Posted by: spacewritinguy | November 17, 2007

What Does It Say About an Organization…

It seems odd that just when I start to understand how NASA’s organization works, they do a reorg. Or, more ominously, senior managers start heading for the exits. The operative question is: “What do they know that they aren’t telling us?”

We (NASA and its contractors) are facing a tough political climate. The Vision for Space Exploration has sporadic support from the Bush White House. The science community is convinced that they are being deprived of their funding, which is half-true, since science spending now accounts for one-third of the budget, but when budget cuts hit or more funding is needed for Constellation or Shuttle, the science budget is usually raided.

So what we get is senators and their pet field centers fighting for an increasingly shrinking pie. NASA’s budget is now .58% of the sky-high federal budget. Lawmakers think nothing of adding another $35 billion to a program so that government-funded medical insurance can be provided to 25-year-old “kids” or families making over $60,000 a year, but somehow feel the incipient urge to cut the 17-billion-dollar NASA budget because it’s discretionary, not entitlement spending.

And for reasons that elude me, public/strategic communication is not a priority within the organization. One dares not say “the ‘m’ word” (marketing) around certain individuals because that smacks of–what? Capitalism? Fun? Frivolity? “NASA does education and public outreach. We do not do marketing!” Oy. It’s a case study in caution that only keeps folks like Keith Cowing waiting for the next flub or missed opportunity.

On the plus side, there are opportunities to be had in such an environment. As Christian Slater says in Heathers, “Chaos is great!” As managers scatter to the four winds and take people with them, they open up positions or loosen the reins simply because there aren’t enough people to know how things worked beforehand. The problems come when the programs/projects that certain managers were “champions” for languish for lack of commitment. With Scott Horowitz and Rex Geveden leaving NASA for the private sector, one must ask, again, “What do they know?”

And meanwhile the aerospace press is looking for ways to assassinate or call into question the Ares launch vehicles, hoping to place Orion on top of a Delta IV launcher or someone else’s pet project that was passed over in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS). Why? I dunno. Maybe because they don’t like the Ares I “stick.”

It’s a weird world out there, and the space business is bound to get more complicated when a new president comes onboard. Given how many people believe that NASA takes up a huge chunk of the federal budget, you’d think politicians running for president would pay more attention to it, wouldn’t you? The only candidate who has even expressed a preference is Hillary Clinton. I am no fan of Clinton, but I find her position on NASA instructive, because I doubt anyone else will come up with something better. She believes more of NASA’s budget needs to be going toward investigating climate change, but has said nothing about increasing NASA’s budget, which means that the budget pie slices will change once again. In fact, here’s what she has to say about space:

  • Developing a comprehensive space-based Earth Sciences agenda, including full funding for NASA’s Earth Sciences program and a space-based Climate Change Initiative that will help us secure the scientific knowledge we need to combat global warming.
  • Pursuing an ambitious 21st century Space Exploration Program, by implementing a balanced strategy of robust human spaceflight, expanded robotic spaceflight, and enhanced space science activities.
  • Promoting American leadership in aeronautics by reversing funding cuts to NASA’s and FAA’s aeronautics R&D budget.

That doesn’t exactly scream, “Moon, Mars, and beyond!” does it? If anything, this reflects a Congressional tendency to protect local pet projects and jobs. In essence, she’s trying to “rebalance” the NASA budget so that programs that got a perceived or actual cut in their budget after Constellation will be restored–even at the cost of extending the gap in human spaceflight. (A “perceived” budget cut is one where an organization’s expected/requested increase for the following year isn’t as high as they’d like. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I got a pay cut!” when all that happened is you didn’t get the raise you wanted.) I saw nothing in Clinton’s statements that indicated NASA’s budget would be increased to meet all those needs.

Mike Griffin has my sympathy. I admire his ability not to lose his temper when half a dozen members of congress all ask him the same damnfool question: “Why didn’t you fund X [project that helps my district]?” to which he responds each time, “I wasn’t able to fund all of the requests you gave me because you didn’t give me enough money.” The man looks beaten. And who will the next president get to replace him, if they’re so inclined? The mind reels.

I like what I’m doing right now, but I can’t help wondering how much more politicized and tense the agency will get under a new adminstration using these thought processes. And would it be any better in the land of Elon Musk and Burt Rutan?

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