Saturday, September 29, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

"NASA will accelerate missions featuring space nuclear power," Aviation Week & Space Technology reports in its Oct. 1 issue. "NASA's objective will be to use nuclear power much more frequently to open previously isolated areas of the solar system for robotic exploration as early as 2013. NASA is moving quickly to make space nuclear power, and eventually nuclear propulsion, an inherent design element in near term, medium cost planetary missions."

Flashback to 2003. Project Prometheus was established by NASA to develop nuclear systems for long-duration space missions. Power and propulsion generated by the Prometheus technology was to be first used by the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. Northrop Grumman was selected for a $400 million preliminary design contract. The contract was to have run through 2008. Separate contracts, for spacecraft DDT&E along with the individual instruments, were to be awarded at a later date.

Then the Emperor assumed the throne and the program was reduced to a low-level research effort. Its 2005 budget of $430 million shrank to $100 million in 2006. Instead of getting any useful data out of the program, all but $10 million was used to pay closeout costs on canceled contracts.

Now, we are almost five years and at least $100M behind the 2003 head start. And the Emperor will no doubt claim credit for forward thinking and for establishing this "new" program.

Are you familiar with the story of the "three letters?" It is commonly believed that when a leader leaves office he writes three letters, numbers the envelopes, and leaves them in his desk for his successor. He tells his replacement to open one letter each time he runs into a serious problem and considers leaving office.

Letter #1 usually says, "blame your predecessor." Letter #2 usually says, "re-organize everything." Letter #3 usually says, "write three letters."

When the Emperor came to town he must have read that first letter pretty quickly. Now, the reality of his failed policies is becoming evident, as previously cancelled programs come back to life and current programs are shown for what they are: broken and unwieldy. Perhaps the Emperor is grabbing his pen and will soon be reaching for three envelopes.

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