I just had a crazy thought this morning, that while probably unworkable–we’d probably all be better-off if 99% of government policy proposals were sent directly to the paper-shredder–might be a way to start extricating NASA from it’s current manned spaceflight morass.
The following ideas were what led me to this thought:
- With the way our government is structured right now, NASA’s primary customer is not the American people, but Congress. And in spite of any high falutin’ rhetoric about the common good, the reality is that Congresspeople are people just like the rest of us, and tend to see things from the filter of what benefits them most. In the case of NASA, Congresspeople care most about keeping highly paid aerospace professionals working in their districts (and hopefully therefore voting for them). If the shuttle program employed 6 people in a garage, do you really think there would be anywhere near as much passionate interest in “the gap”, and “workforce retention issues”?
- That said, Congresspeople do have souls. They actually do care at least on some level that NASA is doing something that sounds plausibly useful–it’s just that they want them to be doing that plausibly useful thing while employing thousands of people in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, California, and Utah.
- Constellation has a high probability of dieing sometime during this next administration. The only reason why it isn’t dead now is that those Congresspeople are worried about having 10,000 unemployed aerospace professionals deciding to vote for their opponent in the next election for not protecting their jobs. But as technical problems, delays, and cost overruns start adding up (along with the realization that Constellation isn’t going to be protecting most of those jobs), expect to see the knives come out.
- One of the single biggest costs in any aerospace project is payroll and related overhead. For instance, while I don’t have exact numbers (and wouldn’t be legally able to give them if I did) and even though MSS doesn’t pay anywhere near as much as NASA does, I wouldn’t be surprised if 1/2 to 2/3 of our expenditures to-date have been payroll and related overhead. The typical burdened rate for an aerospace engineer is in the $100-200k/year range.
- The idea of the Air Force or NASA running paid “externships” (where an employee or contractor of theirs works with some specific company, with NASA or the Air Force paying their salary in exchange for benefiting from the cross-pollination of ideas) has been gaining traction lately.
So, what if we cranked this idea to 11? What if instead of trying to make another multi-billion dollar shuttle-flavored boondoggle, Congress instead directed NASA to offer most of its shuttle workforce as “externs” for industry? Armadillo Aerospace and several of the smaller alt.space companies have demonstrated how much more you can get for a given amount of money if you don’t have to pay your employees. Imagine if, phasing in over a period of a few years, all of the sudden it was possible to get skilled aerospace technicians and engineers, and not have to pay the full burdened cost yourself?
The benefit for Congress would be that those aerospace engineers would still be being employed, but they’d be working on projects that were actually being run more by market-driven companies, and not as much by the whims of an ossified bureaucracy. The goal would be to use this as a way to help promote aerospace development in those aerospace states. The same money would be spent, the same jobs would be protected, but the effort expended would be more aligned with what the market actually determines to be useful. With the availability of much cheaper labor, it would become much easier and cheaper to launch an aerospace startup than it currently is.
The benefit for the rest of us, is that as those former shuttle employees are divided up among a larger number of commercial enterprises, the incentive structure for the Congresspeople will shift more towards promoting the growth of a strong industry, as opposed to running centrally-planned megaprojects. Also, it might be possible to structure the program such that the externs gradually transfer from NASA payrolls to those companies over the course of a few years, freeing up that money for NASA to act more as a customer while also at the same time possibly allowing NASA to be more able to survive the coming fiscal environment. For instance, for the first year or two of the program, maybe NASA is paying for most or all of the salary of a given extern, but after that each year the company has to pick up another 20% of the tab until at some point the extern is no longer a government contractor but a commercial employee.
Now, even if this policy isn’t entirely nuts, the incentives structure will matter a lot. First off, you don’t want to make greybeards so cheap that nobody will hire new college students. One way of doing this would be to require a given company to hire at least one fresh college grad for every extern they get. Also, as some of those externs start retiring, some of the money that was going to their salary could instead be transfered to matching funds for hiring fresh college students. Second off, you don’t want companies using this as a way to lay off their existing workforce and just mooch off of the state. So you setup some rule that as they lay their own people off, they little by little lose access to those externs. I’m not sure how exactly you would determine who is eligible for externs. Maybe some sort of lottery or draft like they do with many professional sports? I’m not sure.
Anyhow, it’s a crazy idea, but I bet you if you took those 10,000 NASA employees, and instead had them working on commercial projects that it would close the gap a lot faster than pouring more money down the Ares-I rathole. Of course, interfering with the market always causes unintended consequences, the only question is would the end result be better or worse than the current status quo.
What do y’all think?
One piece of feedback I got back offline was that this idea would look too much like a direct subsidy to ever work. Well, ignoring the fact that congress just passed one of the most pork-o-licious farm subsidy bills ever, I think there are some ways to deal with this concern. I think one way to frame this is as a “privitization” of the NASA manned space transportation industry. In all the debates about workforce retention, NASA and Congress continuously refer to these employees as “national assets”. Well, if they’re national assets, why not transition them over a few years from a 100% government owned and operated asset to one that is mostly commercially owned and operated? Just a thought.
The other thougt would be making sure that all aerospace (and even some non-aerospace) companies have equal access to benefiting from this externship pool. Ie, anyone can become involved, that way it isn’t benefiting one specific aerospace company at the expense of all the others.