Thursday, September 20, 2007

Speaking Up

"Taxpayer-funded NASA should only fund research and not development. When you spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build a manned spacecraft, you're...dumbing down a generation of new, young engineers (by telling them) "No, you can't take new approaches, you have to use this old technology."

That's Burt Rutan talking at the 50th anniversary space conference in Pasadena this week.

"I think it's absurd they're doing Orion development at all. It should be done commercially," he said, referring to the name of the lunar spacecraft. With these comments, Rutan is hitting NASA right where it is hurting the country the most. It has been happening in subtle ways, and its happening very slowly, but what Rutan is pointing to is that NASA is in the process of neutering our aerospace industry.

Think about it. While ORION represented a more or less a traditional procurement, set in motion before the Emperor came to the throne, the ARES 1 Upper Stage represents a new way of doing business for NASA. All of the white collar work that has been traditionally undertaken by industry with requirements specified by NASA is now being done inside the agency. On the Upper Stage, Boeing's contract is for blue collar, build to print, manufacturing tasks for the NASA designed launch vehicle component.

And soon the aerospace industry's investment in design skills will whither away. And the lack of an educational pipeline, cut off by the termination of technology investments in the universities, will see to it that we are strategically disadvantaged for many years to come. We might as well hand the next set of lunar golf clubs to the Chinese right now.

In the meantime, industry is rolling over and ignoring the problem, maybe thinking (hoping? praying?) that the Emperor will soon take his leave. Talk about turning the other cheek. NASA is now considering its strategy for procuring the lunar lander (LSAM). Internal discussions go as far as suggesting that NASA integrate the vehicle themselves from components that industry will build from NASA designs. And who is going to do this work? Retirees?

The best that the Emperor could shoot back with on Rutan's position came in a speech later in the day. "Unlike Rutan, I will continue to think space programs are important," The Emperor said.

Gee, I thought that was why Rutan was speaking out. Maybe the Emperor should look down and grab a towel or something. What little clothing he has is really starting to wear thin.

1 comment:

Jon Goff said...

But come on rocket man, shouldn't NASA stick with its core competencies? ;-)