Is this the new vision the solution? Maybe. The idea is to have NASA do the Research and Development (R&D) work to raise the TRLs from low to high so that they can be turned over the commercial industry. While NASA has continued to do R&D all of these years, they have not been able to invest in everything they’d like to do because human spaceflight is expensive. The concept is, make NASA an R&D institution and have the commercial industry pick up the flying into space portion.
My concern is this looks all grand on paper but at the end of the day where is the money and where is the implementation plan. This plan is subject to the same perils that have doomed previous NASA programs and is at the whim of Congress and the next President(s). What’s to keep Congress from cutting the funding (line by line remember) of specific NASA R&D departments? What’s to keep the next President from coming in and saying this was a horrible plan and redirect the agency again? Nothing. Remember, there are no guarantees.
How could the new vision fail?
- If Congress does not fully fund (for all the years to come) NASA to do the R&D work that is required to increase the TRL levels.
- If the commercial industry does not invest significant amounts of their own money to develop human-rated launch vehicles and spacecraft.
- If each NASA center does not secure funding to enable it to keep it’s contractor workforce
- If NASA does not put together a procurement strategy such that the contracts can be in place to start spending the money right away.
Is this the right time? Is there ever truly a right time? While the budget is an increase in dollars over the FY2010 budget, it is less than what was submitted by NASA as a request for FY2011. Do you jeopardize thousands of jobs across the nation at a time when the nation is still recovering from a recession/depression? Because, while the white house is saying this will create jobs, it will actually put NASA contractors out of work as their services are no longer required under the new vision. The old contracts will be terminated and since this is a government agency, it will take time to start up new contracts. How long will companies need to “hide” employees (cover costs) before those companies lay off or go out of business? Which of the companies that exist purely to service NASA will go out of business because their services are no longer needed? Just because a service was needed at one time, does that mean it should always be required?
Let me share with you the possible worst-case impact this could have to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX. JSC has been the home to three major programs, Shuttle, Station, and Constellation which includes their program offices, crew and flight controller training, and mission operations (mission control). This is by no means all that takes place at JSC, but it is its major purpose for existing. Since 2003, the plan has been to phase out the Shuttle program in 2010 and that is not changing. So JSC has been planning the end of an era and working on transitioning some workers to other opportunities. Lay-offs are in progress and will continue. NASA Administrator, Bolden mentioned last week that crew training and mission control for the new spaceflight companies will not be done by NASA. Astronauts don’t even have to be employed by NASA. This is all still to be figured out as the new vision unfolds. What we do know is that JSC just took a zinger under the new vision. Shuttle retirement was already planned, but Constellation died unexpectedly and along with it the core competencies that JSC offers which is crew training and mission operations. So, what will JSC do under this new vision? What skill base can they maintain? You are going to see the space centers battle it out for funding over this next year to keep their centers and the communities that surround them alive.
The Clear Lake area surrounding the Johnson Space Center exists because of NASA JSC. If JSC is unable to think outside of the box and embrace this new vision then there will be a ripple down effect throughout the area affecting everyone.
So what does this mean to you? It means everyone needs to do their part to make sure that the new vision is a success, regardless of your relationship to space exploration. Do what it takes because failure only hurts our nation and our children’s future.