NASA’s Biggest Challenge? Congress

Earlier this week, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas wrote a scathing opinion piece on how NASA has been scamming the American taxpayers for decades, delivering very little for a whole lot of money. Additionally Thomas believes the Constellation program needs to be stopped to allow the concepts and technologies to be reviewed before more money is spent. The view from Thomas’ desk doesn’t seem to include a solution to any problems NASA may have, or any reasons why NASA might be in the predicament he proposes.

So, how do others see NASA’s current situation, particularly someone who might have a closer view of what NASA is trying to accomplish? I recently had the chance to talk with Taber MacCallum, CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, a company working with NASA to help develop the Orion and Altair spacecraft. His opinion of NASA’s state of affairs is that the space agency is working as hard as it can and as best it can, given the constraints imposed by the US government.

“I think NASA has done an incredible job of getting Constellation this far with the funding they’ve received,” he said. “The more of us who have gotten into this program, the more we have appreciated how much of the things we derogatorily attribute to NASA are really things that Congress has created. I think all Americans need to realize that when we say NASA has problems, the problems are really with Congress. NASA has become the organization it has in response to what Congress has made it do.”

“Congress has asked NASA to do things and not given them the money, or marked certain money for this or that or tied their hands a certain way,” MacCallum continued. “The more we’ve gotten into this the more I think that NASA does an admirable job given the challenges Congress gives them.

Taber MacCallum, CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation.
Taber MacCallum, CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation.

It should be noted that MacCallum’s opinions are not in response to Thomas’ article, and they came unprompted during a generic interview a couple of weeks ago about Paragon, their work with the Constellation program and their recent partnership with Odyssey Moon in the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

Paragon is contracted by NASA to help develop the thermal control and life support systems for the Orion and Altair spacecraft, as well as doing preliminary work on a series of life support technologies for spacesuits for Mars.

When asked about the challenges of helping to creating a new human spacecraft, MacCallum said that the biggest challenge for NASA is that Congress needs to fund the Constellation program at a level where it can be successful.

The Constellation Program.  Credit: NASA
The Constellation Program. Credit: NASA

“Congress keeps putting NASA on continuing resolutions, but doesn’t have them on a funding profile that the program needs to be successful,” said MacCallum. “Its lots of money, yes, and you can’t equate Constellation to Apollo. Apollo was different because Congress and the Administration gave it a different agenda. NASA makes the smallest mistake now and it’s time for a congressional inquiry as to why all this taxpayer money is being wasted rather than saying that NASA is trying do something really hard and this time it didn’t work. Instead of an investigation we need to go try it again. We don’t seem to mind when a test pilot crashes a hundred million dollar aircraft into the ground. That’s part of developing high tech airplanes; that’s part of being on the cutting edge of defense. We accept all that. But when NASA plummets a spacecraft into the surface of Mars it’s time for a Congressional inquiry. It’s a whole lot harder to land a spacecraft on Mars than fly an airplane. But somehow, we treat this differently, and I haven’t figured out why that is, aside from congressmen trying to get brownie points.”

MacCallum said Americans need to see NASA’s mission with new eyes.

“The paranoid, risk-averse, over-conservative appearance that we see NASA in currently is their response to Congress raking them over the coals repeatedly,” he said. “When you talk to people at NASA at an individual level they are so dedicated and really want to do the right thing. I think there are very few people just sitting on NASA’s laurels. For the most part these are people who want to see an aggressive space program and are working night and day to do it.”

“The other real challenge we have is because we’ve put NASA in this sort of stand down mode for the past 30 years, we haven’t designed a new spacecraft. So there’s nobody around, literally, who has designed a manned spacecraft before,” MacCallum continued, “so all that experience from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the shuttle isn’t around. Even if they all were around, the tools are so radically different that we have to manage the technical side of these programs in a different way.”

The Ares rockets. Credit: NASA
The Ares rockets. Credit: NASA

However, MacCallum said these are good challenges to have. “Gosh, we as a nation really need to learn how to do this. We have woefully under-challenged our youth, our people and our NASA. JPL does a great job, because every couple of years they crank out a new space mission. The planetary science people and companies like Lockheed have cranked out spacecraft regularly, so they have people who are used to that cycle; they’ve gone from concept to mission closeout. But a human spacecraft that goes in all the different environments from launch to on-orbit to around the moon to re-entry to landing, with all our of our human safety requirements, it’s a surprisingly new deal.”

So, what if the Constellation program were halted and NASA had no way to fly humans to space?

“Soon we’re going to be at place, and people will wake up one day and realize we are in stand down mode and America can’t fly people to space, but only current and former communist countries can,” MacCallum said. “It’s going to be an interesting day. That gap is going to be pretty big. It terms of NASA’s charter to lead and Congress’s charter to give them what they need to lead, we’re in an interesting position where the most modern human spacecraft is made by China – not to demean the Chinese at all, but it’s not what we think of as American’s leadership in space.

MacCallum said he will be interested in how the Obama administration deals with everything on NASA’s plate in addition to everything else currently facing the country. “They are clearly fighting lots of fires, and NASA has certainly been without an administrator longer than this before,” MacCallum said. “I think Obama realizes we need to be a leading country in science and technology. That’s our only chance to hold our own in the global economy. I was certainly inspired by space to take a career in science and be interested in engineering. I think a lot of kids are. We need to be doing interesting things that inspire kids and make them want to study math and science.”

25 Replies to “NASA’s Biggest Challenge? Congress”

  1. This guys a blowhard and it’s just another person throwing a bunch of crap against the wall trying to see if anything would stick!

    It’s people like this that are just going to cause the demise of our destined evolution to explore space. I’m not saying that Star-Trek will be a reality one day, but it would be nice to hope that would happen.

    Ad Astra Ad Per Espera!

  2. This Mike Thomas guy really needs to open his eyes and see the big picture, im not american but i still think it will be a sad day when the usa is beaten back by china and even russia in terms of manned exploration. Congress will have that day very soon at this rate.

  3. This Mike Thomas guy really needs to open his eyes and see the big picture, im not american but i still think it will be a sad day when the usa is beaten back by china and even russia in terms of manned exploration.

    Congress will have that day very soon at this rate.

  4. “But somehow, we treat this differently, and I haven’t figured out why that is, aside from congressmen trying to get brownie points.”

    The difference between the Apollo era and the current era centers on economic conditions. “We treat this differently” because our core economy is in crisis mode. We are running deficits that were likely incomprehensible 40 years ago.

    However, there is one thread of similarity between the two eras. Space research and development was underwritten by government…and the programs advanced in each era are politically influenced.

    All things being equal, NASA is doing an outstanding job given the constraints of the above. I know of no other institution that has adapted to the whims of political maneuvering and still manages to produce incredible science (Viking, Voyager, Shuttle, Hubble, etc, etc, etc). I think NASA administrators have a nearly impossible job: produce science while being constantly vulnerable to the caprices of government.

  5. Where to start? The guy isn’t full of crap. This has been going on for decades. It’s always, “We have problems here on Earth blah blah …” or some variation. Personally I’m tired of it. Just shut NASA down. Why bother. Mark these words though. Just as Congress has set NASA up to fail, this is the exact same thing they are going to do to the military … again. America’s politicians are as corrupt any two-bit whore and America’s people are whiny, sniveling, mongrels, throughly trained to lick the feet government masters.

  6. “…America’s people are whiny, sniveling, mongrels, throughly trained to lick the feet government masters.”

    This American mongrel is nothing of the sort…but is “throughly” trained to tell you to go blow it out your ass.

  7. There is 5 TRILLION $’s being spent NOW that says YOU are wrong. But hey pretend all you want, it’s what passes for “greatness” in America now. I’ll pretend you aren’t eating the crap the government is blowing out their ass.

  8. Obviously Mr. Thomas is narrow minded, and has his own agenda. He grossly mispoke the cost overuns; not taking into account how budgets are requested year after year.

    Am I happy with the current program to upgrade the man space program? Not 100%, but I’m not ignorant enough to start making statements focused on one aspect of NASA.
    There have been many other projects in NASA, and he failed to mention any of them; most which were even more successful than we could have ever hoped for.

    Mr. Thomas is apparently so ignorant, he doesn’t even thank NASA for their research and development of items he probably depends on each day. In fact, he probably couldn’t even name the most obvious items.

    However, I shouldn’t expect anything from an individual who cannot see the gains mankind has from finding microbial life, or water on other celestial bodies. His brain power is so great, his job is attacking others using half assed information, twisting the truth, and not bothering to gather the whole picture.

    Mr. Thomas, if you are so unhappy with NASA, then I challenge you to stop using any product which is developed with any materials or goods which was once a part of NASA R&D. You’ll soon find yourself half naked, without a car or house… and picking food from a garden.
    I would be amazed if you only stopped using composite material designed for NASA.

    You do your newspaper so proudly. Perhaps next week, you can write the Marriages and Unions column.

  9. I am a big fan of the U.S. Space Program , my father in law was an employee of the McDonnall Aircraft Corp.My wife and I treasure our de-classified photos of the Mercury/Gemini program. I watch NASA TV alot , I work as a Nurse and I say I am going to be one of the first healthcare practitioners on the moon. That’s probly not gonna happen.
    But the Space Shuttle is the most unlikely of Engineering success stories that in retrospect should not have been built , the ” Space Pickup Truck cost 14 Astronauts lives”
    It is wearing out and must never be built again. Have you looked at the pictures of our Space suits as they are building the ISS , the headlamps are 30 year old state of the art quartz/halogen powered by 40 lbs of batteries that last 7 hours. I can go to Walmart and buy a 100 lumen 3 watt CREE led headlamp made in China that will last 30 hours powered by a 3 ounce Li-ion battery. If you care to research it the Orion program is an attempt to build a Saturn 5 that is hopefully going to be engineered to be much safer than either the Apollo or Shuttle projects.

  10. I am a big fan of the US space program , having said that , I have to point out we are way over due to update/upgrade. Have you looked closely at the photos of the Space Suited astronauts building the ISS. They use state of the art 30 year old quartzhalogen headlamps powered by 40 # batteries that last 7 hours. I can go buy a $30 headlampa at Walmart with a 3 watt 100 lumen CREE led that is powered by a 3 ounce Li-ion battery…If you care to research it the Orion program will be utlizing a lot of precautions that have had to be dreamed up after the painful loss of 14 Astronauts to the Shuttles nearly impossible design constraints.

  11. Mr. Thomas hits on a few obvious points that are well known faults, nothing new or original. For example: Why exactly are we sending people back to the moon? ( While I would love to see a permament human presence on the moon, planting the fag again seems pointless).

    Thomas also misses on several points, like his proposal to spend more money on earth-science missions. This is ludicrous, earth-science is already well funded.

    My fear is that little has changed at NASA since the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman wrote his minority report on the loss of Challenger. His report is still worth reading:

    History could be repeated for Constellation, unless NASA gets realistic funding, that matches its goals, AND learns from its past mistakes.

    My soapbox: What we need is for congress to split NASA into two new agencies. One agency is needed to support manned colonization of the solar system, while the other agency is soley responsible for science missions. Each one of these new agencies needs at _least_ as much funding as what NASA is currently funded. That sounds like a lot of funding, but its a tiny fraction of what we spend on defense, and a lot the engineers working on defense contracts could be retrained to work on NASA contracts. We really need to be thinking of the “defense” of mankind, on the longer term, and have permanently staffed bases in orbit, on the moon, and eventually further out in the solar system.

  12. My Soapbox: We spend 3x’s on social welfare as we do on defense. Easily. For this conversation though it really doesn’t matter where the money goes, it won’t go to NASA. Get used to being a second rate space power.

  13. I think that Taber MacCallum is more right than wrong. One one hand NASA is a government run agency and we all know how wasteful and inefficent they can be. On the other hand the true value of government is that it can generate enough resources to accomplish a larger mission than any one private industry could hope to achieve. Apollo is a great example of this. So the best way to use NASA is to give it goal that nobody else coul hope to accomplish and then give them whatever funds they need until they achieve it. Even though you know they will not be as efficient as a smaller company and there will be alot of waste along the way, there is no other way to do it. That being said, there has been a deficit of leadership over the last 30 years from Congress and the executive to first give NASA a clear and lofty objective and secondly give it the resources to achieve it. The ISS has been the only real objective provided and the shuttle has served that purpose. As villified as the Bush administration has been for bad decisions, it did something right in giving NASA a lofty goal and a sense of purpose which is a return to the Moon and Mars. NASA can achive this. Now it just needs the appropriate funding to get it done and it has not happened. Like defense contracts for new weapon systems, inital cost estimate always assume that R&D and then applications go perfectly. In the real world of course they never do and cost overruns are a reality. Congress of course has to know this by now and can’t use them as an excuse to stop funding. Such warped reasoning is fallacy and incredibly naiive. But bad or absent leadership from Congress and the executive is nothing new over the last 30 years and NASA’s plighty is just a case study of a pervasive failure of the central government. What NASA has done with a limited budget and no directive I think has been admirable in maintaining the shuttle program and keeping JPL running like a well oiled machine.

  14. i feel pretty confident that Bosco hates America, and all of the American people. pretty ignorant right? hehe.

    anyways, i believe the post by WDM 2 posts above me is the most rational, but most reallocation of defense funds are taken personally by senators, and they feel the need to attack any reduction of a defense budget of world conquest proportions. but doubling NASA’s budget would be quite a feat.

  15. The problem is the way the space program is funded. Nancy, you gave the game away without realising it when you quote: “We don’t seem to mind when a test pilot crashes a hundred million dollar aircraft into the ground. That’s part of developing high tech airplanes; that’s part of being on the cutting edge of defense. We accept all that. But when NASA plummets a spacecraft into the surface of Mars it’s time for a Congressional inquiry.”

    That statement underpins a great misunderstanding that runs right through public policy today. That somehow, all those millions of dollars are somehow pasted onto the surface of the aircraft or spacecraft and are automatically lost with the failure of the mission. That is complete rubbish.

    The money was spent within the nation and remains; flowing throughout the nation. It paid for all those hidden costs, wages, salaries, taxation, marketing, printing postage materials, materials development…. I could fill a whole page with ways the money spent has benefited the surrounding nation.

    But still, everyone uses the mis-perception that the money has been lost.

    The second problem is that, because of the way our financial system has developed over the last century, we no longer live in a capital based society, but instead, have sleepwalked into a feudal mercantile economy where the funding for any long term “off the wall” proposal, such as space development, has to be funded from taxation. Today, there is no mechanism to invest the savings of the nation back into anything outside of the new, feudal, intra/inter – institutional bank related paper asset trading systems that have been created and underpinned by law, to effectively prevent the possible “LOSS” of those savings.

    Yes, we are right back to the original mis-perception, that any failed mission, (re-read, investment), has the money pasted to the surface of the `whatever’ was mooted for the investment in the first place.

    ANY FAILURE is now seen as a mechanism that results in the loss of the money.


    Until Congress wakes up to that simple truth, that the money circulates and makes us all more prosperous; the Western nations will continue to decline. Why? Because all your wonderful prosperity was built on using the money saved by the Chinese and lent by the Chinese nation to the US. The US has no money of its own. Period.

  16. My father covered the American space program since it began and the biggest challenge NASA faces is indeed Congress … and those folks who feel the monies spent on space are wasted, despite the high return in technology we use every day … and the intangible but essential return in wonder we receive with each new achievement and discovery. Thanks for the terrific and timely article Nancy.

  17. I keep thinking of Ron Howards notorious quote on the Apollo 13 dvd: “I don’t think man will return to the moon for 150 years”.

    While he is a certified space fan, its an accurate estimation based on the amount of interest congress has shown for space.
    They don’t see exploration as anything mandatory for the health of the nation or as an altruistic act for mankind.
    They see it in votes.

    Right now, as much as the public loves space, it doesn’t garner the same vocal support as education or welfare programs because it doesn’t generate votes unless the public is scared. There are no pro-nasa protests on the news, so there is no rush for a return to the moon or anywhere else.

    …But there is some opportunity, if we know the beast well enough to harness it.
    On the retirement of the shuttle it is a fact that the only road to space will be through Russia.

    I say we play off that fear and build a media frenzy to not only secure constellation, but also cots D and a second look into ssto and orient express type craft.
    Timing is the problem here however. Because if the shuttle survives then so does another 30 years of mediocrity.

    Politicians simply don’t care so long as they think we’re satisfied. We need to show them we aren’t, but do it at just the moment when their drawers are down.

  18. How in the world does every person involved here manage to write and comment on an article as if half of what is going on did not exist. Paragon isn’t, and MacCallum is part of the problem, not part of the solution. All NASA has to do to have almost instant access to the ISS for both cargo and crew, if not structural elements is to put a few more bucks into the COTS contract with SpaceX, which they seem to be deliberately slowing, so their idiotic Ares I can be more important, eventually…when the damage has already been done. In addition, there is the DIRECT 2.0 Jupiter Launch System that makes so much more sense than anything in the Ares I and V nonsense. What we need here is some scientists who care enough to fight the politicians often enough for us to get at least a half way reasonable return on our research and development dollars.

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