Finding Glory In Space

[Or, Sic Transit Gloria, NASA]

by Doug Magill

NASA dropped more than $400 million into the Pacific Ocean on March 4, somewhere near Antarctica.  The same thing happened in about the same place in 2009.

Oops.

Now, before you hop on a boat and begin looking for money around the southern Pacific, be aware that the losses happened as the result of almost identical failures of a Taurus XL rocket attempting to lift an environmental monitoring satellite called Glory.  In both cases the shroud protecting the satellite during launch failed to jettison, making the payload too heavy to reach orbit.

All an embarrassed NASA can say is “We failed to make orbit.”

To lose two expensive satellites in a row due to the same error would normally seem incredible to impossible, especially when supposedly capable scientists and engineers populate our space agency.  Though the dream may die hard, NASA really isn’t NASA anymore.  Like so many other government institutions, it has devolved into a politicized bureaucracy more interested in protecting the careers and pensions of some pretty highly-paid technocrats who aren’t really focused on pushing the frontiers of space.

Founded in 1958 as a civilian agency, NASA started with modest goals.  Once John Kennedy made it a priority to beat the Russians to the moon, NASA entered the public’s awareness as a can-do organization staffed with top flight talent and focused on doing things that no one else could.  It didn’t take long, though, for it to become just another centralized mechanism for distributing pork and political favors.  Over the years it has become an ossified bureaucracy, with very little focus or vision.  (Do you know that scientists are represented by a union within the agency?).

The issue has become more acute with a new Congress examining how our tax money is being spent.  In one respect NASA has become another arm of the environmental movement.  It spends an enormous amount of its budget – along with stimulus money – studying global warming, duplicating the efforts of other agencies.  The Goddard Institute for Space Studies is located at Columbia University and is the primary conduit of this budgetary feint by prior members of Congress.

If you think that Space Studies involves studying space I want to sell you some (slightly) used rocket parts available for pickup in the Pacific Ocean.

Even though he was unconcerned with the job losses entailed, President Obama got one thing right in dealing with NASA.  By canceling the Constellation program and determining that most of our manned spaceflight activities could be better accomplished by the private sector, he has begun the redirection of funding to where talented and focused individuals reside.

Case in point: Space-X, though it has not received the attention it deserves, successfully launched a full-sized man-capable orbital vehicle in December, and retrieved it safely.  The first time.  An incredible achievement – clarifying that private companies can accomplish enormously complicated technological feats – without a bureaucrat in sight.  The company projects that it can achieve manned low earth orbital flights vastly cheaper than either the recently-retired shuttle, or any other potential lift vehicle that NASA has planned.

Locally, NASA has a presence at the Glenn Research Center, which employs around 3500 people.  The problem is, Glenn has become basically a project center for NASA, managing different programs which all have a relatively short shelf life.  The funding for Glenn is on the table, along with many other aspects of our supposed space program.  All of the local media are full of protestations of the value of Glenn, and why it is important and should continue to be funded by Congress.

A high tech jobs program.  As are most of the other NASA Centers throughout the country.

In reality, there is no overarching vision that justifies NASA’s $18 billion budget.  Let alone any of the programs that keep scientists comfortably employed and happily contributing to their local economies.

If we are going to explore space, it is long past time for the private sector to be in charge and finding ways to do it more economically.

If the government wants to fund some of that activity to help develop the industry – great.  But, first we need a vision, which is the proper role of our elected leaders, and then get out of the way while the know-how and industriousness of our entrepreneurial class makes it happen.  And, that means quit paying off friends in the environmental movement with NASA programs that are unproductive and redundant.

For the personnel of the Glenn Research Center that may mean going to work in the private sector, where the jobs aren’t guaranteed and the results may be unknown.  But, not only will we have a much more efficient space program, we will be creating industries at a much faster pace than is possible in the bureaucratic morass the NASA has become.

Otherwise, we will continue to fund overpriced jobs programs such as Glenn.  Overpriced programs “to infinity, and beyond.”

Doug Magill is a former executive and radio host currently consulting and doing freelance writing and voice-over work.

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