D. Dowd Muska


A Field Guide to NASA Incompetence

November 20, 2014

On October 28, Orbital Sciences Corp. lost an Antares rocket launched to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Several days later, a test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo ended in disaster, killing one of the vehicle’s two pilots.

The accidents were stinging setbacks for the private sector’s leap into the Final Frontier. But before concluding that the job of pushing humanity toward the stars lies exclusively with government, read “NASA’s Top Management and Performance Challenges.” The meta-audit, prepared by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), is an enlightening litany of far-too-frequent screwups.

Let’s start with the highest-profile “challenge.” NASA is “simultaneously managing three large-scale, long-term human exploration programs”: the ISS, the development of commercial ferries to transport astronauts to and from the station, and a rocket-and-capsule system charged with “mastering human access to deep space.”

Taxpayers have “invested” $75 billion in the station, not including the billions spent on the U.S.-only version that predated international participation. American subsidies to the outpost will continue to flow until at least 2024. In 2007, Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg called the ISS “an orbital turkey,” a view shared by most scientists not on the NASA payroll. The OIG isn’t so rude, but observed that while a “significant amount of research aboard the ISS is related to the risks associated with long-term human presence in space … by 2024 NASA expects research aboard the Station to result in mitigation strategies for only 12 of the 23 human health risks for which the ISS is an appropriate research platform.”

NASA’s behind-schedule effort to produce domestic -- i.e., non-Russian -- astronaut access to the ISS is a serious problem. But it isn’t bureaucrats’ fault. The culprit is politics. Fedpols from NASA-heavy districts and states have consistently underfunded budget requests to foster private space taxis. At $1.6 billion, the revenue spent so far is more than a bargain. (It’s about the same cost as a single flight of the deadly and hideously expensive shuttle.) Progress has been significant, but it could have come sooner.

There’s plenty of blame to slather for the debacles that are the asteroid-return and bootprints-on-Mars missions. The Space Launch System (SLS), a heavy-lift rocket, is to propel the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a capsule for up to six crew members. The system will miss its congressionally mandated 2016 deadline for operational capability. The Government Accountability Office found that NASA has yet to make “an executable business case … that matches resources to requirements” for the SLS. The OIG is concerned about a lack of “landers and surface systems,” noting that time and money constraints render SLS/Orion unable “to conduct any manned surface exploration missions until the late 2030s at the earliest.”

The Science Mission Directorate competently manages some of its tasks. But what The New York Times called the “crown jewel of NASA’s astronomy plans for the next two decades” is a white elephant. In it earliest phase of evolution, the James Webb Space Telescope was supposed to cost about $2 billion, and launch in 2008 or 2009. The price tag now tops $8.8 billion, and it won’t be put in place until 2018. Bungling has plagued other unmanned endeavors, including the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2, Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, Solar Probe Plus, and Near-Earth Object Program.

Additional NASA woes include a tricky integration of its space-communications network, poor administration of $1.5 billion in annual information-technology expenses, “3,649 computer security incidents” in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and a deferred-maintenance liability of $2.4 billion. Fraud is a problem, too. Within the last year, a personnel-services executive received a sentence of five years in prison for “misrepresenting his firm as a disadvantaged small business,” and indictments were issued for using “$800,000 in NASA and [National Science Foundation] contract funds … for personal rather than Government purposes.”

In response to the OIG’s report, NASA’s administrator pledged that his fiefdom “is embarking on new ways to do business; investing in new technology; and increasing the sustainability, accountability, and transparency in our operations.” They’re promises the bureaucracy has made before. There’s no reason to expect different results this time.

NASA remains what it’s been for nearly five decades: a lucrative jobs program for engineers and scientists, and a powerful reelection tool for professional pols. Its useful assets and programs should be shifted to businesses and nonprofit research institutes, its planetary-defense role transferred to the Pentagon, and its superfluous activities, in wonk-speak, “zeroed out.” Budget realities make such a transition inevitable. Why not now?

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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