A Few Deficient Acts

Okay, so the big news nowadays in the space world seems to be that NASA has invoked the Anti-Deficiency Act (31 U.S.C. § 1341), which places restrictions on the ability of government agencies to enter into contracts. Now, the ADA is specifically targeted (as far as I can tell) against government institutions, but NASA is leveraging the Act to try and exert influence against the private companies that are building Constellation while the debate rages on in Congress.

This strikes me as interesting–and, perhaps, a little underhanded, especially (though not necessarily implying of anything; I admit I know nothing of the man’s efforts or accomplishments in the PoR) with the removal of Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley from his position. Why would NASA be leveraging such an inapplicable law, especially at such a time? Not only will the law not do anything–given that the companies themselves cannot be in noncompliance of a law that doesn’t target them–but the very fact that NASA is trying to exert this kind of shutdown influence speaks volumes about either a) NASA’s true motives in this particular debate or b) NASA’s utter lack of cognizance of public perception and/or knowledge of the laws of the United States, something that comes as a surprise for such a bureaucratic agency.

Now, I will say that there’s a line or two in that Write Stuff article regarding the lunar lander and such things that are supposedly in the works for that $9 billion we’ve already spent on Constellation. As any avid reader of the space blogs knows, about the only thing we’ve received for our money and trouble is a single potshot launch of the Ares I-X demonstrator, which we aren’t really sure actually demonstrated much of anything. Well, that’s not strictly true: we’ve also got an Orion mock-up and functioning LES tower, both of which are likely to be useful if Orion ever gets further off the ground than its abort motor test launch (not that we didn’t already have an Orion Launch Escape System developed…).

Anyway, so, what we have here is an agency with its hands tied behind its back, facing pretty massive job losses, caught between a rock and a hard place, trying–or so it seems–to wield a little power again, to, perhaps, try to insert a little normalcy into the chaos of the past few months. Understandable, I suppose.

But let’s talk about Elon Musk for a bit. On the June 6 edition of This Week in Space, Miles O’Brien interviewed him regarding all the hubbub surrounding his mostly-successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Musk is understandably enthusiastic about the Obama plan, calling it “the only strategy that has any chance of working.” Now, having given this particular interview a lot of thought, I have this to say: yes, and also no.

The Obama plan was plagued from the start–despite what many see as a halfhearted attempt at placation–from a, shall we say, “lack of vision,” in more ways than one. The Constellation program is scrapped–mostly a correct decision, I think–but so was a return to the Moon–mostly an incorrect decision, I think–in favor of a manned mission to an asteroid and then on to Mars.

My problem with this is as follows: it’s not going to make us any money. I’m a wholehearted believer in space exploration, but not for its own sake (human expansionism and colonization don’t count, to me), and not–at least for now–for the sake of science. We need a space economy, something we can use to make lots of money. That’s the only way sustainable space exploration is going to be available to us. It’s the only reason there were colonies in the New World, and it’s the only reason we’ll have colonies on the Moon. Going to an asteroid might be exciting for a little while, but will it ultimately lead us down the path to permanent and self-sustaining offworld human habitation? I don’t think so. The work that would be done on an asteroid right now can be accomplished with robot miners and an automated package-launching system, the same technology that will likely be used to divert asteroids en-route to Earth.

Mars is a little more appealing, but I’m not convinced we have the technology or the know-how to begin putting people on the planet for the long term, and without a reliable source of income, sustaining that colony is rather unlikely. An asteroid might be a good platform for human habitation, once it’s all mined out, but the impetus for that mining operation has yet to make itself really known, and it’s a little far away to spark the imaginations–and open the wallets–of investors.

The Moon, however, is a “proven” ground, so to speak. We’ve demonstrated that it’s technically possible to go there and to return, we’ve found the materials necessary for human habitation with a minimum of fuss (even organics, which would make growing plants there much easier), and we already have some of the sort of oft-touted “emerging technologies” that will allow us to begin manufacturing macro-scale structures in space, such as Space-Based Solar Power satellites, manufactured on and launched from the the lunar surface for a fraction of the cost of doing the same from Earth’s immensely deep gravity well.

So NASA’s swinging, Congress is bickering, SpaceX is celebrating, and the rest of us…are just waiting. What’s to be done? Where’s the middle ground?

How about we all work together instead of bickering all the time? Maybe that would be a nice start.

Addendum: Now, it occurs to me that the means by which NASA seeks to invoke the ADA could simply be that, due to their own impending noncompliance, they are requesting that the companies in question modify their own businesses to create the necessary compliance. This would explain the agency’s supposed lack of knowledge about the law in question, but if this is the case, the language used in the articles I’ve browsed–possibly all quoting from the same flawed source–is misleading. It makes the most sense that the agency is really saying that the contractors are managing their government contracts improperly, especially given this line from the Write Stuff blog article:

“New NASA calculations say contractors are $991 million short of what they must withhold – and the agency has ordered the companies to find that money from the roughly $3.5 billion they’re budgeted to get for Constellation projects this year.”

But as I said, the language is misleading, hence this addendum to the above post. So please, before ripping me a new one for my misunderstanding of the situation, read the above addendum to see my full thoughts on the matter.

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6 Responses to A Few Deficient Acts

  1. mike shupp says:

    The anti-deficit act actually is used a fair amount, though normally in circumstances which don’t get much coverage (there’s a web page somewhere with the last 7 or 8 years of GAO reports in summary form, typically 5-10 pages per year reporting 30-50 violations). A typical violation: paying a contractor 10,000 bucks to bulldoze snow off an Air Force runway in Colorado using an account intended for landscaping in summertime; generally the AF finds the error, transfers funds from the proper account to make the payment, and issues a reprimand (potentially, a career-killer) to the officer who approved the faulty payment.

    Forcing contractors to set aside reserves from current funding to handle possible future cancellation of a particular project is evidently part of the original act, but doesn’t seem to have much (any?) use until now. Possibly conditions with Constellation are unique — it’s not often the government has to tell contractors “We want to stop this program as quicky as possible, but for the moment Congress won’t let that happen.” Generally the idea is to push controversial programs along as fast as possible BEFORE Congress sets it foot down, hoping for a fait accompli. This time, Bolden is well aware that he and the contractors (and evidentally some NASA divisions) are not on the same page and he’s laying out rules that get things done his way. He was a Marine Corps Major General, remember!

    As for the wisdom of all this…. I dunno. Bolden’s got The Law on his side, and I sort of admire his willingness to be patient in public for a good long while before swinging the axe. Other hand, the next NASA gives 4 billion bucks to a contractor, expecting 4 billion bucks of work, expect to hear back something like “We’re setting one billion aside for unexpected cancellation; here’s what we can accomplish for three billion dollars this year.” Not that costs are necessarily going to rise by 30%, since the unused billion might well be reprogramed to finish the job the following year. But NASA is not necessarily going to be master of its budget once contractors catch on to the possible accounting tricks. Bolden may have opened a can of worms at the wrong end.

    • I don’t know. All I know is, the law isn’t applicable to private contractors, so if NASA is trying to leverage it, some reporter somewhere needs to tidy up the language a bit. It just seems underhanded, although they have replaced Jeff Hanley with a new guy already.

      Interestingly, after reading this month’s Aerospace America, I think that a mission to a non-Moon destination makes some sense, at least when viewed from the perspective of developing necessary technologies. I still don’t think it’s going to give us a sustainable path into space–especially with the highly dismissive “been there before” comment, which really should never have happened–but at least there’s a reason to the rhyme. Shame I had to sign up with the AIAA to get that perspective, though.

      If I had my druthers, I’d pick that ULA plan I’ve been touting the last couple of weeks. It has the potential to develop some or all of the same necessary technologies–autodocking for refueling ships, extended life support for lunar bases, advanced propulsion methods for Mars trips and/or faster lunar transits…

  2. mike shupp says:

    I did read that ULA paper; thank you for the link! Amazing how it brought back the mood of 1950’s juvenile science fiction…. (Not to be sarcastic; it’s the cheerful notion of a space project featuring 30 launches a year, most of them utterly routine propellant transfers, that gets to me. I don’t think the US government has launched 30 rockets in a singe year since the 1960s. if then.)

    As for alternative space programs… I give the ULA people credit for starting now on a moon project which looks doable (surely their cost estimates are only off by a factor of three!). Putting off a lunar colony for the sake of “really important” development programs, strikes me as on a par with postponing marriage until everything is just right, or putting off having kids until you have just the right place for a family to live, or … — A time comes and you’re alone in a crummy little apartment and no one cares whether you live or die, and all you can find to think about is how “sensible” every step that took you to that destination seemed at the time.

    • I’m not sure how you mean about the putting-off of a lunar colony (I’m assuming you’re talking about Obama’s stance on the issue of human colonization of space–AKA, wait for “game-changing technologies”).

      As for the ULA plan, I’m not going to say it’s perfect in every respect, but at least it’s something doable with existing technologies with a nice list of advantages. It’s a plan that really just requires the political will, since the money doesn’t seem to be quite the issue it’s been cited as being in the past.

  3. mike shupp says:

    Ummm.. ULA is pinning a lot on the success of fuel depots, and there’s a lot of hand waving about possible fuel loading from reusuable rockets, etc. Likely they’re right, that fuel is a good payload for a company trying to develope reusuable launchers, but the sad reality is that they – we — are just guessing at costs.

    My other thought, much more dismal, is that in some alternative universe we might assume NASA had been allowed to fly Apollo 18 and 19 and the Apollo Application Program, that a meager lunar base had been begun and that the USA had supplied it regularly since 1972. Buy now we would have 40 years of off-world experience, with plenty of detailed knowledge about lunar resources and tested technology for extracting material from lunar soil; we would have perhaps 120, perhaps 160 lunar flights under our belt. Simply because of manufacturing experience we would be flying better, bigger, cheaper rockets. Updating the moon base with better computers and comm systems, using off the shelf hardware and software, would have been trivial. etc. etc. But instead, we have ….

    • Haha, your dream and mine–well, perhaps a little less dismally. Three or four flights a year for forty years doesn’t seem like quite the space economy I’d love to see (my goal is something more akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey).

      Costs are usually underwritten in the initial presentation, of course, but I think that this kind of thinking is good. It approaches the problem of, “How can we do what we want to do with existing technologies and within a reasonable time/money boundary?” At least it’s a step in the right direction, I think.

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