Nearly a year ago, famed geologist, former United States Senator, and former Apollo Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt recommended what to many was the utterly unthinkable:
To be frank, I agree with him.
While to those who have paid even a passing visit to this blog, such an admission may seem completely counter-intuitive. But the reality is not that Dr. Schmitt has suddenly turned his back on his own legacy, nor have I on our nation’s triumphant space program.
Far from it.
Honoring the NASA Legacy
In an essay he released last year, Dr. Schmitt made a direct call to whoever becomes President in 2013. In it, he made clear that only by wiping away the bloated, competitive, politically-crippled bureaucracy that NASA has become and by forging in its place a leaner, more focused, dedicated Space Exploration agency may we honor the NASA legacy.
The claim made waves when it was released, ruffling the feathers of many of his own contemporaries, but (like most other calls for action) quickly flared out and faded away. Well, I want to re-open the discussion, as this was (in my humble opinion) a damn good idea and one that deserves further promotion and consideration.
With this in mind, let’s revisit his logic.
Leadership has Failed Our “Window to the Future”
To quote Dr. Schmitt:
- “Immense difficulties now have been imposed on the Nation and NASA by the budgetary actions and inactions of the Bush and Obama Administrations between 2004 and 2012.”
- “The bi-partisan, patriotic foundations of NASA … gradually disappeared during the 1970s as geopolitical perspectives withered and NASA aged.”
- “For Presidents and the media, NASA’s activities became an occasional tragedy or budgetary distraction rather than the window to the future envisioned by Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Apollo generation.”
- “For Congress, rather than being viewed as a national necessity, NASA became a source of politically acceptable pork barrel spending in states and districts with NASA Centers, large contractors, or concentrations of sub-contractors.”
- “Neither taxpayers nor the Nation benefit significantly from this current, self-centered rationale for a space program.”
It’s actually fairly difficult to argue any of these points, particularly considering the reality that Schmitt comes from a rare position of authority on all points. He’s a scientist who has bodily walked on the moon and seen the inner machinations of our congressional system as an elected representative.
But, how could we possibly create a new agency from NASA? Schmitt points out that there is already a precedent for this sort of evolutionary change…
The Precedent for Creating NSEA Has Already Been Set … by NASA
When NASA was formed in 1958, is was forged by combining/abolishing two other agencies. The first was the famed National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), with its many familiar research centers, (e.g., Glenn, Ames, Langley,) which had been around since 1915. It did not survive the transition.
The second was the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), the innovative military space missile (and manned space mission) effort spearheaded by the legendary Wernher Von Braun. All manned spaceflight and space exploration activities were stripped from ABMA and rolled into NASA.
In truth, Schmitt’s recommendations for what to do moving forward aren’t so drastic as they seem.
Indeed, based on a surprising amount of overlap between NASA activities and those of other scientific national agencies and organizations, they make the utmost sense.
Decommissioning NASA According to Schmitt: A How-To Guide in 6 Easy Steps
- Move NASA’s space science activities into/under the National Science Foundation, (including Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.)
- Move NASA’s climate and related earth science research into/under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (My extrapolation: physical space science activities should be wrapped into the United States Geological Survey – with emphasis on the Astrogeology Science Center.)
- Place NASA’s aeronautical research under the purview of a reconstituted NACA, composed of Langley Research Center, Glenn Research Center, and Dryden Research Center. (California’s Ames Research Center, Schmitt proposes, is now redundant and should be auctioned off to commercial spaceflight developers.)
- Procure spacecraft launch services exclusively from commercial providers, (SpaceX, ULA, etc.)
- Retire NASA as an official agency as the International Space Station is de-orbited by 2025.
- Have the 2012-President and Congress recognize that a new Cold War exists with China and “surrogates,” and in response create a new National Space Exploration Administration, “charged solely with the human exploration of deep space and the re-establishment and maintenance of American dominance as a space-faring nation.”
A Breakdown of NSEA: Young, Lean, Imaginative
What would NSEA look like specifically? Schmitt lays out the proposed agency in compelling detail.
NSEA would gain responsibility for Johnson Space Center (for astronaut training, communications, and flight operations), Marshall Space Flight Center (for launch vehicle development), Stennis Space Center (for rocket engine testing), and Kennedy Space Center (for launch operations).
NSEA’s programmatic responsibilities would include robotic precursor exploration as well as lunar and planetary resource identification research, as with the Apollo Program.
Instead of grandfathering the NASA workforce as-is, the new agency according to Schmitt would be almost entirely recomposed and given authority to maintain a youthful workforce – “an average employee age of less than 30.” Why? Schmitt claims that, like with Apollo, “Only with the imagination, motivation, stamina, and courage of young engineers, scientists, and managers can NSEA be successful in meeting its Cold War II national security goals.”
(Of note is the fact that during the Apollo program, the average age of mission control personnel was 28. The average age of NASA employees is now 47.)
Clearing the Legislative Hurtles Before Beginning the Race
With an eye toward the chronic challenges NASA faces due to regularly shifting budget priorities and directives, Schmitt regards that the legislation that creates NSEA would also be required to include a provision that “no new space exploration project can be re-authorized unless its annual appropriations have included a minimum 30% funding reserve for the years up to the project’s critical design review and through the time necessary to complete engineering and operational responses to that review.”
This is a much-needed safety net for the inevitable unknowns that are encountered when designing new spaceflight hardware.
The National Space Exploration Agency Charter
Finally, Schmitt penned a charter for this new space agency, which simply reads:
- “Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”
Simple. To me, this breaks down as four primary directives: Develop the tech to sustain a human presence off-world. Utilize extraterrestrial resources. Stimulate the American economy and imagination while affording us the opportunity to assert space activities as peaceful endeavors. Develop the ability to protect Earth from NEOs.
I think this is a bold new direction, one which honors the NASA legacy, enables direct, decisive space exploration activities, and streamlines the country’s scientific bureaucracy.
Let’s talk seriously about this.