Scooby-Doo Ending

I’ve noticed a meme over the past years that NASA would be able to accomplish more if it didn’t keep getting its direction changed every time a new President comes in, or every time there is a shakeup in Congress. A strong corollary to this meme seems to be that these changes (and the accompanying program cancellations or restructurings) are entirely politically driven, and that the programs (to badly mangle a Scooby-Doo-ism) “would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for that pesky president and his OMB”. According to this mythology, the Constellation moon program wasn’t canceled because it was running horrendously overbudget or that its schedule was slipping more than one year per calendar year real time. It wasn’t canceled because it would supply a Space Station crew delivery vehicle several years after they planned to splash the ISS. It wasn’t canceled because it required magically huge increases in NASA’s budget to deliver anything at all, and would then cost even more to actually use it for anything. In this mythology CxP was canceled because Obama didn’t want to continue a program that George W. Bush started.

A recently announced bill in Congress seems to be motivated by belief in this meme. As I understand it, this bill would do the following:

  • Make the NASA Administrator position a 10-year position
  • Remove the OMB from oversight into NASA’s budget
  • Allow NASA’s budget to use a multi-year appropriation

Even ignoring how much of a disaster it would be for NASA if it ended up being stuck with someone like Mike Griffin as admin for 10 years, this bill leaves a few of questions:

  • What happens under a multi-year appropriation when you have a major program blow its budget by a large margin?
  • Can Congress really make a multi-year appropriation that legally binds future Congresses?
  • Would this make it harder to kill a Zombie Program like Constellation in a timely fashion?
  • Is the FBI really a good model for an organization like NASA when it comes to appropriations?
  • Do we really want to slow down the feedback loop on making needed direction changes within NASA?

I can see some benefits in not having to deal with a ton of small continuing resolutions ever year, but my worry is that this is just a play to protect congressional interests from proper oversight and making it harder to terminate wasteful (but Congressionally popular) programs.

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12 Responses to Scooby-Doo Ending

  1. Andrew W says:

    Pretty much agree.
    It’s not so much the termination as the initiation, and overall structure (pork), of programs that’s politically driven.

    So while i agree with those who see political meddling as a huge problem, I don’t see the proposed solutions being advocated as useful.

  2. I’m glad you wrote on this topic Jon. For many years I believed that NASA just needed to get the politicians out of the way and let them get the job done. Then I worked at NASA for 10 years and learned that the agency itself is nothing but a political toy to keep nerds employed. The way I think about it now is that NASA is a lot like the equivalent of the US military, but for real techy types who don’t like confrontation. The government wants them, wants them identified, and wants them ready in case it ever needs to do Something Important. But until then it needs to appropriate yearly money to keep them from drifting off to some other productive sector of the economy, so it funds NASA and bequeaths it with enormous, mostly unearned prestige. And so lots of smart people still want to work there.

  3. DougSpace says:

    Jon, I think that you’ve made a pretty solid argument.

    I see the solution is to be smarter. That is, to accomplish more with less so that monster projects don’t devastate budgets thereby resulting in cancellation of dominant programs. In this respect, I think we need more COTS-like programs such as orbiting fuel stations, cis-lunar transportation, lunar ice telemining, and manned return to the Moon.

  4. David says:

    With respect to your question here: “What happens under a multi-year appropriation when you have a major program blow its budget by a large margin?”

    Perhaps NASA would be bound by the Nunn-McCurdy rules that would force them to justify programs when they go over 50%? Not that the Nunn-McCurdy amendment has really reined in DoD programs, but at least it’s something.

    Kirk — along the lines of what you have said, it seems like NASA has a derth of competent program managers / systems engineers. A lot of really smart people who wield a lot of influence, but not a lot of competent leadership to shepard all of those smarts together into a coherent project.

    I remember back in 2004/2005, as a student at NASA LaRC, when a guy from NASA HQ came down to brief “the vision for space exploration” to the site. The thing that stuck with me the most was that, of the 20 or so questions asked, about 2 were about the VSE. Every other question was a PhD asking “well what about my project? Will this still get funded?”. Almost no one there cared what “NASA” was doing, only about their pet rocks.

    Combine that with the fact that each research center is run like an independent fiefdom, I’m frankly stunned when NASA sucessfully accomplishes things.

  5. reader says:

    5 year plans, yay. Way to go, free world.

  6. Jonathan Goff says:

    Reader,
    The sad thing is that compared to the typical 20-year plans NASA likes doing, five year plans would be a step in the right direction…

    ~Jon

  7. mike shupp says:

    I assume the proper comparison is with naval shipbuilding programs, in which a multiyear budget and schedule are established, but become subject to review if relevent Congressional committees become concerned. This _could_ be made to work, in other words, but I think it would take agreement on national policy from several different Presidents and many many Congressmen over a lo-oong period of time in Washington, and that’s very hard to imagine.

  8. Rick says:

    I think that codifying and applying the socialist system of multi-year plans in the space arena is a good thing. I am confident that the chairmen in our central control authority offices in Washington have a much better understanding of what is to come in ten years than we in the proletariat.
    Space policy is simply too complex a matter to allow regular folks such as stock holders or entrepreneurs (or voters) any serious control.

    I suggest we also go for ten year presidential terms as well.

  9. reader says:

    Rick, i fully support your sentiment. The top brass is highly informed about all the variables to optimize for, such as Isp, payload to orbit, science return per mission ( measured in papers and screensavers published from any given launch ), articles about spinoffs etc.

    Also, as the decision-makers themselves are a product of survival of the fittest, vigorous election and appointment progress, there really is nothing that can go wrong.

    I, for one, welcome our new JWST overlords.

  10. Nothing is more important right now than getting away from the central planning straitjacket of the last 50 years. The proposal would only tighten it, and the battle is far too hard already.

    Yes, Griffy (or more likely Scott Pace) may come in next year and try to do a 180 on progress to date. I only hope that the developing commercial industry can survive the damage they could do.

    That doesn’t change the need for things that allow us to maximize change: It seems we have to destroy most of NASA, piece by piece, before we can rebuild it into a space NACA.

  11. Frank Glover says:

    This bill would also set a bad precedent. Other government agencies (and/or their favorite Congresscritter) would argue that it’s at least as important as NASA, and should have the same locked-in arrangement.

    This is also part of why the ‘one-penny.’ presumably unconditional doubling of the NASA budget notion wouldn’t work. Throwing twice as much money at a program based on bad policy, won’t make it good policy…

  12. pennypincher says:

    We have top men working our space policy right now.

    Who?

    TOP …. MEN.

    “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Budget”

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