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Why NASA Can't Do Its Job

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2003 by RDFollendoreIII

August 25, 2003


To understand why NASA can't do its job you need to know four facts.

The first fact that is too easily forgotten.  It is simply that there is an awful lot of universe out there for humanity to explore.  In fact, the immediate space around good old planet Earth is a mighty big place.  Unless there are unknown aspects to traveling through these dimensions that present science is ignorant of, and based on scientific history that is a possibility, then the human race will never explore an insignificant fraction of what we now know to be out there.  As it is, even if everyone on our planet were to spend 100% of their waking life in the pursuit of space exploration, we could not possibly scratch the surface of what there is out there to know and understand. We would evolve into something different from what we are long before that would even begin to occur. This means that it is therefore inevitable that humanity will have to begin to make critical decisions as to what is and is not most important to it.  

The second fact that is also too easily forgotten from where humanity exists is that space is unforgiving.  Man is not a creature of space.  We are creatures of the earth. The earth is our life systems because we are a system of this planet. In space, human beings must exist by a thread. What we bring with us from our planet is all that sustains us up there. If the thread breaks, then so too does humanity's presence up there.  Science has never created a successful closed environmental system that is self sufficient that could meet the needs of living long term in space.  Maybe that fact will not be true forever, but it is true for the foreseeable future of mankind.  Within the foreseeable future, humanity will be required to return home in order to continue to survive.  Space will not be home and that means that man must visit home.

The third fact is more down to earth.  Time is relative to distances.  It is simply that a successful long term sustainable space exploration can never be a short term accountable government project.  The reason for this is that space exploration is a long term commitment.  It is for that reason that space exploration always must be first and foremost an avocation as well as a vocation.  When a space shuttle breaks apart on reentry, the heat and the force of the wind shear is enormous.  This is the true and tangible risk that every astronaut faces when he or she begins to train for a flight. If this were just another job, then there would be no need for advocacy.  This is the kind of risk that is inherent in the job and it means that the exploration of space is not just like any other job.  Short term accountability and institutional controls can never account for the kind of intellectual courage that it takes to fulfill a mission in space.  The people who do this work are certainly not in it for the pay. They deserve to have programmed commitments that are based on not just decades but centuries. Humanity can not ask the brave to commit to such a vast technological venture that will be renegotiated every time there is a disaster.

A fourth fact of space exploration is connected to what it is we shall all become.  Humanity require the perspective that can only come from the perspective of space in order to survive.  We now know that humanity currently exists on a fragile point in space and time.  It is difficult for us to fathom the idea of a fantasy like the end of human existence, though we know that it is possible.  It is only because have seen images of the whole of the earth that we can now visualize the potential environmental limitations on which we stand.  It is for that simple reason that our explorations must be a natural evolutionary process for humanity. We have taken a look at what we are as part of our planet from a distance and we can compare that with the perspective what we thought we were.  We either have to believe in the difference that we have now perceived or we must believe in our parochial  view.  Simply the ability to keep that perspective will allow us to choose to manage our necessary change.  Space exploration is therefore not only important to humanity for external exploration, but also for internal exploration. 

Hopefully you will now follow the reasoning for this essay by referring to the four aspects I have just written. If these four facts are true, then we have to ask ourselves what kind of an organizational machine is required.  NASA is a response to the scientific ideals of pre World War II and was put into effect by the social ideals of the cold war.  Pathologically it t has been a politically directed engineering organization, not an innately philosophical or ethical one.  The commercialization of space exploration has been looked down upon even as the limits of the ability of the original organization have been found. NASA must dramatically evolve into something different or it will destroy the long term potential of manned exploration of space.          

The findings of the NASA board who looked into the causes of the Columbia fiasco have reached their conclusions and are already beginning to sow the seeds that will cause the next disaster.  The Board Chairman, Ret. Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. has already begun to speak in military terms about the "things being done in informal ways" and the subsequent "loss of control of the process."  The underlying assumption that he is making is that formality is the solution for success.  He is speaking of a situation in which the formality was the very thing that got in the way of reaching solutions that would have prevented both of the shuttle disasters and might have saved the Columbia crew before they were allowed to disintegrate during reentry.  In both cases, the people who had the knowledge were prevented from communicating and acting because of the formality of the organization.

The sad truth is that manned and unmanned space exploration can not be left to the so called professionals.  It is the advocates who are willing to accept the risks who are the rightful explorers of space. Military commanders and other career bureaucrats simply do not have the competence at disobeying the laws of the social status quo to understand the importance of social flexibility.  Politicians and executives are not the ones who might have fixed a hole in a shuttle wing or saved the crew, it would have been the dissidents. The fact is that the kind of people who were in the control room during the flight of the Columbia probably had no business being there.  It was that tight ship that they were trying to run that got the crew killed.  The people who should have been in the control room should have been the experts that built the components of the shuttle and the brave who had enough guts to stand up and be counted as explorers.  If there was not enough room, then NASA should have purchased a stadium.  

For all of those piss poor so called engineering professionals at NASA who have to have a justification for bucking the system, the answer can be simple. Make the organizational system work in favor of success through safety.  For the cost of one major disaster, NASA could fund every member of the shuttle program as a generous retirement bonus, essentially making them millionaires but taking it all away for catastrophic failures.   NASA needs to publicly fire, arrest and prosecute the bastards who were irresponsible as examples.  These are the kinds of space exploration risks that will give NASA engineering bureaucrats the incentive they need to listen to each other; But to be perfectly honest, none of these suggestions are possible at NASA.   The fact is that NASA positions are over engineered far better than the space systems.  Government employees are protected from such things. Ph.D.'s there are so rampant, promotions are an academic exercise. 

NASA can't do it's job because of what NASA always was and because of what NASA has become.  NASA is another Federal bureaucracy that is stuffed with politics. It a bureaucracy with a mission that can not be philosophically justified to be jammed with all of the other misfits into the Office of Homeland Security.  NASA can't do its job because it is being run by the military and other political bureaucrats, who organize because they are mission oriented budget driven rather than because they are simply inquisitive.  As a consequence, NASA can not do its job because it has no way to easily account for the economics of both caution or curiosity.  NASA can't do its job because current space exploration has no engineering definition or philosophical structure that regular human beings can stand behind. This is because Americans really have no stake in space because it return things of tangible economics to individuals.  Exploring space is not the same as simply existing in space.  To that extent, the International Space station is worthless unless it provides earth with legitimate results about what we are becoming and/or is the staging point for extended missions to the moon and mars.  News about space for most Americans is simply another form of popular entertainment, one that is far less impressive than the weekly television space opera.  But perhaps the biggest reason why NASA can't do its job is because there it is no longer an organization for exploration and imagination.  

Does any of this mean that NASA should be run by amateurs?  If you look carefully, you will see that was not what I have written.  What I am communicating is the idea that inclusion and involvement is a requirement of such a long term and large scale program.  What I am communicating is that the organizational machine that we have in the form of NASA is not what we need to proceed.  It makes no difference what we call the next organization. We could call it NASA 2.  NASA can't do its job then NASA 2, if designed right, could.   




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