NASA’s Second Chance

By Keith Cowing
July 22, 2009
Filed under
NASA’s Second Chance

Charlie Bolden is no stranger to space exploration but he is a newbie in the Administrator’s suite and the strange ecology of Washington, DC interactions that the job entails. His first three days on the job have been abnormal with all the Apollo hoopla swirling through everyone’s heads. Most of the time it is going to be far less glamorous.

Without taking anything away from the refreshing enthusiasm that he brings to the job or his attempt to rekindle a spark in his employees today, one should consider the thinking that might be going on inside the heads of President Obama’s staff, Congress and its staff, and other policy wonks here in Washington.

If NASA is already having all of the technical problems it is currently having just to recreate a steroidal version of a capability it once had decades ago, one might question whether it can reliably tackle larger tasks such as those involved in going to Mars. And it is Mars – not the Moon – that has been what Charlie Bolden has been talking about almost non-stop.

In addition to the technical challenges, given that the budget for NASA’s current return to the Moon program has been underfunded in the extreme, one has to wonder what assurance Bolden will have that a much larger and more expansive program such as sending human to Mars is not going to be any more or less prone to underfunding? Yes the two are related – but NASA cannot blame all of its technical problems (i.e. Ares 1) on lack of funding.

Personally, I think NASA is up to the task – and that a solution set can be found – so long as the task is clearly specified, agreed to by Congress, and then funded by both the White House and Congress commensurate with agreeing to such a large scale program in the first place. At the same time, NASA must truly be held accountable for schedule and costs. The embarrassing, ever-mounting, bloated, cost estimates for Ares 1 as it continues to slip to the right are precisely the wrong thing to inspire confidence in those who have to make the big decisions and then keep their pledge to support them for the next 4 or 8 years.

The Augustine Committee will provide the Obama administration with a snapshot of where NASA is and where it could be going. It is then up to NASA to convince the White House that problems with the current approach can be fixed or that a new plan – perhaps a new architecture – or new goals are needed. The White House and Congress then need to be sold on the new course and commit to provide the resources and oversight required for NASA to make it happen.

There is a bit of gossip going around Washington that President Obama once mused that he’d give NASA money – a lot more money – if only they’d do something inspiring and relevant once again. The President talks repeatedly about sending humans to the Moon in the 1960’s as an example of what America can do when it puts its collective mind to something. He supposedly sought out Leonard Nimoy in a hotel once so he could give him the Vulcan salute. He talks about sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders watching Apollo crews welcomed home. There is no need to instill any notions about the inspirational value of space exploration in this man’s head. He’s got plenty of it already.

It is up to NASA and its people – with Charlie Bolden and Lori Garver at its helm – to take these blatant cues from the President and, in a post-Augustine Report world, to make the pieces fit and move forth once again.

NASA stumbled on its first leap out of the gate. NASA is now getting a second chance. NASA won’t get a third. NASA really needs to get it right this time. If NASA does not, then it has no one but itself to blame.

Everyone seems primed and ready to help Charlie Bolden reorient things and to take advantage of this second chance. All too soon, however, that effort will collide with the lingering status quo. NASA may be called upon to cancel some things and dramatically alter others. It will be up to Bolden to push through that resistance and the formidable political forces that power that resistance. While his personality and enthusiasm are inspiring to many, it will take much more than that to prevail over the forces that will seek to hold him back.

Apollo 11 is now past us. Now the real work begins. Stay tuned.

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