When the Congress presided over the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew, there was a level of seriousness in the air that was different. For Congress, NASA and the aerospace community there was recognition that great and historic issues were at stake. Now, as space affairs have returned to the normalcy of great budget struggles over grand mission objectives, it is more a wonder as to what the conversation was all about in 2003, if about anything more than breaking away from the catharsis of recurring orbital human spaceflight.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) had it right on that score. The CAIB’s recommendation that NASA needed an enduring mission to sustain focus and achieve operational excellence over many future decades resonated with NASA and political leadership. Another was the adoption of a NASA Technical Engineering Authority that was, for CAIB Chairman Adm. Harold W. Gehman, a technical correction that if properly implemented had some hope of delivering the level of operational excellence seen in the nuclear Navy.
But NASA is not the nuclear Navy. De-optimizing the research and industrial capacities that make NASA the space faring marvel of the world to refocus solely on the safety and disciplinary expertise that evolved around nuclear submarines was not, and is not, in the cards. Other solutions, ones more native to NASA, also are needed.
The CAIB was after all an accident investigation. I recall Adm. Gehman privately noting that the CAIB’s mission was premised on its principal role: to investigate the causes of an accident, to find reasons and to correct them. Ultimately, the CAIB shied away from making recommendations that went beyond the strict limitations of vehicle safety.
“Changes in organizational structure should be made only with careful consideration of their effect on the systems and their possible unintended consequences … Changing the structure of organizations is complicated by external political and budgetary constraints, the inability of leaders to conceive of the full ramifications of their actions, the vested interests of insiders, and the failure to learn from the past,” the CAIB report said.
Changing the organization and culture of NASA went in far more directions and had far more implications than those the CAIB considered appropriate and relevant to solving a space transportation and operations conundrum.
But for those of us who saw in Columbia not only a tragedy for a vehicle, a crew and those meant to watch over them but a risk to a great American enterprise, it is not clear that what has gone on since is a complete solution.
Perhaps more so than any other consideration, the deep insularity that seems to have swept over NASA since the disaster is of enormous concern. The proposition for space at the beginning of the 21st century is large and moves far beyond traditional considerations and assumptions that guided the first few decades of spaceflight. No matter what the likelihood of success of the many venture pursuits being engendered today, the sheer amount of activity is impressive.
Equally impressive is the volume of activity abroad. , and other foreign nations are moving beyond entrance to the space arena and are becoming viable partners in global space commerce and operations. Established space industries in and elsewhere are being integrated across global enterprises; new and innovative business models are advancing both the national and commercial interests of the sponsoring nations. Security and environmental concerns common among nations typically drive these ambitions, but what also drives them reflects a newly evident theme in global relations: peaceful, orderly societies yearn for national prosperity and advancement.
Whether the is ready and willing to participate in this new era of space globalization, parallel to other elements of foreign policy, is unknown – there are many troublesome attributes of this change to be considered. But if the American economy is to benefit from this shift in the new world order of space commerce and operations, and the spirit of America’s space enterprise is to be properly measured as equal parts competition and cooperation – both true to our heritage – the United States needs to settle its current space policy differences and move ahead in many new ways.
One, it is important to recognize that whatever management woes and fiscal dilemmas plague the space agency, NASA isn’t “broken.” Part of the animus that grew up within the space community and is being expressed in the ambitions to pursue far-flung missions into deep space, no matter what the risk, is likely traceable to the sense of injury the NASA community feels from this too often casual accusation. That needs to change. NASA is, and should be, a proud institution. It is truly unsurpassed by any other program of science and technology anywhere else in the world and is truly a model for inspiration and excellence in science and engineering. This is not to say that NASA is the same institution today that it has always been, but it is truly a legacy worth saving and worth investing in.
Two, critics are right to say that NASA is no longer a model of technological innovation. The agency has slowly moved away from this aspect of the national ambition contained in the 1958 Space Act, best represented by the Apollo lunar program. NASA cannot perform as the leader of aerospace if it cannot claim to also embody leadership in innovation.
This problem is not unique to NASA. But it is troubling that it has taken hold of the most prominent symbol of American technological and scientific ingenuity.
NASA needs a new model of industrial management and operations, one that goes to the heart of how the agency manages its technical work force and facilities, and moves forward from NASA’s single-minded devotion to its mission management model.
Three, much of how NASA could carry out innovation isn’t related to science and engineering practice; it is a direct manifestation of government-wide business practices. Much of the insularity that partners feel when working with NASA results from the arms-length relationship the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) imposes upon all federal agencies. The FAR, developed in response to concerns about war-time profiteering and influence-peddling, often stands as an obstacle to cooperation and innovation between government and industry when strictly interpreted.
One bright spot in federal regulatory affairs was the 2004 adoption of special rules for the development of experimental commercial space vehicles. There is no reason why similar types of special exclusionary rules couldn’t be adopted for many aspects of how government spaceflight projects are managed. There is far more at stake than the sanctity of competition in government contracting. Special rules would benefit industry and the nation in far more ways than blind allegiance to what the FAR does today.
Four, despite the views of many new entrepreneurs in American spaceflight, NASA cannot be allowed to become merely a larger version of its own test and research facilities, a sort of Bell Labs of American aerospace. NASA, at its best, is a development and operations engineering powerhouse, although more the former than the latter. If the United States is to maintain global leadership in space affairs, NASA must renew its technical ability to work effectively with industry and alongside its foreign government partners. Whether NASA and other agencies depend solely on commercial space operators to fulfill their mission needs is an answer far off in the future. Thus far, the answer emanating from NASA human spaceflight operations is no, just as there are many other areas where commercial solutions do not satisfy the fulfillment of inherently public needs and ambitions.
Five, NASA cannot be seen to represent only one part of a national vision for spaceflight, and not the whole. The United States requires one vision for American spaceflight, not many; and the requires a family of partners in spaceflight working in unison, not divided by artificial boundaries of federal and legislative jurisdiction.
Not only does the need clarity of purpose across jurisdictional boundaries, it needs clarity of communication to exist between government and industry and between the United States and its international partners. Whereas political parlor conversation has never resolved as to whether investment in space is too large or too small, it is disproportionately low compared to the inherent value of the lifestyle, economic and security choices it enables American citizens and society to make. This little understood consideration inspires foreign investment in space by nations that have far fewer resources to spare.
This clarity of purpose does not exist today in civil space affairs. Any semblance of a national vision is splintered across a multitude of different federal agencies having jurisdiction over science, security, the economy and the environment; each possessing a different view of the role of space and technology in their agency’s affairs. It is perhaps the most significant obstacle to advancing space interests at home and abroad, and is a necessary complement to any new form of industrial space policy the may propose.
This is not a complete list of remedies. Expanding, targeting and better managing the nation’s overall investment in space, science and technology and solving America’s troubling science and engineering education dilemmas pose huge challenges – not to mention finding new ways of working with foreign partners given the strict restrictions of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
Furthermore, reform must touch all aspects of the space enterprise, not just NASA. Industrial innovation and new forms of cooperation will be equally difficult to extract from the large systems integration firms that compose the American aerospace industry.
An American space program that is the envy and inspiration of the world demands more than just safety and ambition in human spaceflight, no matter how close these are to the spirit of American spaceflight. The owns the full measure of its ambitions in space, not just the accomplishments of Apollo. We cannot technically achieve the Vision for Space Exploration if our broader American space enterprise is not designed to achieve all the purposes of our uniquely American vision of the space frontier – the one truly continues to inspire the world’s spirit of progress today.
John Cullen was senior aide to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, during the Accident Investigation. He has held a number of positions in industry and government related to national space policy and programs, including NASA headquarters from 1992-1997.