Trying the Tried and True

Trying the Tried and True

February 17, 2010 Opinion, Our Policy Voice

I’ve been thinking about Rick’s post here on how “the agency which is supposed to be challenging the edge is taking so much heat for trying something new” and I’m wondering if we aren’t helping our opponents by accepting that there is anything “new” involved in the proposed NASA budget.

Think about it.  The “untried” use of commercial providers is the tried and true, normal, way that government interacts with the private sector.  The “groundbreaking” emphasis on developing “game changing technologies” is a return to what NACA did until the 1950s.  For nearly 50 years NASA has been trying something new and different that didn’t work.  They now want to return to doing things using proven, well understood, successful methodologies.

The military has relied on American merchant seamen since John Paul Jones.  Except for a few bigwigs, government employees go about their business flying on commercial airliners.  Government buys cars and trucks from the same companies as everybody else.  Even some incredibly specialized pieces of equipment, like the E-3 Sentry AWACS, are modified versions of civilian products.  While there are certainly some equipment the government buys that are unique to their use, most such things are weapons systems with no civilian analogue.   In the instance of space launch the US military mostly uses two systems that are also used by the private sector, the Delta IV and the Atlas V.  These are systems with a fantastic track record and their builders say they can modify them to fulfill NASA’s requirements.  Why not take them at their word?

From 1915 through 1958 the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) promoted military and civilian aviation through applied research that looked beyond current needs.  Using modern terms the NACA concentrated on developing technology that was both generic and pre-competitive.  The result was a long list of breakthroughs that pushed the limits, advancing aeronautic technology and making America the leader in aircraft of all types.  Within a few years after the NACA became NASA all this changed.  The race to the Moon put technology development that couldn’t be ready in time on hold.  Fifty years later they are still on hold.  All that the proposed budget does in this area is ask that NASA return to its roots.

It seems to me that there is nothing new here at all.  The proposed NASA budget is a very conservative document, embracing ideas and techniques that have been demonstrated to work many times and in many places and wants to end some newfangled 20th century ideas that have failed many times and in many places.

4 Comments

  • Bob Lancaster says:

    Bob,
    You're absolutely right that this is the way it's done properly already; NASA had been an anomaly.

    Even with a specialized aircraft like a fighter, the USAF puts forth a set of requirements and industry builds to those requirements. If they get it right, they get the contract. And lo and behold, there's competition there; before there was the F-22, remember the LockMart YF-22 and Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23? Multiple companies built prototypes, the AF had fly-off comparisons and one company won the contract. That's the way it works and it's what we're going back to now.

    Bob Lancaster

  • Bob Lancaster says:

    Had to split my comment…
    To take the analogy further, let's say the AF has a need for a highly specialized fleet of reusable Falcon 9 boosters and Dragon capsules (just saying, but I can hope…). AF would buy/own, maintain, and operate those vehicles but still buy satellite rides aboard commercial Falcon 9's just like we charter airlines to carry troops. This mix is determined by mission requirements balanced against budget. NASA was also an anomaly in the way it replaced the military as an exploration agency (see Pete Worden's 'Whither Space Power'), but that's another discussion :)

    Bob Lancaster

  • Yeah, okay Bob…LOL. Split some hairs…perhaps I will write en entry entitled NASA goes back to doing things the old fashioned way….