The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NASA Glenn aerial view
Closing a NASA facility like the Glenn Research Center (above) could prove harmful to the agency culturally. (credit: NASA/GRC)

NASA BRAC: a bad idea

One bad idea that seems to pop up whenever money gets a little tight at America’s space agency is to shut down one of NASA’s centers, or to have a BRAC. The original Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) process was designed to take the politics out of the process of reducing the DoD’s massive collection of installations. A commission picks the bases to be closed from a list proposed by the Pentagon and presents it to Congress, which can either vote for the whole thing or do nothing. For politicians, it was a painful way of doing business, but it did allow them to actually save some money over the medium to long term. It also allowed the communities that were affected to know that their loss was the result of something other than raw political horse-trading.

Since President Clinton’s intervention in the 1996 round of base closings, Congress had been reluctant to go along with a future round. It took all of Donald Rumsfeld’s clout to get them to agree to the current BRAC process. For a big government institution like the Defense Department, with lots of installations, it’s painful, but it has not been apocalyptic. For a small agency like NASA, a BRAC commission would be a disaster.

The two NASA centers that would be at the top of the list—NASA Ames and NASA Glenn—are the two that NASA can least afford to lose, above all, for cultural reasons.

There are only eight major NASA centers, as well as a number of smaller facilities. If the administrator, or a committee, were forced to decide which one to close, the political fight would end up absorbing the energies of whole agency. Lobbies would form and coalitions would be mobilized. Good men and women would fight bitterly with one another to save their jobs and careers, not to mention the work that they’d put large parts of their lives into. The bad feelings left over from a NASA BRAC process would cripple the organization for years, just as a badly managed merger can wreck a pair of strong corporations.

What may be worse is that the two NASA centers that would be at the top of the list—NASA Ames, in the San Francisco Bay area, and NASA Glenn (formerly NASA Lewis), outside Cleveland—are the two that NASA can least afford to lose, above all, for cultural reasons. In spite of the cutbacks in aeronautics at NASA Langley, in Virginia, that center is not going to be closed. Civil aircraft research has too much political support to be eliminated and the center’s role as the new locus of space safety assurance makes its closing almost unimaginable.

Except for JPL, Ames, and Glenn, all of NASA’s other big centers—including Goddard—are in the South. (Maryland is, culturally at least, as much a Southern state as, say, West Virginia.) The other centers are in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia. The historical and political reasons for this are a fascinating aspect of American space lore. They include the fact that, after the Civil War, there were a lot of military bases in the South and that, during the Second World War, even more were built. The traditional talent of Southern Democrats for pork barrel politics (and the fact that, nowadays, Southern Senators and Congressmen from the GOP show signs that they have similar skills) ensured that, when the agency was established, the bulk of the facilities went to their region.

Also, the South had (and still has) Earth’s rotation on its side. Was this was God’s way of saying that all those jobs, and all that business, should go to the states of the old Confederacy? Of course, if one were to go strictly by the idea that the US should launch its rockets from as close to the Equator as possible, then the Big Island of Hawaii is probably the ideal spot. However, the Army started testing missiles in Florida a few years before Hawaii became a state, so the government lost that chance.

This leads to the question of culture. With all its virtues, in both the religious and Machiavellian senses, the South is the most self-consciously distinct part of America. Its sense of uniqueness tends to permeate everything that happens in the region, including its approach to technology. This would be fine when it is counterbalanced by other influences but, in the case of NASA’s culture, this may not be true, and certainly would not be so, if Ames and/or Glenn were shut down.

More important may be the need for the government’s space program to connect with people all over the country, not just in one region.

One of the most controversial findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) was the emphasis they put of the problem of NASA’s institutional culture: “The Apollo era created at NASA an exceptional ‘can do’ culture marked by tenacity in the face of seemingly impossible challenges.” This could equally apply to the institutional culture of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The CAIB noted that for decades after the final Moon missions, the agency got into the habit of always trying to do too much with too few resources. The cutbacks in budget and personnel were rarely matched by cuts in the desired results, whether in robotic exploration or in the shuttle flight rate.

More important may be the need for the government’s space program to connect with people all over the country, not just in one region. There are a few small NASA organizations elsewhere, such as the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, but there are not many of them, and they are not part of the fabric of local life, as are places like JSC in Houston or JPL in Pasadena. The question of NASA’s culture is even more complex than the issues raised in the CAIB report.

Before the Columbia disaster, the culture was torn between the tradition of engineering excellence, established in the late fifties and sixties, and the bureaucratic and budgetary limits of the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Each center was allowed to create its own organizational culture and—as with other parts of the government—these did not always manage to work effectively with one another. Sean O’Keefe responded to this problem with his “One NASA” idea. It will be interesting to see if Mike Griffin maintains high-level support for the intellectual and cultural integration effort emphasized by his predecessor.

If the Vision is going to work, NASA will need all the talents from all its centers, and it will have to find ways of using to maximum advantage all the skills that are to be found there. A BRAC would be a huge waste of time, and Congress and the new Administrator should make it clear that they are not going to allow it to happen. After that, everyone can get on with the real job: exploring the solar system and understanding the universe.