Sunday, July 11, 2010

Irrelevance - The New NASA Reality

Commentary by Bill Hood, Retired Aerospace Engineer

The announcement that NASA's new primary mission is to "reach out to Muslim nations" has raised eyebrows and hackles across the country as well as inside the Congress. Many party stalwarts in the Democratic party are also puzzled and upset. The reaction in the media has been particularly interesting. Each reporter reacts to the news using his own experiential framework as a reference for forming a response. This has led to a host of interesting and informing articles discussing where and how the President has erred.

Upon reflection though, I believe the message being sent by this administration with this new assignment to lead the outreach to Muslim countries is reflective of a much deeper and more fundamental problem directly facing this Administration, and in a slightly more indirect way the American people. After the Cairo speech the president was on the hook to show some kind of outreach that tried to meet the letter if not the spirit of the promises made in Cairo. I think he scanned a list of possible candidate groups in his administration. None were obvious choices, but on reflection he chose NASA. Why he chose NASA is worthy of some thought and discussion. I can almost hear the argument: NASA isn't real busy, and they are real technical and the Arabs will be impressed if we pick NASA as the point organization.

What an astonishing conclusion: "not real busy". This isn't an assignment. Its a death knell.
The Problem -

NASA as it exists now is seen as fundamentally irrelevant not just by the current administration but by most Americans. Most in the republic would be hard-pressed to name one scientific mission launched by NASA in the past year. This is not to detract from the value of the pure science that NASA performs, but accepting the reality of the way NASA is currently seen is key to understanding how to get NASA back on track. As John Kennedy wrote, "you are what you are perceived to be."

NASA was NACA before the Lunar program. An obscure bureau concerned with civil aviation was assigned the Lunar mission and its name was changed to reflect it new mission. It kept the charter to perform its original aviation duties but they became step children to the new and all-consuming mission.

Background -

To understand the scope of the problem we need to look back 50 years. A young Democratic president was facing a formidable problem: The USSR was leading the US in the "space race". The implications were at once disheartening and terrifying to the American public. Never had we felt more vulnerable. Our schools and universities suddenly did not seem capable of producing the intellectual capital needed to protect the nation. The possibility of the homeland being destroyed by superior USSR technology had never seemed so real nor so immediate.

The mission John Kennedy selected for the newly named NASA was "land men on the moon and safely return them to earth and do it by 1970".

One sentence mobilized the US from high school to university and from small companies to huge industries. This technology-driven focus was understood by everyone as a way of centering our attention and effort on what amounted to a war with what were at that time the ultimate bad guys. While some initially decried it as a jingoistic bit of nationalism, their voices were stilled the first time we saw the dark side of the moon and realized the program was going to work. Whole new technologies and industries were developed and tooled. The MIRV and MaRV weapon programs, for example, were direct linear descendants of the guidance and control technology developed for the Saturn/Apollo program.

At the conclusion of the project no one in the world had any doubt as to the winner. Unfortunately this program is often seen as the high point in NASA's existence. While NASA and its supporters can point to the Shuttle program, the many successful scientific missions funded and launched by NASA every year, and the impressive success of the Space Station, none of these has been seen or pursued as a national objective of the highest priority. And this is quite rightly so. None were their decade's equivalent to the Manhattan or Apollo programs.

NASA's current reason for existence has run out of gas.

What To Do About It -

In the same way that JFK looked around for a path that would lead America to a convincing win in the space/missile race, President Obama needs to focus on the one thing that is perceived by the American people as a threat to their ability to pass on to their children an ever improving quality of life. For Kennedy it was winning the space race. For Reagan it was destroying the economy of the Soviet Union.

For this president it should be energy independence. There are many ways to achieve it and I won't try to list the possible choices. But giving this assignment to an organization that includes the old NASA, parts of DoE along with other parts of the government will provide the focus that will solve a huge problem for America. Doing it in less than a decade will sharpen the focus. Along the way it will incidentally solve the "NASA isn't busy" problem. Making the USA energy-independent and reducing our petroleum imports to zero will certainly reduce friction with our friends in OPEC, so perhaps reaching out formally will have less importance in the future. It will also go a long way toward solving the deficit problem. And whatever technologies that are developed in this project will have eager customers in the rest of the oil consuming world.