NASA as a federal agency. Over those 50 years, tremendous excitement has been generated and much has been accomplished scientifically, technologically
and programmatically in space exploration. In many ways it is hard to imagine the last five decades of U.S. history without NASA and the civilian space program it supports.
Despite political and fiscal challenges as well as some key technical setbacks, NASA enjoys strong, enduring bipartisan support.
This year – which also marks an unprecedently open presidential campaign – it is particularly important to take stock of the nation’s space and aeronautics program in order to assure that the next 50 years will be successful, rewarding
and inspirational. Now is the right
for those associated with presidential campaigns and potential transition teams to assess what
in NASA’s management and funding structure is in need of repair.
Any objective assessment of NASA’s role for the last two decades (at least) would have to conclude that the space and Earth science programs have carried the load for the space agency. These science programs have presented the most exciting and compelling face of NASA: they have played a key role in understanding Earth’s climate change; they have helped us understand our place in the universe; and they have inspired several successive new generations of scientists and engineers to pursue technical careers.
During the time of this most remarkable science accomplishment, there has been continuing tension between the space and Earth research programs on the one hand, and
on the other. This arises to a large degree due to chronic underfunding of the ambitious goals for sending humans back to the Moon and on to
. It is clear that a new presidential administration coming into power in 2009 – regardless of which
party – should formally recognize the imbalance between optimistic aspirations
and insufficient funding
for the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). The new administration should request from
Congress that more funds be provided to NASA to enable sensible human exploration. If such funds cannot, or will not, be requested and appropriated, then NASA should not pursue the present U.S. Space Policy on
current time schedule.
To the interested observer, a major problem for the entire U.S. space program, civil and military, is the seemingly relentless growth of mission costs for approved programs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense and NASA all have seen projects increase in cost by significant factors. In an era of flat – or with inflation even declining – budgets, the nation must get more bang for its buck, not less. Certainly the human exploration component of NASA has large, complex flight elements that must be constrained in cost in order to avoid huge damage to the rest of the agency’s programs.
ost-containment problems are not the exclusive purview of the NASA human exploration program
. There is ample evidence that robotic science missions
also are costing much more than they should and, in fact, much more than can be afforded.
More than a decade ago, a chain of events was set in motion
that has led to potentially severe consequences for NASA science programs. In hindsight, two changes seem to have had particular negative consequences.
the size of NASA
headquarters staffing was cut by a factor of two. In order for NASA to appear to have a
bureaucracy in Washington,
a decision was made by
then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin
to cut headquarters
and move many of the program management functions
to NASA’s field centers. This removed a lot of what had been a sensible control and oversight function from headquarters and vested this key function at
centers where traditionally only “project” management (i.e., mission implementation) had been done.
With this change, an important vestige of “restoring force” was removed from the system: Now, program managers and corresponding project managers are often at the same NASA center. Both types of managers
report to the same person – the
. An exacerbating circumstance from 2005 to the present
is that center directors, who formerly reported to the appropriate
administrators at NASA headquarters
are now reporting directly to the NASA
administrator. The new administration should examine carefully what is the right size, skill set
and management structure between NASA headquarters and the c
enters in order to assure effective program execution.
A second, and equally impactful event, came in 2002-2003 with the advent of
at NASA. This seemingly sensible approach,
under Sean O’Keefe, a different, accounting-oriented NASA
began to put more pressure on
center managers to load up missions and projects to help deal with
centers (i.e. NASA employees who were not working explicitly on particular projects and programs).
This issue was not critical until 2004-2005 when NASA began initiating its new, vigorous human exploration program without
the resource base to accomplish the goals. Under the guise of full-cost accounting, large amounts of funding were transferred from NASA salary accounts to the human exploration program in order to pay for the space shuttle program shortfalls and the
new VSE activities
. As I discussed in a previous policy analysis in Space News,
[“Exploration Without Explorers?” April 24, 2006, page
removed huge content from many space science programs and budget lines, including the venerable Explorer program.
The selection of a new president and executive management team in 2008 is a chance to restore a proper management structure and reporting chain at NASA. It seems very appropriate to use the
agency’s 50th anniversary as an opportunity to renovate, restore
and refresh NASA’s goals and its organization. If the a
gency is going to explore effectively using humans, it must have the resources that are needed. NASA also must have managers with the right tools, levers
and controls to assure that costs are contained while NASA’s
science vision is pursued. The transition teams for the vying presidential election candidates should start now to implement a much sounder NASA management structure.
Daniel N. Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.