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NSRC 2020

 
Ares 1 illustration
One of the key decisions the next NASA administrator will face is whether to continue development of the Ares 1. (credit: NASA)

A good job with a lousy title: notes for the next NASA administrator

Possibly the worst mistake that the Eisenhower’s White House made in 1958 when they created NASA was to call it an “administration”. This implied that the part of the US government in charge of leading America—and to some extent the whole world—outwards into the solar system and beyond is just another static bureaucracy to be “administered”. NASA, for all its many flaws, is special. It embodied a dream that is far more important to millions of Americans than ordinary day-to-day, year-to-year politics.

As long as it acts like an “administration” instead of like an essential part of America’s national identity, NASA allows itself to be defined by the usual Washington round of budget politics.

If NASA were to fail—it has often faltered, but it has not yet failed—it would be an American failure far worse than the current economic crisis or the other problems that inevitably bedevil the President and the leaders on Capitol Hill. It would be the strongest possible signal that America is no longer interested in either world leadership or in fulfilling its own destiny. Emotionally at first, and then politically and economically, the US would be reduced to the status of a big version of Belgium.

Sadly, as long as it acts like an “administration” instead of like an essential part of America’s national identity, it allows itself to be defined by the usual Washington round of budget politics. If the top leadership at NASA ends up spending most of its time and effort on finding the funding to carry out the many missions with which the agency has been charged, they will end up missing their most important role.

The head of NASA is also the de facto national spokesman (or spokeswoman) for the US space industry and for the space community at large. Of course, there are important parts of both the industry and the community who would like nothing more than for NASA to get out of the way and let them get on with the job of colonizing the solar system. They’re great people and in the end they will be proven correct, but not for a long, long while. When most Americans think of space they think of NASA, so it is very important for the administrator to be able to articulate why this nation is heading out there and what it hopes to accomplish.

In the past, none of the men who have held the job have been able to do this on a national scale. The only government official who ever came close was President Bush’s Science advisor John Marburger, when he spoke of including the solar system in humanity’s economic domain. Mike Griffin made an initial effort to bring the advocates for the “NewSpace” industry into the process, which is more than any previous administrator has ever done.

The next NASA administrator must be ready to spend far more time spreading the message that space exploration and scientific discovery are essential to our way of life. The American public must be convinced that innovation and quality research and engineering are the only way we are going to make a sustainable recovery from this recession. In the world economy, the nations maintain the highest standards of science and technology are the ones that will have the best economies.

If he or she is going to build on the work that has already been done, and to prove worth of the agency on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, the new administrator is going to need to find ways to capitalize on all of NASA’s assets. First of all, there is the need to make clear to the shuttle workforce exactly how many missions are left to fly and how they will be taken care of during the next few years, including making sure that the retraining that will be made available to them is suitable and adapted to their skills. Nothing would do more harm to morale than to tell the shuttle ground crews that their next jobs will involve nothing better than pushing a broom or putting up sheetrock.

The new head of NASA is also going to have to insure that NASA’s science output is kept honest. The debate over climate change has been thoroughly polluted by politics. Passion has a role in science, but the kinds of personal insults and accusations that have been flying around have no place in any debate over scientific fact. Less bullying and more civility would be nice, but in any case all of NASA’s Earth science projects need to be very carefully examined to insure that they will hold up under honest scrutiny.

The mission cannot be accomplished unless the American public is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that space exploration is the only way that our nation and our planet are going to build a decent and prosperous future.

Another subject that attracts passionate debate is the Ares 1. The refusal of so many experts in the industry to accept the decision to go with this rocket drove Mike Griffin to distraction, to put it mildly. Keeping or discarding this launch vehicle will be the first and most important decision that the new administrator will make. Whichever way it goes the decision must be made quickly, if the new administrator wants to go with the Delta 4 Heavy then work should start on it immediately. If not, then he or she should convince everyone involved to stop complaining.

NASA’s role as a lead player in international space cooperation is more important than ever. The administrator has got to balance his or her responsibility as an American government official with the desire of the Obama administration to present a new and friendlier face to the world. Griffin memorably explained that there are lots of people out there anxious to help him spend NASA’s money. The pressure to “play nice” and to give away the store will be intense, but too many concessions to the international partners could undermine the agency’s support on Capitol Hill.

One trap that some previous administrators have fallen into is to concentrate on cultivating the Congress. This is of course very important, but ultimately politicians respond to the voters. Whoever becomes the head of the agency should spend a little less time with the pro-space industry choir and get out to places where NASA’s message rarely is heard. New England and New York would be good places to start. Building widespread public support and challenging the critics should be part of the job.

It does not help if NASA cuts its budget for travel and communications to the bone. The mission cannot be accomplished unless the American public is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that space exploration is the only way that our nation and our planet are going to build a decent and prosperous future. If this mission fails then the 22nd century will be just as full of strife and misery as the 20th.


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