Wednesday, January 14, 2009

NASA Politics

Space Politics has a couple of stories about possible NASA administrators and possible NASA budgets. In American politics, there is a time when a new administration comes in where speculation runs wild about what the policies and budgets will be for specific programs. The analysis borders on speculation when it comes to the details (and within the scope of the U.S. federal government, planetary programs and even all of NASA is a detail).

My take on the NASA administrator is that I'm less concerned about a space background than I am on managerial competence and political effectiveness. NASA has very talented engineers, scientists, and managers throughout its ranks. The role of any senior manager (I've been an almost senior manager in a large company and seen up close the workings of senior management) is to set broad goals, give the troops the resources to achieve them, and then make sure that due diligence is done. Where I've frequently seen senior managers fail is when they decide they should make decisions about the details. (At one company, for example, I was told that the CEO of a multi-billion dollar a year firm was reading the technical manuals for a pet project and sending the writers notes on improvements they should make. I knew then that the project was doomed (and it turned out to be) because the managers running the project no longer had the freedom to manage it using their detailed knowledge.)

Goldin, one NASA administrator, managed the details of the Mars program to ensure that it was done "faster, cheaper, better." Managers within the Mars program were sounding alarms (I was surprised by how frankly one of them discussed their worries publicly at a conference) . Goldin got his cheaper missions and NASA paid the price with two Mars missions lost in a single year.

O'Keefe decided that plans for a Europa mission weren't grand enough, and instead proposed JIMO which would have been a Battlestar Gallactica of a mission to orbit three Jovian moons. Details such as a humongous cost, no launch vehicle big enough to launch the thing, and many technologies yet to be invented were ignored.

Goldin and O'Keefe also were responsible for the current shoot out between Jupiter-Europa and Saturn-Titan for the next Flagship mission slot. Goldin was convinced that if he pushed hard enough, a Europa mission could be done for less than $1B. O'Keefe wanted to hold out for the grand mission. As a result, the Europa mission didn't get its start in the late 1990s or early 2000s when (in my opinion) it should have based on science and technical readiness. If it had, we could be looking forward to its launch in the near future and a Titan mission launching a decade from now.

In my opinion, the adminstrator should set broad policies such as what proportion of of NASA budget should go to planetary exploration or what should be the date for a return to the moon. The rest should be left to the engineers and managers with the expertise, with tough due diligence reviews to make sure that the lower level processes are working correctly.

I also want a NASA administrator with political savvy and connections. NASA has to compete within the executive branch for support for budget proposals and then within Congress for actual appropriations of funds. I want an administrator who is very effective at working both processes and winning and holding support for NASA's programs.

On the subject of the budget, we won't learn the new administration's true priorities for months to a year. A new budget will be presented to Congress in mid February (for the 2010 fiscal year). However, almost all the details of that budget were worked by the exiting Bush administration. The Obama team will only be able to work the margins of the proposal in the 2-3 weeks between them entering their jobs and the budget submission. Given the economic problems facing the country, I think that NASA's budget is likely to receive little attention from the Obama team in the coming month. The first full budget developed by the Obama team, reflecting its priorities, won't come until next winter. There is a chance that there may be a mid-year budget submission this spring to tweak the current year's budget, so that may give us some insight into the new administration's priorities.

In writing this blog entry, I come to re-appreciate how bizarre American politics and budgeting can be. I almost feel sorry for citizens of other countries where the budgeting process seems (from the outside, anyway) almost sane and perhaps a little boring :> .

On a completely different topic, the Washington Post has a great article about big telescopes and the budets they require.

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