I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! -Howard Beale
Let me tell you a little story. Nine years ago, I was living in California, and I had a car accident. The damage to my car was pretty bad; the first estimate I got said that it would take about $3800 to fix it, more than the entire value of my (then) 11-year-old Volkswagen, and about one-and-a-half months’ salary for me at the time.
What I decided to do was — I hope — what any reasonable person would do. I had just enough repair work done so that the car was drivable, and then I took it around to different shops. Why? I wanted to get the best quality work done for the price I was paying, and I knew that some places would wind up charging more. I wound up choosing Chan’s Body Shop (which apparently still exists!), and saved myself over $1000 (including the original ‘get-it-drivable’ work) from the original estimate.
Now, let me pose the following hypothetical question to you: what do you think I should have done if Chan’s body shop made me pay them up front, and then when they had spent all of my money, told me that they needed an extra $1500 to finish fixing my car?
You’d better believe I’d do something about it! At best, it’s dishonest and incompetent business. At worst, it’s fraud and extortion. Either way, I wouldn’t stand for that sort of behavior in my own life.
So why do you accept it from your space agency? Applying for NASA funding is extremely competitive, with contracts usually going to the organization that promises the most science in the right area for the cheapest amount of money. Yet, unlike in the real world, these projects are never completed within their budgets. Mars Science Laboratory is over half a billion over budget already, the budget for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, has ballooned to over 5 billion dollars, and the proposed “flagship” for manned spaceflight, the new Ares-I rockets, has cost NASA over 9 billion dollars, will take a total of about $100 billion until it’s completed to design specifications, and has very little to offer.
So, to many people’s chagrin and to my delight, Obama has cancelled the Ares I project. From the BBC article:
in his federal budget request issued on Monday, Mr Obama said the project was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”.
It was draining resources from other US space agency activities, he added.
He plans instead to turn to the private sector for launch services.
Why am I so happy about this? Because the project is over budget, it is behind schedule, and it is hugely expensive and lacking in innovation.
But my hope is that this will do more. My hope is that it will force those applying to NASA for funding to be honest and competent in their budget proposals. If you wouldn’t accept this kind of behavior from your auto mechanic then why would you accept it from your space agency and those whom it employs?
“Oh, you paid me to do this job and I took all your money but I didn’t finish the job. Can I have another couple billion dollars a year for the next decade while I figure it out?”
Umm… no. And I hope that this sets a precedent that nobody else can do this, either. It’s one of the worst forms of incompetence out there, and the fact that this behavior has been treated as acceptable by NASA administrators for so long has really restrained the ability of NASA to meet its mission statement:
“[to] pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”
So why am I optimistic? Because the commercial sector has the potential to get people excited about space in a way that NASA has failed to do. Want to go to space? Commercial ventures will get you there someday soon.
Last week, I also wrote about how the Constellation program was doomed because it offered no ambitious, awe-inspiring goals. Well, here’s an awe-inspiring goal. Ever heard of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay? They were the first humans to summit Mount Everest.
What could be more ambitious than that? Climbing the highest mountain in the Solar System, Mars’ Olympus Mons.
There’s already a mountaineering contest, complete with awards, set up for anyone who wants to accomplish this. Could this happen within my lifetime?
Could someone set the deep-sea-diving record for depth by drilling through the ice on Europa? There’s no prize set up for this, but would there be possible commercial interest?
Already, I find myself more inspired than spending $100 billion to redo something we already did more than 40 years ago. We are explorers who push the frontiers of what we can accomplish as a species. Let’s push forward together instead of trying to relive the past, and let’s make sure we tell everyone at NASA that they need to be honest, realistic and competent with their proposals. No excuses; just do better from now on. And while many other will lament the passing of Constellation, I’m optimistic that this is the step in the right direction for NASA. Let’s hope they make the most of it.