When I was a teenager, my dad had me read a small book called “The Richest Man in Babylon”.Â It was a good and simple read about personal financial management, set in a fictional background of ancient Babylon.Â I think the concepts in the book are just as timely today as when it was first written almost 80 years ago.Â While there are many different ideas discussed in the book, I think one of the first ones discussed was the one that stuck with me the longest–the idea of setting aside 10% of your income to invest in the future, and then finding a way to live within the other 90%.
I’ve read a few other books in that genre over the years (The Millionaire Nextdoor, Rich Dad/Poor Dad, etc), and while they often differed on the details, most of them agreed on the importance of living below your means and saving for the future.
I was reminded in a way of this concept by a comment to Alan Stern’s recent NYT op ed that Rand Simberg linked to.Â John Mankins, a former manager of Advanced Concept Studies at NASA, made the following interesting point about cost overruns in many government space projects (emphasis mine):
There is extremely good evidence from numerous past space programs that the root of the problem of cost overruns may (in many cases) be found in a failure to make adequate investments in mission/system design studies and technology research & development BEFORE finalizing a mission concept and its cost estimate.
The General Accountability Office (GAO) has highlighted this issue repeatedly in recent years, referring to the preferred best practice as “Knowledge-Based Program/Project Management”. At NASA, the preferred question has sometimes been: what is the technology readiness level (TRL) for a new project, before it is allowed to proceed past Phase A, or Phase B? The rules are in place to ask the question, however the budgets that would be necessary to achieve an adequate level of technology maturity are NOT available.
The idea is simple: it is much, much cheaper to invest in technology R&D, and mission analysis/system design studies that it is to fix inevitable problems that arise only once less-well prepared development projects get started.
There are strong statistics in support of this argument. In the 1980s, NASA’s budget office found that during the first 30 years of the civil space program, NO PROJECT enjoyed less than a 40% cost overrun UNLESS it was preceded by an investment in studies and technology of AT LEAST 5%-10% of the actual project budget that eventually occurred. The opposite can also be seen easily: in cases where studies of alternative concepts have been well funded, and new technologies have been rigorously developed and matured the risk of overruns is much, much lower. These investments must take place beginning before “Phase A” (system/mission definition) and continuing through “Phase B” (system design) completion. If this practice is followed, the statistics indicate that even if there is an overrun, the problem tends to be much lower than if a strong investment in studies and technology R&D has not been made. The GAO has found very similar results with various DOD programs.
While the concept of NASA investing in technology maturation and mission studies isn’t exactly the same as a private individual setting aside money to save and invest, it does have a lot in common. NASA, being a government agency, can’t set aside money from one budget to spend in a future one. But it can take money from a current budget and put it into technology maturation to enable future capabilities that will, as John Marburger said earlier this year, “reduce the expense and risk of future operations.”
NASA under O’Keefe actually had taken some good steps in this direction with the Human and Robotic Technology program. NASA had set aside somewhere in the neighborhood of $2B over a two year period for technology maturation projects, and then proposals for R&D in several areas of key interest for human and robotic exploration. They awarded contracts to companies ranging from alt.space companies like XCOR Aerospace, to non-space industrial giants like Caterpillar, to traditional aerospace primes like Boeing and LM. The topics ranged from advanced sensors, autonomous operations capabilities, cryogenic composites, and many other important capabilities. I may be wrong, but I think this was one of the biggest investments in space technology maturation since the Apollo Program. Even then, it was less than 10% of NASA’s yearly budget.
And it all got axed when Griffin got in to help pay for Ares-I.
One of the most frustrating things to me about NASA’s approach is that it continues to place operation of large, manned, NASA-operated launch vehicles ahead of just about everything else. Many of the technologies that have only recently started to see the light of day, such as autonomous rendezvous, docking, and propellant transfer, could have been demonstrated decades ago, had their been the interest. While Orbital Express did cover a little bit of new territory, much of what it did has been done by Soviet and Russian systems for nearly 40 years. America could have had that capability decades ago as well if it had invested the money at the time, because fundamentally it hasn’t been a lack of underlying technologies that has retarded the maturation of these technologies. The key obstacle has been getting the funding to develop these technologies. While it may be possible for these technologies to eventually all be developed by the private sector, that’s going to take a very long time. The private sector has access to more money, but the typically long timeframes involved, and uncertain/speculative markets often make it very difficult for some of these technologies to be developed by purely private efforts.
It would be nice if the agency that was given $17B a year to promote our general welfare through in the field of aerospace would use more of that money for accelerating the development of these key technologies, and act as a catalyst to help enable commercial space utilization, instead of being just another obstacle. Even a tiny fraction of that money wisely invested in future-looking space technology development could go a long way towards making a spacefaring future a reality.
I hope that with a new administration (both in the White House, and hopefully in NASA HQ as well), there will be a reemphasis of the importance of investments in technology maturation and R&D at NASA. While cutting back enough on current expenditures to shift money back into human and robotic technology maturation efforts will not be easy or painless, it’s the right thing for NASA to do. Much like an individual who decides to live below his means so he can have a brighter future, there may be some immediate pleasures that have to be forfeited, and standard ways of doing business may have to be reevaluated, but in the long run it will be more than worth it.
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