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Is NASA On Life Support?


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In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 7:32:47 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 4, 2010 8:57:45 AM PST
Hi Bob!

Very interesting! If it's true, then NASA being "ordered" to not self-promote could be the root of their dismally boring publicity - with all the interesting stuff left out. Another case of "too many chiefs", it sounds like.

Anytime a high profile government entity generates a lot of public interest, suddenly fifty "chiefs" come out with conflicting demands. "Don't self-promote to make the public lean on Congress for a bigger NASA budget!" / "Don't mention this or that, it's tied to future military space-weapons!" / "Don't say this or that, we don't want the rest of the world to know what are in those satellites we deploy in space!" / "Don't get people excited about manned space programs, since NASA took twenty years to come up with nada for a shuttle replacement!"

Sad, really. Guess we'll have to shift our interest to private space programs, once they are up and running, ferrying tourists, and mining gold in asteroids. More interesting that NASA's high-drama of watching the weather for a launch ...

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 9:32:07 AM PST
Gregory Mays says:
"The ONLY chance of ever beating the Russians were landing on the moon and returning, so that's what we picked.
Just look at what happened after the 1st Moon landing. Interest waned, funding reduced. "

I think more to the point, the prospect of the USSR putting launch platforms either as a targetting threat or an ABM capability on the moon was a primary concern to DOD. It would disturb the Mutually Assured Destruction detente that was in place concerning Strategic Missiles.
So, what happened immediately after we beat the Russians to the moon? The USSR became very ammenable to treaties banning weapons in space, and SALT-I was initiated four months after Apollo 11. And after SALT-I was signed in 1972, we shelved the Apollo program.
These are not coincidences. It was all about the Moon as a military option. 'Exploration' was fed to the public, but 'Defense' was why Congress spent the money. The only 'adventures' that get that kind of Federal attention, are Wars or the prevention of Wars. And that's still true today.
I don't even think an approaching asteroid would mobilize an enormous effort to counter it. It has a 75% chance of hitting the ocean, and the countries least affected would be the countries with the most land mass, who also happen to be the most affluent countries, who would be required to pony up the bulk of the money.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 9:40:35 AM PST
To Marilyn Martin:
RE: "...and mining gold in asteroids."

It might be more profitable to mine uranium from the asteroids. For this to work, we'd need several space-based industries, i.e., orbital materials refining and nuclear spaceship construction, to name just two. Permanent space habitats would be needed. Also, if there are any legal prohibitions against nuclear reactors in space, they would have to be removed, as well.

At the other end of the mass/value ratio, how about maneuvering a small (100 meters in diameter or less) nickel-iron asteroid to one of Earth's LaGrangian points and processing it for its metals?

Neither one of these ideas would, of course, be done in the near future.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 10:02:54 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 4, 2010 10:03:19 AM PST
Hi Gregory!

Very interesting comments! I've been wondering for a long time why manned-flight to the moon (Apollo) ended so abruptly. As well as why NASA and Congress can't "get it together" to return to the moon. Makes sense that the Cold War with Russia has never really ended, each side viewing the moon and outer space as "a military option".

Then why did Russia recently ask to join resources and budgets with NASA for a manned mission to Mars? I don't know if we ever answered them or not. But soon after, Russia was putting the same proposal to China. And do we really want the two Biggest Bullies on the Block (Russia and China) patrolling outer space? Then no one else on Earth, governmental or private, will have a manned space program.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 12:17:47 PM PST
M. Helsdon says:
NASA's Kepler space telescope, designed to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars, has discovered its first five new exoplanets. The five planets are quite a bit larger than Earth. Known as "hot Jupiters" because of their high masses and extreme temperatures, the new exoplanets range in size from similar to Neptune to larger than Jupiter. They have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days. Estimated temperatures of the planets range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and much too hot for life as we know it.

http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2010/04jan_fiveplanets.htm?list139933

The Kepler count records number of planets found and so stands at 5. It's a pity none of them are Earth-like in size or temperature.

http://kepler.nasa.gov/

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 5:24:16 PM PST
Ronald Craig says:
"More interesting that NASA's high-drama of watching the weather for a launch ..."

Ah ... you think private space programs aren't going to have to watch the weather as well?

How quaint. :)

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 5:44:13 PM PST
Gregory Mays says:
I think Russia realizes they have a huge upper hand on the issues of engineering and Physics pertaining to manned space flight. They've been very active, and the acknowleged experts on 'long term' manned space projects. A critical concern with any talk of going to Mars (likely a 1-2 year mission) So, they probably conclude that the majority of the employees, on a joint venture with a deep pocketed partner country, would be Russian.
They have the Russian Academy of Sciences and their 57 separate subordinate institutes that are chock full of scientists of all stripes, that have been looking for work since 1990. It is roughly equivalent to the US having all the senior scientists in all the top Universities available for hire. There's nothing like it in the West.

The problem we have in the West of getting students to study hard sciences has never existed in Russia. They're a scientific labor pool looking for big projects. At its peak, the American Manned Space Program had 100,000 engineers and scientists directly working for NASA. We couldn't get to those numbers today because that segment of our labor force is fully engaged in commercial industry. Shoot, you couldn't get to them in 1966. Many military officers were 'drafted' into Masters programs at many universities so we could reach the numbers we needed. And if you conclude, as I do, that you'd need even more than that to get to Mars, then partnering is the only way, and labor is most abundant and cheapest among the Space-savvy countries, in Russia. China can get to big numbers too, but like the US, their commercial and military demands have everyone gainfully employed.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2010 8:05:23 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 4, 2010 8:06:29 PM PST
Having been associated with the space program on and off for many years, up until about 10 years ago, I know what happened. First the war in Vietnam took a ton of money to prosecute, so once we landed on the moon, Nixon cut the funding but kept the shuttle program. Then the shuttle program was "changed" from its original configuration so that DoD money could be used to get what the military wanted: a lower orbit from which to launch the kind of satellites it wanted. So the shuttle was useless as "the steppingstone to space."
Then the Space Station was proposed but the project kept being underfunded and as a result it kept being postponed until the costs got so high that we had to go partners with the Russians, Europeans, etc.
I very much doubt we will ever see a mission to Mars and, remember, the Russians have never, ever landed anything on Mars successfully.
Alas...

Posted on Jan 5, 2010 8:20:40 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 5, 2010 8:22:17 AM PST
Thank you Gregory, and rdt. Very interesting comments and analysis of how our Space Program ended up such a patchwork of competing governmental whims. Just a few more thoughts:

- Another factor in our steadily declining governmental space program, is that our best-and-brightest are almost all in the private sector. And yet we still contract out to the "lowest bidder", who may not have any of the best-and-brightest. Just the works-for-low-pay types.

- Russia's over-abundance of scientists gives Russia a notch up, since they can hire the cream of the crop for their governmental space programs. So they don't have to reach for the lowest-bidder in the private sector.

- Russia's technology is pretty impressive too. Have you checked out their on-line magazine site, russiatoday.com? It's layout is GREAT! Inch or more sized boxes (not thumbnail) with a photo and catchy sentence below. Click on the photo, and a short paragraph appears, so you can decide if this is an article you want to read the rest of. (I've yet to find a U.S. site - with our love of "lists and links" - that is that simple and enjoyable to navigate. Even reuters.com went to a new format that is cumbersome to deal with.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 5, 2010 3:12:44 PM PST
Marilyn,
You say "Another factor in our steadily declining governmental space program, is that our best-and-brightest are almost all in the private sector. And yet we still contract out to the "lowest bidder", who may not have any of the best-and-brightest. Just the works-for-low-pay types."

What actually happens and why the damn programs always have cost overruns is that the contractors play what I call the "requirements game." The specs that the government agencies provide for bidding are never really detailed enough nor are they as well thought out as they should be. As a result the government agency generates a "change order" and the contractor who is performing the work says "Oh, that'll cost a zillion dollars more." It happens with weapons systems, computer systems, and toilet seats. And it is the result of pure laziness and ignorance on the part of the agency.

Posted on Jan 5, 2010 3:16:17 PM PST
Amen, rdt!

Posted on Jan 5, 2010 5:49:57 PM PST
Europa

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 5, 2010 9:05:54 PM PST
Gregory Mays says:
>Another factor in our steadily declining governmental space program, is that our best-and-brightest are almost all in the private sector. And yet we still contract out to the "lowest bidder", who may not have any of the best-and-brightest.<

I've actually thought a lot about this. I think the period following WWII was an anomaly in our history.10 million men had been in uniform, and for a period following that, government service seemed noble, and people were convinced that their government was trying to do the right thing. I think one of the most profound lessons of WWII was that the public had no idea how large the threat and the evil in Germany and the Pacific had been. And that the Federal government had known best all along.
So, people were more inclined to sign onto large scale endeavors by the government, because they honestly believed that everything preemptive that we could do, we should do, to prevent another global shooting war. People were much more inclined to defer financial prosperity to serve in something noble or essential.
Korea to some extent, and then Vietnam fully broke that mindset. The Domino Effect wasn't noble or essential, it was a theory. And after two wars and 85,000 dead, it turned out not to be true.

And beginning then and continuing till now, the government has had to outsource their efforts to the private sector. The best and the brightest are in it for themselves.

Posted on Jan 5, 2010 9:37:49 PM PST
I keep thinking about the quote, "In a democracy, people get the government they deserve." I get the feeling that we (in aggregate) are getting the space program we deserve.

Vietnam really did bankrupt us for a while. I graduate from college in the early 70s and there were very few jobs, especially in government. When I graduated, I wasn't thinking 'noble', I was thinking, "I need a job to pay off my college loans and afford a car!"

Posted on Jan 6, 2010 8:03:05 AM PST
Fascinating posts! Thank you one and all.

I think we've finally gotten to the nitty-gritty of what happened/went wrong with NASA. Thanks, rdt, for such a good explanation of what happens between NASA and private contractors. Like Gregory explained, the best-and-brightest are now in it for purely personal gain.

Even the government, grappling with ever increasing cyber-crime, trains and loses young computer techs. They learn what they need to, then jump to the private sector, who pays them multiple what they were earning in the government. In a way, this is almost like the "requirements game" rdt spoke of: "Let the government train you after you graduate college; then join the pivate sector and earn tons of money you can't in the government."

And Bob had some valid points about college graduates, and their needs. I recently posted a link to an on-line newspaper article, about how college students are now demanding that their majors translate into "real jobs" when they graduate. (If you are interested, it's in the Psychology forum, in the "Our Dismal Education System" discussion.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 6, 2010 10:07:13 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 6, 2010 10:13:27 AM PST
Ronald Craig says:
"(If you are interested, it's in the Psychology forum, in the "Our Dismal Education System" discussion.)"

Thanks for the heads-up, Marilyn. To everyone else, it's worth having a look, especially page two of the thread, where you can see yet another classic Marilyn Martin response to someone critical of her posts.

(As usual, Marilyn doesn't provide a link, so here you go:

http://www.amazon.com/tag/psychology/forum/ref=cm_cd_tfp_ef_tft_tp?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=Fx2P2D6C5SB0IHM&cdThread=Tx156YLJ255BVQY&displayType=tagsDetail

Note that the thread title is actually "End Results of Our Rock-Bottom Educational System".)

Edits: I guess there's no way to enter a link here other than the above?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 6, 2010 1:27:45 PM PST
Gregory,
You write: "People were much more inclined to defer financial prosperity to serve in something noble or essential."
But if you look at the data the post WWII period was one of great growth in personal incomes, GDP and, of course, government. It was a Cold War. And it was not so much Korea as it was Viet Nam and Watergate that resulted in disillusion and mistrust of government. And it was a pity because government was the thumb that balanced the scale between business and labor, as well as keeping the poor from really getting angry by mitigating their condition via transfer payments (welfare).
But the space program was always in the hands of the aerospace companies. And there was an amazing amount of pork in it to be spread around to get congressional support. NASA basically just awarded contracts and monitored their performance and when it came to launch, there were just as many contractors' engineers at the mission control desks as NASA guys.

Now what we have is all the older engineers retired from the few aerospace companies left and any new hires are young and fresh, which is OK but will they know to select a space-hardened widget from the catalog for some application instead of the cheaper one that will fail as soon as a gamma ray hits it?

Posted on Jan 6, 2010 2:44:15 PM PST
rdt -

As a once-insider, maybe you can answer a few questions I have, about the Contracting Out that NASA does. What if it needs something that, say, only a couple of companies in the world can provide? Do they take a not-so-low-bidder who is a U.S. company? Or can they take the absolute lowest-bidder, even from a country that may have a competing space program?

Also, I've noticed that Raytheon seems to get a lot of the plumb governmental contracts. Do they have a well-known specialty, even if it's just providing excellent products/services at or under-budget?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 7, 2010 8:50:23 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 7, 2010 8:51:56 AM PST
To rdt:
RE: "The specs that the government agencies provide for bidding are never really detailed enough nor are they as well thought out as they should be."

Modern specifications are often extended to excruciating detail, so much so that it's not uncommon for the total specification to bulk as much as a phone book. By contrast, specifications during the '40s and '50s, even for major items such as aircraft, could be ten pages and often less.

As far as being "well thought out", modern specifications often suffer from an excess of so-called "thought". As more and more bureaucrats seek to have their own "input" into the process, the specification can have conflicting and contradictory provisions. These conflicts must then be resolved by the "change orders" that you mentioned. Many of the endemic budget and schedule over-runs of government-funded projects come from the above systemic defects.

Another factor, of course, is the prevalence of "cost-plus" contracts. This is when the government pays the contractor's expenses - whatever they may be - plus an agreed-upon percentage as the contractor's profit. This obviously provides no incentive for cost reduction.

Posted on Jan 11, 2010 12:05:41 PM PST
http://www.fas.org/spp/military/dsb.pdf

Above is a link to a fascinating 2003 document, REPORT FROM DEFENSE SCIENCE BOARD/AIR FORCE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY BOARD on "ACQUISITION OF NATIONAL SECURITY SPACE RPOGRAMS"

This is a military document, but details many of the same problems that NASA has, and continues to grapple with. "...This team discerned profound insights into systemic problems in space acquisition..."

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 11, 2010 12:10:25 PM PST
M. Helsdon says:
"ACQUISITION OF NATIONAL SECURITY SPACE RPOGRAMS"

Their insights don't stretch to spelling? 8-)

Posted on Jan 11, 2010 7:52:50 PM PST
Ronald Craig says:
So I guess www.fas.org is Marilyn's NEW FAVORITEST SITE? Oh joy.

Posted on Jan 14, 2010 11:50:36 AM PST
M. Helsdon says:
January 14, 2010: The premiere observatory of the next decade, the James Webb Space Telescope, will launch in 2014 in search of "big game"--namely, the first stars and galaxies ever formed in our Universe. But the "little game" could turn out to be just as interesting. There's a dawning awareness among astronomers that the world's largest infrared telescope is going to be a canny hunter of planets circling faraway stars.

http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2010/14jan_planetsafari.htm?list139933

Posted on Jan 15, 2010 9:02:39 AM PST
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18376-nasa-feels-plutonium-pinch-earlier-than-expected.html

This Jan. 2010 article in New Scientist claims that NASA is running out of plutonium. And even with plutonium purchases from Russia, "This puts a number of destinations off-limits ... Without the plutonium, there's just a huge dimension of science we're going to be missing."

Another NASA oversight? I'm shocked! (NASA = Never Advances into Space Anymore?)

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 15, 2010 10:41:54 AM PST
M. Helsdon says:
"This Jan. 2010 article in New Scientist claims that NASA is running out of plutonium. And even with plutonium purchases from Russia, "This puts a number of destinations off-limits ... Without the plutonium, there's just a huge dimension of science we're going to be missing.""

If you read the article the problem is because the USA no longer produces plutonium-238. Blaming this as a NASA oversight is unrealistic - the Department of Energy is currently analysing what is needed to restart production.
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