Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait complains about a Discovery Science Channel program about stories that the general public might not know about Apollo 11:
This is one of the things that irritates me most about some of the documentaries about Apollo, as well as Moon hoax believers in general. Apollo wasn’t just some wacky scheme cobbled together by a handful of people– it was a carefully planned, heavily-practiced, and expertly-executed program that had the brains of hundreds of thousands of people behind it.No, it isn't. Those first tentative steps onto the surface must have been cool to watch, but once Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins returned safely to earth, NASA's entire raison d'etre ceased to exist. They could have ended the agency right then and there. After all, what other army continues to fight after the battle is won?
It was one of the singular great achievements of humankind: sending men to another world, exploring it, and bringing them home again. Isn’t that exciting enough?
Instead, NASA spent 30 years going around in circles. Oh sure, there have been a few cool things they have done since then.
For instance, they launched the Hubble telescope. And then when it turned out that they had been incompetent and sent up a defective, useless instrument, they sent up a mission to fix it. Well, that's all fine and dandy; it is also no big deal. The NSA probably has two dozen telescopes that size in orbit (all of them pointing down).
Oh yeah, they launched the Mars Climate Orbiter. Remember the two billion dollars that went down the drain because NASA engineers didn't understand metric?
They have launched the modules for a space station - one which was supposed to cost 8 billion dollars and be fully crewed years ago, but now has cost 100 billion and still isn't fully operational (and probably never will be).
Somewhere between the Apollo missions and the start of the Shuttle, NASA changed from "waste everything but time" to simply "waste everything". That is the legacy of NASA for those of us under 40: a bloated, directionless nerd-welfare program, which keeps getting larger every year, producing nothing of value. It is even worse than useless, as the ridiculous cost-plus purchasing method used by the agency ensures that costs of space access continually rise - no venture capitalist is going to invest in an industry where the chief competitor is a government agency with bottomless pockets.
Last week, the Space Frontier Foundation released a scathing report about the unaffordable and unsustainable implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration. Far from learning from their past, and far from the Presidential directive to fundamentally change the way that NASA operates, the agency is instead doing the same thing they have for the last 30 years but expecting different results. The reaction to the report from the blogosphere can be seen at NASAWatch, Transterrestrial Musings, and Curmudgeon's Corner.
This was followed by an equally scathing report from the GAO:
In essence, knowledge supplants risk over time. This building of knowledge can be described as three levels that should be attained over the course of the program:The biggest problem with NASA is that they are politically entrenched, and don't actually have to produce results in order to get further funding. So, they don't. Why bother if they don't have to?
(1) At program start, the customer's needs should match the developer's available resources in terms of availability of mature technologies, time, human capital, and funding.
(2) Midway through development, the product's design should be stable and demonstrate that it is capable of meeting performance requirements.
(3) By the time of the production decision, the product must be shown to be producible within cost, schedule, and quality targets, and have demonstrated its reliability.
...NASA's current acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case. NASA plans to award a contract for the design, development, production, and sustainment of the CEV in September 2006-before it has developed key elements of a sound business case, including well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, and firm cost estimates.
...NASA should make the prudent decision now to ensure that it has attained the appropriate level of knowledge to support a sound business case before it commits to the project. However, under the current acquisition strategy for CEV, key knowledge-including well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, and firm cost estimates-will not be known until over a year after the expected contract award date. Nevertheless, NASA plans to commit the government to a long-term contract. This approach increases the risk that the project will encounter significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and decreased capability.
And of course, NASA feels free to completely ignore the Government Accountability Office. After all, they are NASA, and are accountable to nobody. From Chair Force Engineer:
NASA is running into all sorts of problems with Ares I (whether the final vehicle looks like a stick or a stump) because the rocket has been a kludge since the start, when it emerged as a half-baked thought in the brain of Scott Horowitz. While the ESAS report had some equally half-baked reasons for choosing Ares I over the Delta and Atlas, the truth is that NASA wants a vehicle it has control over, and they want a vehicle that will keep the shuttle's standing army employed in the years after the Orbiter's retirement in 2010.It is that standing army, and the subsequent political pull exerted on congresscritters, that keeps NASA sucking up 16 billion dollars a year. Of course, for NASA, that isn't enough to do the job either. In fact, NASA figures that by ending all US science on the space station at the end of this fiscal year, they can save a whopping $100 million to waste on other things. The fact that this eliminates the need for a space station at all doesn't seem to occur to the unaccountable space agency.
After the SFF report and GAO report, Jeff Foust at Space Politics had this to say:
A big reason for the current CEV development schedule, and the whole Block 1 CEV design, is to minimize the "gap" in US government human space access after the shuttle is retired in 2010...we seemed to have survived the nearly six-year gap caused by the Apollo-Shuttle interregnum between 1975 and 1981. Those who worry about a gap of a few years between shuttle and CEV need to be more explicit in the explanations why it's so undesirable, or else we should re-think the overall CEV (and ESAS) procurement strategies.I would go further than that. I think it is time for the US government to think very carefully about why there is a NASA at all. NASA's Apollo achievement is more than 30 years in the past, and the professionals that worked to send men to the moon are retired or dead: I doubt there is even a single person working for NASA today who was actually involved with Apollo. The current crop of nerd-welfare recipients is simply warming the chairs of the long-gone achievers.
It is long past time that NASA was disbanded. Far from ending US involvement in space, such an act would increase the American presence in space. All those engineers and technicians wouldn't simply disappear. They would receive severance packages, and team up with each other, forming hundreds if not thousands of new space companies, each competing on a level playing field with the hundred or so new space companies that have sprung up over the last ten years. The competent ones would succeed. NASA could divest itself of probably 90% of its workforce (a large proportion of whom are simply deadweight bureaucrats anyhow). The remaining 10% would operate sort of like the FAA does, as an Administration (note the second A in NASA's name - that's what they are supposed to be in the first place). This is the only way to successfully implement the Vision for Space Exploration - the existing plan to do everything the same as before but expecting different results will be a spectacular failure, wasting hundreds of billions of dollars, and most likely accomplishing nothing.
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