When a new President takes office in 2013, he or she should propose to Congress that the nation start space policy over from scratch and dismantle the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for a new agency, said former Senator and NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt in a blog post Wednesday.
Schmitt is one of the last of the Apollo astronauts that landed and set foot on the moon in the early 1970s.
“Immense difficulties now have been imposed on the nation and NASA by the budgetary actions and inactions of the Bush and Obama administrations between 2004 and 2012,” Schmitt said in a blog post on AmericasUncommonSense.com. “Foremost among these events have been the Obama administration’s and the Congress’s spending and debt spree, the continued aggressive rise of China, and, with the exception of operations of the space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS), the loss of focus and leadership within NASA headquarters.”
“For Presidents and the media, NASA’s activities became an occasional tragedy or budgetary distraction rather than the window to the future envisioned by Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Apollo generation,” Schmitt says.
“For Congress, rather than being viewed as a national necessity, NASA became a source of politically acceptable ‘pork barrel spending’ in states and districts with NASA centers, large contractors, or concentrations of sub-contractors. Neither taxpayers nor the nation benefit significantly from this current, self-centered rationale for a space program,” Schmitt said.
The new NASA
A new agency, the National Space Exploration Administration (NSEA), should be charged with specifically enabling America’s and its partners’ exploration of deep space, inherently stimulating education, technology, and national focus, according to Schmitt. “NSEA would be charged solely with the human exploration of deep space and the re-establishment and maintenance of American dominance as a space-faring nation. The new agency’s responsibilities should include robotic exploration necessary to support its primary mission. As did the Apollo program, NSEA should include lunar and planetary science and resource identification as a major component of its human space exploration and development initiatives.
“The existing component parts of NASA should be spread among other agencies with the only exception being activities related to U.S. obligations to its partners in the ISS.
Breaking up the agency
“The easiest change to make would be to move NASA space science activities, including space-based astronomical observatories, into the National Science Foundation (NSF). At the NSF, those activities can compete for support and funding with other science programs that are in the national interest to pursue. Spacecraft launch services can be procured from commercial, other government agencies, or international sources through case-by-case arrangements. With this transfer, the NSF would assume responsibility for the space science activities of the Goddard Space Flight Center and for the contract with Caltech to run the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Also, in a similarly logical and straightforward way, NASA’s climate and other earth science research could become part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA could make cooperative arrangements with the NSF for use of the facilities and capabilities of the Goddard Space Flight Center related to development and operation of weather and other remote sensing satellites.
“Next, NASA aeronautical research and technology activities should be placed in a re-creation of NASA’s highly successful precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Within this new-old agency, the Langley Research Center, Glenn Research Center, and Dryden Flight Research Center could be reconstituted as pure aeronautical research and technology laboratories as they were originally. The sadly, now largely redundant Ames Research Center should be auctioned to the highest domestic bidder as its land and facilities have significant value to nearby commercial enterprises. These actions would force, once again, consideration of aeronautical research and technology development as a critical but independent national objective of great economic and strategic importance.
“NASA itself would be downsized to accommodate these changes. It should sunset as an agency once the useful life of the ISS has been reached. De-orbiting of the ISS will be necessary within the next 10 to 15 years due to escalating maintenance overhead, diminished research value, sustaining cost escalation, and potential Russian blackmail through escalating costs for U.S. access to space after retirement of the space shuttles. NASA itself should sunset two years after de-orbiting, leaving time to properly transfer responsibility for its archival scientific databases to the NSF, its engineering archives to the new exploration agency, and its remaining space artifacts to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“An almost totally new workforce must be hired and NSEA must have the authority to maintain an average employee age of less than 30 (NASA’s current workforce has an average age over 47). Only with the imagination, motivation, stamina, and courage of young engineers, scientists, and managers can NSEA be successful in meeting goals.
“NSEA would assume responsibility for facilities and infrastructure at the Johnson Space Center (spacecraft, training, communications, and flight operations), Marshall Space Flight Center (launch vehicles), Stennis Space Center (rocket engine test), and Kennedy Space Center (launch operations).
“Enabling legislation for NSEA should include a provision that no new space exploration project can be re-authorized unless its annual appropriations have included a minimum 30 percent funding reserve for the years up to the project’s critical design review and through the time necessary to complete engineering and operational responses to that review. Nothing causes delays or raises costs of space projects more than having reserves that are inadequate to meet the demands of the inevitable unknown unknowns inherent in complex technical endeavors.”
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