Tom Young: NASA on Declining Trajectory, Beware Unintended Consequences of SLPA

Tom Young: NASA on Declining Trajectory, Beware Unintended Consequences of SLPA

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, retired Lockheed Martin executive A. Thomas (Tom) Young characterized NASA as on a “declining trajectory” and called on Congress to pass a new NASA authorization act to reverse that trend.

Young is a highly respected NASA and industry veteran who is often called upon to chair advisory committees and analyses of organizational or technical failures.   Although his testimony covered a lot of ground, one target of his concern is the human spaceflight program.  A former chair of NASA’s space station advisory committee, Young said the International Space Station (ISS) is on a path to becoming a science and research failure, even though it is an engineering and diplomatic success.  He also said that he has changed his mind about the practicality of a human mission to an asteroid and now believes it should not be the next destination.

His testimony was part of a hearing on the recently reintroduced Space Leadership Preservation Act (SLPA).  He testified along with Elliot Pulham, CEO of The Space Foundation.  Both appeared to generally support the bill, though Young warned against unintended consequences.

Elliot Pulham, CEO of The Space Foundation, and Tom Young, Lockheed Martin (Ret.) testify at a February 27, 2013

hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Photo credit:  House Science, Space and Technology Committee

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee first heard from the two main sponsors of the bill, H.R. 823, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Frank Wolf (R-VA).  They introduced the bill on Tuesday, a slightly revised version of legislation they originally introduced in the last Congress.  They want to restructure NASA so that it operates more like the National Science Foundation (NSF), with a Board of Directors and an administrator appointed for a fixed 6-year term.

The bill would create an 11 member Board of Directors that would recommend to the President three individuals to serve as Administrator, three as Deputy Administrator and three as Chief Financial Officer.   The President could choose to nominate individuals on those lists, though in this new version of the bill he is not required to do so.  Among its other duties, the Board would formulate a budget for the agency and send it to Congress and to the White House at the same time.  If the President’s budget request to Congress for NASA differs from the Board’s proposal, the President would be required to explain why.

Culberson and Wolf believe that this governance structure would make NASA less politicized, more professional, and provide stability.  Culberson’s position is that NASA does not get the funding it needs because the President does not request sufficient funds and Congress needs an “honest budget submission” that does not have to pass through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  With such a budget submission in hand, Congress would then give NASA the money it needs, he contends.  Culberson is a member of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, of which Wolf is the chair.

Wolf focused on NASA’s lack of strategic direction, especially in human spaceflight, and believes this bill will solve that problem, arguing “I know that the NASA workforce and contractors are capable, but you can’t keep changing back and forth with concepts, ideas and administrators….”

Young did not voice opposition to the bill, but warned against unintended consequences.  As an example, he worries about the people who would comprise the Board.  In the bill, the President picks three of its members, the majority leader of the Senate picks three, the minority leader of the Senate picks one, the Speaker of the House picks three, and the minority leader of the House picks one.  Young joked that if he could pick them himself “I’d be totally satisfied,” but otherwise he worries it would become “a Board with an agenda.”   “I think there are people out there who can be the statesperson in that regard, but … the wrong board would be a disaster.”

Young also has strong views about what types of individuals should serve as Administrator and Deputy Administrator.  He argues the Administrator should have “superior executive leadership credentials” and the Deputy should have “extraordinary technical and space project implementation skills.”   He also thinks the Administrator should be allowed to choose the Deputy.

Pulham pointed out that his organization recently published a study (Pioneering:  Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space) that made similar recommendations to what is in SLPA.  That report recommended a 5-year renewable term rather than a 6-year term for the NASA Administrator based on how the Navy’s nuclear reactor program is run, the “gold standard” for technical government programs, he said.

Pulham and Young also addressed broader issues than NASA’s governance structure, particularly the concerns that the agency’s long term goals and strategy are not apparent.

Pulham said that the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA in 1958 and has been amended many times, lists 26 strategic priorities for NASA:  “I would submit that if you have 26 priorities, you have no priorities.”    The Space Foundation report recommends focusing NASA on “pioneering” activities, which it defines as “1. being among those who first enter a region to open it for use and development by others; and 2. being one of a group that builds and prepares infrastructure precursors, in advance of others.”

Young laid out a list of eight challenges facing the agency:

  • Maintaining NASA as the premier space organization
  • Maintaining the capabilities of U.S. industry to be NASA’s partner
  • Achieving balance between the NASA program and its budget
  • Establishing a credible human spaceflight program
  • Recognizing the importance of understanding dark matter and dark energy, searching for earth-like planets, returning samples from the surface of Mars, and expanding our climate knowledge, all as laid out in National Research Council Decadal Surveys
  • Realizing the science and research potential of the International Space Station (ISS)
  • Assuring sustainability of strategy and programs over many years and political cycles
  • Depoliticizing the agency

Regarding human spaceflight, Young said that although initially he supported the idea of sending humans to an asteroid as announced by President Obama in 2010, he since has learned just how difficult a task that is.  He now believes there are only a few “practical” destinations – Earth’s moon, the moons of Mars, and Mars itself.   Asteroids and Lagrange points “can be steps” but are not “practical” and do not “inspire.”   He also offered strong views on the ISS program, calling it a diplomatic and technical success, but on a path to becoming a “science and research failure.”   Overall, Young characterized NASA and the U.S. civil space program as on “a declining trajectory” and urged Congress to pass a new NASA authorization act to reverse that trend.

The House committee and its Senate counterpart have both announced their intent to write a new NASA authorization bill this year.  The current law, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, contains both policy provisions and funding authorization through the end of FY2013.  The policy provisions remain in force indefinitely, but if those committees want to recommend funding levels for the future, they will need to pass a new law.   Policy changes like that proposed in SLPA typically would be melded into such an authorization bill.

Appropriators, like Culberson and Wolf, are not required to follow authorization funding recommendations, but they are meant to be guided by them.   Policy is the province of the authorizing committees and since those two appropriators are seeking policy changes, it is easy to imagine them working closely together with the House SS&T committee.

How SLPA itself or provisions in a NASA authorization bill with the same intent would play in the Democratically-controlled Senate is an open question.   Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the House space subcommittee, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) were the only two Democrats at the hearing.   Edwards politely raised many questions about the bill — pointing out, for example, that NASA and NSF are very different types of agencies, and although the NSF Director has a fixed 6-year term, the current director is leaving after only two-and-a-half years – but not did directly oppose it.  Bonamici’s questions were focused on STEM education.

Witness statements, a hearing charter, and a webcast of the hearing are available on the committee’s website.

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