Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Norm '90 v. Norm '09

The more things don't change, the more they stay the same. Or something like that. With that in mind, it may be worthwhile to adjust our expectations of what the upcoming Blue Ribbon Panel's conclusions may look like by looking back in time (many moons ago, pun intended) to the concerns of a similar Panel led by a now even older Norm.

One of today's concerns is how can a Panel of this charter possibly finish their work in 60-90 days? With some limited editing you can clearly see that this Panel could bring the old findings up-to-date without requiring too much creativity. In fact, substitute Columbia for Challenger, and you'd be pretty much good to go. We, too, shall not expend much effort in paraphrasing the concerns, but will remember them in close to, if not their original forms below.

The first of Norm '90's concerns was related to the lack of a national consensus as to what should be the goals of the civil space program and how they should be accomplished. The usual conclusions that Americans support the program generally even if they don't know what it is achieving specifically, that robots are cheaper and safer to fly than humans, that commercialization should be accelerated, and that the returns from fundamental science will forever be challenged by those who can not foretell the future.

Second, Norm '90 found that NASA is currently over-committed in terms of program obligations relative to resources available. Margins are slim to none. Frequently major programs are revamped, which in turn sometimes results in forcing smaller (scientific) pursuits to pay the bill for problems encountered in larger (frequently manned) missions.

Third, continuing changes in project budgets, sometimes exacerbated by actions needed to extricate projects from technical difficulties, result in management inefficiencies. These demoralize and frustrate the individuals pursuing those projects, as well as those who must pay the bills.

Fourth, there is the matter of institutional aging and the concern that NASA has not been sufficiently responsive to valid criticism and to the need for change.

Fifth, the personnel policies embodied in the civil service system are hopelessly incompatible with the long term maintenance of a leading-edge, aggressive, confident, and able work force of technical specialists and technically trained managers.

Sixth, it is a natural tendency for projects to grow in scope, complexity, and cost. Deliberate steps must be taken to guard against this phenomenon if programs are not to collapse under their own weight often taking a toll on the smaller projects that must share in the budget.

Seventh, the material foundation of any major space project is its "technological base." It is this base that produces the key building blocks, or "enablers," that make major missions possible. The technology base of NASA has now been starved and must be rebuilt if a sound underpinning is to be regained for future space missions.

Eighth, space projects tend to be very unforgiving of any form of neglect or human failing, particularly with respect to engineering discipline. Spacecraft incorporating flaws are not readily "recalled" to the factory for modification. It is this category of problem that has evoked much of the criticism directed at NASA.

Finally, ninth, the civil space program is overly dependent upon the Space Shuttle for access to space. The Space Shuttle offers significant capabilities to carry out missions where humans are uniquely required. The Shuttle is also a complex system that has yet to demonstrate an ability to adhere to a fixed schedule. And although it is a subject that meets with reluctance to open discussion, and has therefore too often been relegated to silence, the statistical evidence indicates that we are likely to lose another Space Shuttle in the next several years, probably before the planned Space Station is completely established on orbit. This would seem to be the weak link of the civil space program, unpleasant to recognize, involving all the uncertainties of statistics, and difficult to resolve.

The Space Shuttle differs in important ways from unmanned vehicles. On the positive side it provides the flexibility and capability attendant to human presence and it permits the recovery of costly launch vehicle hardware which would otherwise be expended. On the negative side, it tends to be complex, with relatively limited margins; it has not realized the promised cost savings; and should it fail catastrophically, it takes with it a substantial portion of the nation's future manned launch capability and, potentially, several human lives.

Like we said at the top, won't take much to turn 90 into 09.


Anonymous said...

I thought the subject of '09 was exclusively 'Human Space Flight', more specifically, Constellation.

It's going to be much more focused.

Nathan said...

That same report recommends Mars as the destination