Book Review: President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy

On January 17, 2004, President Bush announced his new vision for human spaceflight. The space shuttle would fly again, to complete the International Space Station. And then the next stage in human space exploration would begin, with humans landing on the Moon by 2015-2020; missions to Mars will follow. He announced a new commission would be formed, led by Edward “Pete” Aldridge to figure out the best way to implement this vision.

The commissioners conducted five public forums and fact finding missions. They interviewed 94 witnesses, including NASA employees, astronauts, academics, media, students, labour unions, space advocates, and many of the agency’s biggest critics. Three months after they began, the commissioners delivered their 64-page report to the President and the public.

This report lays out what I think is a realistic strategy of how to change NASA so that it’s better equipped to accomplish this vision. But I think the commissioners went a step further and got to the heart of what’s wrong with NASA, and offered solutions to get the agency back on track.

The commissioners suggest that “the space vision must be managed as a national priority”, and offer ideas: national advisors, representatives at federal agencies, commissions and councils. This could be layers of extra bureaucracy, or effective oversight. I’m not sure which it would be.

It goes on to make a series of recommendations on how to make the private industry assume a pivotal role in space exploration, by providing services to NASA, especially supplying low-Earth orbit. The commission suggests that NASA should become a customer, purchasing launch services and other products from a healthy private space industry. NASA’s role should be largely limited to science, and the risky research and development where there is “irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity.” I’d like to see how you measure an “irrefutable demonstration”, but that’s good, strong language.

The report goes on to suggest how risky technologies should be identified, directed into mature technologies, and then transitioned into the private sector. This is key. If business is unwilling to take a risk on nuclear propulsion, then NASA – an innovative and adventurous NASA – can swoop in, figure out if it’s possible, build a prototype, and then hand it off to private industry. This could be done directly by NASA, or through competitions like the X Prize ($1 billion for the first company to put a human on the Moon, for example). It’s one of the most exhilarating visions for NASA I can imagine, and I’m sure the people working there would be inspired too.

“The space industry will become a national treasure”, suggests the report. It encourages NASA to dig deep throughout the nation to find the best ideas, people and technologies and get them working to fulfill the exploration vision. I like the sound of that; it’s a 180-degree departure from the agency’s current reputation for close-mindedness. If you’re on the outside right now, you have to fight tooth-and-nail to get your great ideas considered by NASA. This created the bad blood between NASA and private industry today. The commissioners set a great example preparing the report, and let anyone provide ideas through the public forums, and via their website – 6,000 written comments were recieved. Many of these freely offered ideas ended up being quoted word-for-word in the report.

The commissioners suggest that NASA should embrace the international space community to develop future endeavors in space. That’s fine, but a similar vision created the International Space Station. Perhaps a better direction would be to allow NASA to work with suppliers outside of the US. Competing against Russian rocket builders might just light a fire under Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The report reminds us that a large part of NASA is its role in scientific discovery, and encourages the agency to connect with the scientific community to hear their priorities. The current state is a severe disconnect. Although NASA has enabled some terrific science, it’s funneled billions of dollars into research that has more to do with politics than science. If NASA can figure out how to rebalance this, scientists would be much happier.

Finally, the commission recommends that NASA do a better job of connecting to the public; to encourage future generations of scientists, aerospace engineers and software programmers to direct their careers towards space exploration. I’m in the media, and I can tell you that NASA could go a long way to improving its relations with us… and you, the public. It feels secretive and controlling, dispensing information carefully and selectively. Why aren’t astronauts making the talk show circuit? Where are the reality shows? I want new episodes of Cosmos, maybe hosted by Dr. Brian Greene and Dr. Michio Kaku. Just look at the success of the television show CSI, it’s entertaining and scientific.

Before I started reading the report, I was worried it would either be too aggressive or just plain boring. Instead, the Aldridge report was realistic; perhaps the best compliment I could heap on it. It was very entertaining to read, and I was constantly nodding my head in agreement.

It’s realistic because it recognizes that NASA already has many assets, in equipment, programs, and personnel. These can evolve, improving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Radical space advocates want to see the agency scoured. Disband the centres and fire everyone. That makes me cringe to think what kind of assets and goodwill would get flushed down the toilet. Not to mention, it would be political suicide.

This report suggests, no… demands, that NASA and private enterprise sit down at the table and work things out. Get to the bottom of why the agency has resisted its influence in the past, and see the wheels of free enterprise spinning again. Get the burden off the shoulders of the taxpayer and into grateful hands of business. When people ask, “what’s the point of space exploration, why should we spend $15 billion a year on this when we should be feeding the poor”, it demonstrates how NASA has failed to create a self sustaining spacefaring industry.

My main concern with the Aldridge commission’s report is that it doesn’t do enough to define the “critical success factors”. That’s management speak for the things you can point to which indicate you’re on the right track. The report encourages NASA to become sustainable, affordable, and credible, but doesn’t provide the details about what that agency would look like. The trick with critical success factors is they aren’t goals, they’re principles. They guide your organization into a virtuous spiral of improvement. A responsible leader provides followers with the vision, and then backs it up with these principles to help everyone guide their efforts – it prevents an organization from going off the rails in the future.

In recent years NASA has seemed to be in the business of maintaining its existence. Fill an organization with people regularly under attack from budget cuts, public mistakes, taxpayer displeasure, and a non-existent job market, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are mainly looking to protect their jobs. That the thrilling vision and enthusiasm for space exploration has been watered down by politics and bureaucracy.

The easiest time to change someone’s mind in this situation – someone would otherwise maintain the status quo – is when something disastrous happens to confront their world view. The Columbia disaster was just this event. It briefly drove a stake deep into the heart of the bureaucracy and I know it caused every single person in NASA to wonder what went wrong.

And be open for change.

NASA employees and managers have an open mind right now. Congress and the Senate understand that bad decisions by government contributed to the situation. This affected President Bush, and he announced a new direction; an exciting vision to return to the Moon and then head off to Mars.

Although I’m hard pressed to think of something more exciting for space exploration than humans setting foot on Mars, I’m more excited by the possibility that NASA will reinvent itself from an organization that defends itself and restricts free enterprise, to one that embraces entrepreneurs and ensures that mankind returns to space… for good.

NASA needed a plan which would inject free enterprise deep into its bloodstream, while maintaining its value to science, and developing the risky technologies that business won’t touch. In my opinion, this is what they got from Aldridge and the rest of the commissioners. Good job.

Now, let’s see President Bush embrace the plan. Let’s see NASA implement it in a way that respects its employees and takes advantage of their creativity, experience, and infrastructure. Let’s judge their progress by how well they stick to their principles.

Return to space, and never turn back. Failure is not an option.

Read the report for yourself.