Posts Tagged ‘Columbia Accident Investigation Board’

Obama's 'Space Summit'

April 15, 2010

Discovery launch. Source: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – FL – My head is spinning as I sit here waiting for President Obama to do what should have been done when the White House rolled out its budget for NASA: do the vision thing.

I have faith in POTUS to deliver the goods and explain his revolutionary approach to space exploration.

Here are a few things to remember as you watch the speech and listen to the spin:

The dramatic job loss that has so many people riled is not the result of the Obama White House shift in space. The shuttle retirement was actually set in stone by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The shuttle fleet could fly on longer – each orbiter is rated to fly 100 flights – but the CAIB decided that it was time to move on to the next thing in space. Something safer.

Obama is also not responsible for the so-called “gap” between the shuttle and whatever is next. The gap is an artifact of inattention and meager funding over several years. Even before the CAIB gave us a date certain for retiring the shuttles, we knew the fleet could not – and should not – fly forever. And yet no one on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue had the persistence and forethought to insist the investment in a new ride be healthy and timely enough to give US astronauts seamless access to space on US vehicles once the orbiters were chalked and pickled in museums. George Bush painted a vision for space exploration that was bold and exciting – but it never got the funding it needed to get off the ground.

This is the hand Team Obama has been dealt. The shuttles are going away – and the program of record is way over budget and behind schedule. The gap is now a chasm – and those shuttle jobs cannot be saved no matter what.

So what to do? Obama could double down on the Bush vision, but the truth is that would be good money after bad. It also means NASA would have to deep-six the International Space Station at the end of 2015 (no money to pay for it – and the moonshot program know as Constellation) and would have to continue shorting budgets for technology development, earth sciences, robotic missions and aeronautics research.

Now imagine dropping the station into the Pacific in five years – after 25 years of construction it is finally all but complete – and in a position to yield some scientific discoveries. And imagine what kind of message this would send to the 15 other nations who are a part of the ISS project.

So couple all this with the fact that some things have changed since Bush announced his vision in 2004. The time now is ripe for a new brand of companies to make their mark in space. Why shouldn’t the government stimulate a new sector of the economy – instead of stifling it?

First Dog trumps Final Frontier?

April 27, 2009
The April 12 launch at Pad 39A of STS-1, just ...

There is a lot of hand-wringing in the space community these days about the Obama Administration’s inability to fill the corner office on the ninth floor at NASA headquarters.

The incredulous refrain among space cadets: “they picked the First Dog before they selected a NASA administrator!?”

NASA is now approaching the hundred day mark without a fully vested leader. This is not a record by any means. The longest gap between administrators lasted 225 days (9/15/1970 – 4/27/71)  between the legendary Thomas O. Paine and James Fletcher.

Christopher Scolese, Associate Administrator o...

In those days there was no acting administrator who took the reins. That is not the case right now. A 22-year highly-regarded NASA veteran – Chris Scolese – is running the show right now. And by all accounts he is doing as good a job as a leader without portfolio can do.

Of course “can do” is what this agency is all about, right?

But implicit in all the fretting among the Space Cadet Corps is the idea that there are big decisions in the Administrator’s inbox – just waiting to be made. And time is a wastin’ as they say.

Congress told NASA to protect the option to keep the space shuttle fleet flying beyond the end of 2010 – when the remaining orbiters will be shipped to museums.  NASA’s top management tier has already said they will stop doing that – and start ordering up the mothballs for the shuttles.

Would that have played out any differently if there was a new boss at NASA? I highly doubt it. Keeping  the shuttle fleet flying is a $3 billion per year proposition. No one wants to give NASA the extra money (although measured against some of these big bailouts, it now seems like a pittance).

But perhaps more to the point: the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) said the shuttles could not be safely flown any longer. What Member of  Congress would like to volunteer to be the person who insists the shuttles keep flying – only to see a third shuttle disaster? Cricket…cricket.

So the shuttle decision is a done deal. No administrator needed for that – as the last NASA boss set all of this in motion during his tenure.

Ares 1 (February 2008) MSFC-0800205 (8 Feb. 20...

The other big – and related – issue that puts the Space Cadets into a retrograde orbit is the so called “gap”. That is the period of time between the last shuttle flight and the first launch of the vehicle (collectively called “Constellation”) that is designed to carry American astronauts back to the moon.

As it stands now, the first flight of the Ares I rocket is set for 2015. So if all goes according to schedule, there will be a five year period where the US will not have a vehicle capable of carrying people into the void. Our stop gap solution: flag some Russian Soyuz taxis. No one seems to like that idea. But the decision was made when then President Bush laid out his Vision (thing) for space Exploration in January of 2004.

There was never enough money in that scheme to fly the shuttle and build its successor concurrently.

And today, there is very little anyone can do to squeeze the gap. If you threw another $1.9 billion at Constellation, you might be able to launch six months sooner.

So that decision is also pretty well baked.

The real issue for NASA is this: without an Administrator, it loses clout inside the Beltway – where power, status, rank and title mean much more than boring things like serving the taxpayers. Without a boss, NASA doesn’t have a seat at the table. Over time, this could hurt the agency, but in this short period, likely not.

In short, you could put a dog in the 9th floor corner office at 3rd and E Street, SW and things would not be much different – which is to say, not very pretty.

Hey how about throwing Bo’s collar into the ring?

NEXT: Why it is taking so long