NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Visions

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
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NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Visions

Deja Vu

In the Fall of 1998 I was invited to be a witness at a House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics hearing on NASA’s 40th Anniversary. Among the other invited witnesses was NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. Several months after my initial invitation, just before the hearing, Goldin apparently found out that I was going to testify. Lynn Henninger, Goldin’s head of legislative affairs told me that Goldin would not be available to testify and that I was not of sufficient “stature” to testify with him. Since I thought it was more important that the NASA Administrator testify than for me to do so, I declined to appear. Goldin suddenly became available again.

Curiously, Rick Tumlinson from the Space Frontier Foundation was also scheduled well in advance to be a witness along with Dan Goldin and I – yet Goldin agreed to testify with Rick. I don’t think Rick would consider himself a Goldin fan. Just before the hearing began Rick and I stood back to back in the hallway outside of the hearing room and had someone check our respective heights. Indeed, Rick is an inch or two taller than me – ergo he has more “stature”.

Such was the paranoia exhibited by NASA’s senior leadership at that time.

Although I was not testifying, I was asked to submit prepared statement anyway. In opening my rather length comments I said:

“My premise is simple: NASA excels when our nation has a clear, binding, national space policy. Absent such a policy, our space infrastructure fragments into dueling factions. Without a clear mission NASA now seeks to maintain its own existence with various missions serving as a means whereby to accomplish this end. Meanwhile, the relationship between all of the players has gotten worse over the years and is now highly dysfunctional.”

On the wall above the dais in the Committee’s hearing room is a verse from Proverbs: “where there is no vision the people perish.” NASA’s core problem today is that it has no clear compelling vision to guide it. Nor has NASA had such a vision for decades. When NASA last had such a vision, humans went to the moon a mere 8 years after they decided to do so. We were guided by a clear and simple concept – one that sprang forth from the White House and was embraced and given form by the American people.

Today, in the absence of a clear, unifying vision, everyone involved ends up creating and then defending their own vision if for no other reason that to justify their own continued existence. The net result is a constant clash of individual self-serving agendas, each held by one branch of government, agency, organization, or industry. Survival replaces progress and we all lose out.”

While I was certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only person who held this view in 1998, as I recall, there were not all that many people in positions to actually do something about this who did speak in such terms.

Flash Forward

Today, in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, lots of words circulate. In addition to “culture” and “accountability” you often hear the diffuse word “vision” and its more refined sibling “goal”.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, (D-ND) thinks America needs to continue to explore. In hearings on September 2nd he said “I believe a society that stops exploring stops progressing. Space exploration has been very important for this country. I want it to succeed. I want it to continue.” Many other members of Congress would echo these sentiments in the following days.

The CAIB report was rather explicit in treating the topic of vision and how having a vision should be closely intertwined with the launch infrastructure NASA develops and maintains:

“The Board in its investigation has focused on the physical and organizational causes of the Columbia accident and the recommended actions required for future safe Shuttle operation. In the course of that investigation, however, two realities affecting those recommendations have become evident to the Board. One is the lack, over the past three decades, of any national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission requiring human presence in space.” … ” The second reality, following from the lack of a clearly defined long-term space mission, is the lack of sustained government commitment over the past decade to improving U.S. access to space by developing a second-generation space transportation system.”

When asked by Rep. Lampson several days later to expand on what the CAIB meant when it called for a national vision, Adm. Gehman said “NASA does not need a ‘vision’ – it has lots of them. The nation needs a vision. Visions without resources are just dreams. More than NASA is required to make this happen. Congress will need to help too. With a lack of an agreed national vision you don’t know how to amortize investment in infrastructure, replace equipment. During our travels we saw 1960’s era oscilloscopes in some labs. Basic infrastructural decisions that NASA has to make have a hard time being justified. Without knowing how long the shuttle will be around, and what will it be used for, it is difficult to make investment choices.”

Lampson replied “we need to give the agency the funding it needs. We must make reforms. Your report calls on the White House to reflect on nation’s future in space. This administration must provide nation with concrete set of goals after the ISS – including visits to the asteroids, libration points, a human-tended research facility on the Moon – and a human expedition to Mars. I tried to push NASA in that direction in the last congress. I will do that again next week.”

Lampson repeated these thoughts on September 10th noting that he’d be re-introducing that legislation that day. Lampson did indeed re-introduce the legislation as H. R. 3057 “Space Exploration Act of 2003”

As was the case last year, there are a lot of buzz words and specific destinations to warm the hearts of many space enthusiasts in this bill. Alas, Lampson’s bill is still a partially thought out grab bag of milestones and goals and specific missions mixed together. The amount of funds initially set aside is no where near what will be required to carry the bill’s requirements out. I am certain that once this bill is “scored” for its cost implications many tens of billions of dollars will be required. This is not to say that such a vision is not needed – it is.

Rather, someone needs to give some more strategic thought to how one assembles the plan before introducing it as legislation – instead of the other way around, which was what has been done with this bill. Lampson should be commended for pushing the issue of a more expansion national vision for space – but he needs some help doing so.

Who Are the Vision Makers?

On September 10th both Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Rep Nick Lampson (D-TX) tried to corner Sean O’Keefe with regard to who the participants are within current White House policy discussions as they relate to space. O’Keefe replied that these discussions focused on a wide number of issues relating to human spaceflight and that the “President’s science advisor and his staff, the Departments of Defense and Commerce, the Office of Management and Budget, and other Administration parties are involved.”

Both Gordon and Lampson repeatedly pushed O’Keefe to name names. They also asked for information as to when the results of these activities would be known and when the public would have the chance to provide input. O’Keefe again replied that it was driven by the President’s prerogative and that he (O’Keefe) wasn’t going to go in much further detail.

Both Lampson and Gordon were clearly angered by O’Keefe’s reluctance to go into detail regarding these internal Administration activities. This should not be at all surprising to anyone who has been in Washington DC these past 3 years – this is how the Bush Administration does things: quietly and behind closed doors. One can certainly argue as to whether this is the right way to do things, but to act surprised suggests that either the people being surprised are either not up to speed – or looking to make a partisan jab.

During a second round of questions, Rep. Ralph Hall joined Gordon and Lampson in trying to pry details out of O’Keefe as to who is crafting space policy in the White House. Hall’s tactic was to name names and have O’Keefe say if they were involved. O’Keefe said that clearly he was involved but that this was not a formal committee and therefore did not have a chair. “Do you talk with the President [about this]?” “Yes” said O’Keefe. “The Vice President?” “Yes”. “Andy Card?” “He is peripherally involved”. “Karl Rove?” “No.” Hall said “OK, well I guess I can cross Karl Rove off of my list.” O’Keefe added again that the President’s Science Advisor, his staff and other staff are involved “much like you work here.” O’Keefe did say that he would let Congress know if this process became a more formal one.

One thing a smart Congressional staffer never does is have their boss ask a question unless they don’t already have a darn good idea what the answer is – unless there is an interest in making the witness look bad. It is widely known who works what issue in the White House. Indeed, former House Science Committee staffers now work at OSTP. Everybody has everyone else’s phone numbers.

To be certain, everyone would like to know what the White House is up to. But to have members continually push for O’Keefe to name names in a public forum demonstrates either that their staff haven’t done their home work, or, that an attempt is being made to make a partisan slap. It is important to note that the Republican members of the Committee did not pursue this line of questioning – although they too share some frustration in not knowing what the White House is up to.

Internal Mechanics

One thing that is lost on many people – within NASA and outside the agency, is that interactions between NASA are not limited to the multi-layered, staff intensive manner with which they were when the White House kept Dan Goldin at a discrete distance. While these interactions still go on and serve an important purpose, they now tend to do so in response to more direct interactions between NASA’s current Administrator and the White House instead of serving as the primary means where by NASA and the White House interact.

These days, the interaction is much more one-on-one, with a substantial amount of the interaction done personally by O’Keefe. As such, the process is far more streamlined and, since fewer people are involved, there are fewer junctures where detail can get out. This White House has zealously guarded its internal deliberations on a variety of policy issues It is unlikely that they are going to depart from that habit with regard to space policy.

These explanations and analyses aside, given the serious nature of discussion about America’s future in space, it really is time for the White House to start giving an indication of where it sees space policy going. Such an understanding is needed by both parties and both bodies of Congress if pending and future budget issues are to be adequately addressed.

The lack of detail on this current, post- accident effort notwithstanding, the Bush Administration has spent some time thinking about space policy. In addition to the Aerospace Commission’s activities last year, both the recently released Space Remote Sensing Policy (put on hold due to the war in Iraq) and a National Space Policy dealing with Space Transportation (including the Space Shuttle) had been under development. Work on the National Space Transportation Policy was put on hold following the Columbia accident.

Whatever this new space policy is (or is not), there will not shortage of people tripping over themselves to find a symbolic venue wherein it could be announced. The State of the Union is once obvious place. Rep. Rohrabacher suggested another: the 100 anniversary of human flight – specifically, ceremonies to be held at Kitty Hawk. The fear that those within these policy discussions have is that people will get stuck on some venue and force the release of the policy sooner than it should be released.


Ground the Shuttle

Beyond the Shuttle

Separating People From Cargo

Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

More Money Please




Speaking Out

– Visions


Get With The Program

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.