There are two NASA's

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 7, 2021, 10:49 PM | comments: 0

The landing of Perseverance on Mars was super exciting, in a weird, it-happened-12-minutes ago sort of way. The entire process of dropping the thing on the planet was clever, but seemed strangely complex. Putting a rover on Mars has a great many specific scientific missions. It's there to look for signs of life, a precursor to understanding our own origins, and set up humanity as a potential interplanetary species.

I believe there is also symbolic value in what we can achieve as humans, and putting a machine on another planet that can autonomously land there is not a small achievement. This is the part of NASA that we celebrate, that we can be proud of.

There's another part of NASA that isn't so great. Right now, that part is the program driving the Space Launch System, the SLS, and Orion, the crewed vessel that is supposed to sit on top of it. It hasn't really had a durable mission, other than to vaguely put humans "further" in space, meaning the moon and perhaps Mars. After spending $20 billion on SLS alone, it has yet to leave the ground. When and if it finally does, it will be used once, and thrown away. It's essentially made of Space Shuttle parts, which were designed in the 1970's. If SLS has a mission, it's to fulfill its Congressional mandate to be built. Science is not driving the program.

The weird thing is that we've seen this movie before. It crushes me to admit this, as someone who loved the Space Shuttle dearly as a child, but the Shuttle program was an enormous failure. Its core design goal was to create an inexpensive vehicle that could be quickly turned around and reused. It was never that. And as we learned after losing two crews, the normalization of deviance, as this essay explains, became normal. The booster O-rings were allowed to deteriorate a little, even though they weren't designed to fail at all.

The Space Shuttle was certainly a useful vehicle, responsible for a great many payloads, including much of the International Space Station, but one can argue it involved unnecessary risk and extraordinary cost, at $1.5 billion average per launch. The mission of the Shuttle wasn't clear until there was a market for hauling military payloads, the IIS and carrying Hubble (and later fixing it).

While JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab, has had a focused mission of exploration and expanding our scientific knowledge of the universe, the flying rocket mission was for most of NASA's history to do stuff before the Soviets/Russians did. That's certainly a patriotic goal, but especially during Apollo, the optics weren't great in the context of the civil rights struggle. Many believed the government could be spending money on more important, terrestrial things.

SpaceX and a number of other smaller players have made hauling stuff into orbit a legitimate business, greatly pushing the cost down. (United Launch Alliance, a co-op between Lockheed and Boeing, has made it a business as well, but not with shrinking costs.) The Falcon 9 is on pace to outnumber Shuttle launches this year, and exceed its success rate (while it too is now carrying humans). What's interesting about these commercial endeavors is that they're not the mess of subcontractors patching together a system the way Shuttle was and SLS is. They don't have to check boxes to satisfy a mandate from Congress. There is clarity in their missions.

I'm still a fan of NASA, and believe it's an important part of the American story. But the spaceflight side of it needs vision and purpose, and it shouldn't be led by a rotating group of political appointees that changes with every presidential administration. At this point, leaving the lift to the commercial entities might just be the best thing to do. Let NASA concentrate on the science.


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