NASA&’s Biggest Problem: No Vision

You know, the biggest problem with NASA is that, over the last 15 years, no one has given much of a damn about NASA.

Not George H.W. Bush, not Bill Clinton, and not George W. Bush.

Bush pere was left to figure out how to manage foreign and domestic policy in a post-Cold War world, and in a lot of ways, NASA was a Cold War relic. The Space Race was won; unfortunately, it was won in the 1960’s and had decayed in the 1970’s. The lax attitudes of the 1980’s then caused the Challenger disaster, which dealt NASA a blow. Rather than accept Challenger as a lesson learned–that politics shouldn’t drive management decisions that override safety–the prevailing attitude came to be, “We can’t lose any more astronauts.”

There’s not much you can do to make zero-loss-of-life a 100% reality. You do as much as you can, but poop still happens. No one outside the NASA community wants to accept that, and no one inside the NASA community wants to voice it. To voice it seems callous to the disinterested observer.

Columbia‘s disintegration was a tragedy, but it was just a result of waning interest and funding in NASA from Washington in the Clinton-Bush years. Clinton used Dan Goldin–installed by Bush pere–as his hatchet man with a mantra: “Faster, Better, Cheaper”. Goldin damn near killed NASA.

Bush fils doesn’t have anyone in his entourage with any kind of space experience. His NASA Administrator? And old OMB guy–a beancounter. Amazingly, Sean O’Keefe is providing leadership.

But there’s no vision.


Don Peterson doesn’t say it in this op-ed, but it’s there: that everyone is reacting to perceived issues is dangerous. “Full envelope, full escape” seems to be the growing mantra for crew support. Unfortunately, to worry about such a capability for STS ignores STS’s biggest contribution to manned spaceflight: cargo carrier.

All the stuff we build here on this contract all goes into STS. None of it could go in a rocket. None.

Everyone’s running scared, but … all you’ve got to do is make sure that the safety people get listened to and that the quality people aren’t grumbled at like they always are, and this problem largely goes away.

NASA draws some of the most talented minds in the world, and the contractor community’s right behind them. What NASA needs is better oversight, better management, and more resources. It doesn’t need a new crew transfer vehicle; not today.