By Karl Stephan, Consulting Engineer, Texas State University, San Marcos
The U. S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has just been judged by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the National Research Council (NRC) at the instigation of Congress. That branch of government wanted an independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and goals in light of continuing fiscal constraints and national priorities. The resulting 80-page report is the best summary I have seen of NASA’s past successes, present ills, and possibilities for improving itself in the future.
Besides the agency’s spectacular successes, ranging from the 1969 lunar landing on down, NASA has also been the organization behind some of the most famous tragedies in the engineering ethics literature. The losses of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 were both preventable disasters that revealed serious problems with NASA’s management and safety structures. More strategically, NASA has been perceived by many as a set of solutions looking for problems, and the NRC report confirms this picture.It’s a cliché to say that if you don’t know where you’re going, it will be hard to tell when you get there or how long it will take. But that is the picture that emerges from the investigation and analysis performed by members of the NRC panel, who visited ten different sites in the widespread NASA organization and took most of a year to compile their results.
The good news is that there are patches of well-organized high-achieving activity within the organization. The unmanned space exploration effort, characterized by projects such as the Curiosity Mars rover, has had notable successes and largely stays within budget and on schedule. It is significant that NASA carries out a periodic ten-year “decadal survey” of the science communities interested in these projects, and a strategic plan for them is thereby updated with extensive international input.
But with regard to manned spaceflight, the picture is, if not dismal, at least discouraging. For one thing, the target keeps moving around. I happened to be in Washington, D. C. the day President George Herbert Walker Bush called for a manned flight to Mars, way back in 1989. But President Obama has instead brought up the idea of a trip to an asteroid, without saying which one. The NRC reports the lack of widespread enthusiasm within NASA for the asteroid journey, and in the meantime, if the U. S. wants to put a man in space for any reason right now, we have to go buy tickets from the Russians.
In some ways, NASA is the victim of its own past successes. During the Apollo buildup in the 1960s, expensive new facilities were built purposely in many different states to solidify Congressional support for the space effort. NASA is now saddled with billions of dollars’ worth of real estate occupied by aging specialized test facilities which in many cases have lots of deferred maintenance needed. Turning these facilities into commercial operations is a nice idea, and in a few places this has worked, but frankly there are not too many commercial users in need of a test stand for a Saturn-V rocket engine, for example. About a third of NASA’s employees are government civil servants, not contractors, and there are special complications in shifting civil-servant staffing to meet changing needs.
The NRC report doesn’t simply list NASA’s ills; it contains a list of recommendations as well. Many of the difficulties NASA has encountered result from trying too many ambitious things with insufficient funds. The NRC realistically admits that the chances of increasing NASA’s total budget are small, so they don’t see an overall increase in funding as a realistic solution.
They list three other options as more realistic possibilities. One is strictly downsizing: sell off underutilized facilities and lay off or retire surplus staff. This option might work, but as someone who has lived through an organizational downsizing at a university, it creates a poisonous work environment and there is a possibility the treatment might succeed only in killing the patient. A second option, which is compatible with downsizing, is to reduce the size of NASA’s program portfolio: in other words, try doing fewer things well more than many things not so well. To me, this makes the most sense, and is consistent with my blog of June 20, 2011, which examined a proposal for reorganizing NASA around the model of the U. S. Coast Guard.
The most interesting option proposed by the NRC is to greatly increase national and international cooperative efforts with other U. S. government agencies, private industry, and foreign entities. Currently, NASA is already moving in that direction with regard to future manned flight hardware, saying that it will assume more of a supervisory role to contractors, who will have greater freedom in developing spacecraft to go to wherever NASA finally decides to go. But as other nations continue to develop space capabilities that in some ways outstrip those of the U. S., cooperation rather than competition would seem pretty sensible in many cases.
NASA was born in the midst of the Cold War between the U. S. and the USSR, and without that war that wasn’t a war, it never would have received the massive support for the race to the moon, which it did with almost no help from anybody outside the U. S. Unfortunately, that “not-invented-here” attitude seems to have lingered on in the institution long after it has outlived its usefulness, at least with regard to major manned-flight programs. But the result has been the end of the Shuttle program without a viable alternative to take its place.
The NRC report ends with an optimistic call to the executive branch and Congress to do something that will focus NASA on a meaningful strategic plan. (The current NASA planning document is a fuzzy kind of thing that amounts to mom-and-apple-pie for space.) Given the ongoing near-chaos in Washington, I am not hopeful that the NRC will get what it calls for, and what the rest of the nation deserves from an agency which still has great talent and capabilities. But if we don’t get action from Washington that puts NASA back on track, at least we have heard clearly from the NRC about exactly what the problems are. Sources: The NRC report (a draft version at this writing) can be downloaded in its entirety from http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=1824 
Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article first appeared on http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/ 
January 02, 2012