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Aldridge Commission press conference
It’s one thing for a group like the Aldridge Commission to recommend changing NASA, but it’s another thing entirely to carry out those changes. (credit: J. Foust)

The Aldridge Report: it’s all about execution

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, NASA could definitely be considered an “instrument of expansion”. It was a creature of global political competition, in response to the Soviet challenge, and was given a single task: Get to the Moon first. At this task, the agency performed brilliantly, particularly as it was guaranteed a virtual blank check from frightened taxpayers with no counterbalancing market forces to contend with. We reached the Moon in eight years. However unlike past transportation systems into which the government threw a lot of money and resources, there was no established private commercial space industry that resulted from all that public investment (except for communications satellites, which were—and still are today—very expensive to launch and nearly impossible to maintain).

After 1972, as NASA the policy instrument invariably morphed into NASA the institution, its primary “mission” also evolved: to maintain its own existence. To that end, it overpromised to Congress yet underdelivered on just about everything, spending over $450 billion in 2000-era dollars over the last 32 years in doing so. The shuttle and ISS programs are only two of the most extreme examples. The NASA culture changed from an open, “can-do” attitude, to one of “circle the wagons”, in symbiotic relationships with its prime contractors, and taking pains to quietly dismiss or even overtly inhibit projects that were “not invented here”. Hence, instead of exploring new worlds and expanding humanity’s options, we got to witness overtrained and underchallenged NASA elitists spin their wheels in LEO for a generation.

Historian Carroll Quigley once wrote that when a public instrument—created specifically to solve certain problems—morphed into an institution, it took on a life and agenda of its own, virtually unrelated to the reasons the instrument was created in the first place. It began to inhibit, rather than enhance, human progress. NASA certainly fits this classic model. Quigley also wrote that in such cases, society was faced with three choices: (1) continue on as usual, accepting the resulting decay (the Soviet Union), (2) “work around” the institution, thus maintaining it as a public “landmark”, of sorts, but rendered effectively irrelevant (the British Royal Family), or (3) reform it from the ground up, thus making it an effective instrument once again (Harley-Davidson, IBM, Apple Computer, and dozens of other companies, just not any public institutions).

If we can somehow pull this off, this would probably be the first time in the history of civilization that a public institution was “reformed” back into an effective instrument.

The Aldridge Commission report, in effect, recommends the third option, a massive restructuring of NASA the institution to once again make it an expansive instrument, but this time with the knowledge that public resources are limited, and out-of-the-box creativity needs to be encouraged, in order to fulfill key national goals.

So the questions that are raised by the report are: (a) can NASA truly be transformed in the manner recommended, (b) will NASA be so transformed, (c) will the private sector finally get to play its proper role, and (d) can we collectively convince Congress to make all this happen?

As I alluded to above, if we can somehow pull this off, this would probably be the first time in the history of civilization that a public institution was “reformed” back into an effective instrument. Corporate “institutions” reinvent themselves all the time—but they do so as a natural response to competitive market forces. Government institutions—not subject to “market competition”—do not; hence I have to lace my comments here with a healthy dose of skepticism, despite the fact that I personally like much of what the Commission is advocating.

This report has a little something for everyone, ideas that many space advocates, including yours truly, have been pounding the podiums in favor of, for many, many years:

  • The recommended “transformation of NASA” includes official recognition by the agency of a larger presence of private industry in space operations, with the goal of handing off the primary role of NASA support to private-sector contractors, particularly in LEO. In other words, NASA would ultimately become a “customer” of most space services, services that would also be available to any individual or organization willing to pay for them in the open market. (There are exceptions to this—more on that below.)
  • The commercialization of space would be a primary focus of the overall “vision”, and the subsequent creation of a space commercial industry would be a primary benefit, creating high-paying tech jobs for Americans.
  • NASA would abandon its traditional cost-plus contracting mode, in favor of laying out “performance-oriented goals and then allowing the private sector to compete aggressively to achieve mission objectives”. After three months of testimony, the Commission came away convinced that the private sector was ready, willing, and able to take on this role.
  • The Commission recommends a complete overhaul of NASA’s structure and culture, with both a more “integrated” approach to science needs and systems development, as well as transitioning ten NASA facilities along the model of the federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs), which are generally managed in an open, competitive environment, under contract to a university, a non-profit, or a for-profit organization. They tend to be more entrepreneurial in their culture, with greater personnel flexibility. NASA would also be called upon to reform its management practices under the guidance of independent boards, following successful Defense Department models.
  • Seventeen specific “enabling technologies” were recognized as vital to the vision’s success, and development of these, with private sector help, would take the most priority. They include affordable heavy-lift capacity, advanced power and propulsion, closed-loop life support, and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

Building a robust space industry

Section III, “Building a Robust Space Industry”, is only five pages long, but for space commerce enthusiasts, it offers serious hope, in that the Commission advocates the creation of a true “space industry” of many diverse, competitive interests, not necessarily tied to government contracts. They recommend a “cultural shift toward encouraging and incentivizing” private sector activity. Among the specifics:

  • More private prizes like the X Prize, and more government-sponsored prizes along the lines of the present Centennial Challenges initiative (only far more substantial, perhaps as high as $1 billion, for example, for the achievement of specific long range goals, like placing humans on the moon and sustaining them for a specified period.)
  • Regulatory relief: taking a closer look at liability, occupational hazard, and environmental regulations, to begin with, with an eye to further enabling private-sector progress while still protecting or indemnifying “uninvolved” US citizens from property damage or physical harm.
  • Property rights in space: for the first time, a government-sponsored commission has recognized that problems actually exist in this area, and recommends something be done to address them, so a nascent space business doesn’t die on the vine.
  • International cooperation: international partners, depending on mission requirements, could add value by providing components for an integrated mission on a “best value” basis, along the lines of the “Joint Strike Fighter model” pioneered by the Defense Department with nine other member nations. Under this model, partners could influence the development and production process depending on their own investment, but it would still be under US control. (Presumably some of these technologies would also find their way to the commercial sector, gaining global customers.)
If we only achieved the goals detailed in Section III, leading to a robust commercial space infrastructure, we could be satisfied.

The Commission calls for major reforms in the education and teacher training systems to better inspire our youth and those who instruct them. They also want to launch a new major public relations initiative, with “effective marketing and communication” programs to sell the vision to those who will be taxed to pay for it—a new model for grass roots public support, including cooperative efforts from NASA, industry, professional organizations, and the White House.

That is a very ambitious and paradigm-shifting program. So again, the question is, can we actually achieve it? How politically realistic is it? Will NASA go along?

In my view, even if we only achieved the goals detailed in Section III, leading to a robust commercial space infrastructure, we could be satisfied. Success in that one effort would build a new rich sector of the US economy, create high-paying jobs less vulnerable to outsourcing, and encourage educational systems to reform and improve from the grassroots to keep the native talent base up to speed and competitive. If nothing else changed, that would be the “workaround” scenario described above. If NASA became too resistant to reform, or future Congresses and Administrations lost sight of the vision, the private sector could get us there. It would take a little longer without the public investment, but we would get the tools we need, and a lot more people would get a chance to fly at a reasonable price, as a side benefit. The enabling legislation—beginning with Senate passage of HR3752, now stalled in committee—could be accomplished in a single Congressional session, with no further tweaking required, assuming the political will could be mustered in the near term.

All the rest of it, however, is far more challenging—and make no mistake, there are some major hurdles to overcome. Not only is the Commission recommending reforming NASA as an institution, but also at least two other entrenched institutions in our society: scientific research and education. In all three cases, we will be fighting an uphill battle against bureaucratic factionalism and intense lobbying from those having most to gain from maintaining the status quo.

page 2: dealing with the old order >>