Following NASA’s spectacular and astounding successes in the late 1960s, the space agency has been used as a political tool for decades. Reliance on a civil service workforce has created a culture of entitlement within NASA, instead of a focus on genuine scientific curiosity and inquiry. Much of its current function is to bureaucratically administer contracts, and relatively little scientific expertise, is retained by its government workforce. When NASA had a clear politically-motivated goal, as it did in the 1960s, it was extremely effective; however, it is currently an agency in search of a mission. Federal government organizations, in general, and NASA in particular, do not sell products, and therefore no optimizing profit constraints, exist. This easily leads to substantial waste of taxpayer money. Since any expenditure of taxpayer dollars creates a drag on the economy, NASA’s continued existence, should not be taken lightly.

Instead of pursuing unbiased scientific truth, some NASA programs have sought ways to keep funding going, both for the agency itself, and for its contractors, by coming up with politically-correct conclusions. One example was the proposed “Single Stage To Orbit” (SSTO) program. Even though there exist excellent scientific reasons to stage rockets, notably to increase the amount of payload that can be delivered to orbit, the SSTO program was heavily studied and promoted, as a cost-effective solution to eliminating overhead associated with rehabbing the Space Shuttle for successive flights. (The SSTO program was eventually canceled.) Another example was in the area of Earth Science, specifically in programs directed at studying climate change. Even though climate models were complex and sometimes had ranges of possible outcomes from various forcing functions, NASA was often more supportive of findings that showed an anthropogenic impact on global warming. It should not come as a surprise, that a government agency, would have findings that (1) were politically in line with the President and Congress, or (2) showed more study (and hence, additional funding), was required.

Certainly NASA’s past accomplishments, of putting men in space, and on Earth’s moon, were monumental, and worthy of the highest praise. And NASA is often pointed to, as an “inspiration” for scientists and engineers. However, looking at NASA historically, the Space Shuttle, as a follow-on to the Saturn rocket, was a vehicle in search of a mission (the space shuttle was approved prior to the space station), and the Space Shuttle did not supply a heavy-lift capability for getting payload inexpensively to orbit. It is unfortunate that NASA was not given the opportunity to come up with a better solution to payload delivery to orbit, at the close of the Apollo program; however, the compromises that were made in the original Space Shuttle design, points out the difficulty of changing the course of a government agency. For example, one might argue that deciding to use solid rocket motors (SRMs) on manned vehicles, as they were on the Space Shuttle, was extraordinarily risky (because there’s no “OFF” switch on a solid propellant rocket). And the NASA-proposed Constellation program, relied heavily on the Space Shuttle design, ostensibly to reduce design costs. It is true that NASA did successfully use SRMs in manned spaceflight, but one has to question if this decision was based solely on scientific, cost, mission optimization, and safety considerations, or if politics were a deciding factor.

Solutions:

NASA needs to step aside and allow private industry (e.g. SpaceX), or other agencies with arguable constitutional authority (Department of Defense), handle access to space. At an estimated $10,000 per kg of payload delivered to Low Earth Orbit, the space shuttle was no bargain.

Phase out NASA and eliminate duplication of effort with industry, and with other government agencies (such as the Department of Energy and Department of Defense), Allow attrition to reduce the workforce size, if it cannot be eliminated, outright.

If there were any projects suitable for a government, non-military space agency, fundamental science missions that would not be immediately profitable for industry, might make sense for NASA. Possible examples might include searching for extraterrestrial life in other solar systems, and robotic exploration of our own solar system. These could be continued, while employing a substantially reduced budget and workforce.


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