Cautionary Words about NASA’s Future

From One Who Knows

My friend Alan Stern (formerly the associate administrator for science at NASA until earlier this year) has a very pointed, harsh, and ultimately truthful opinion piece in the New York Times today. In it he says “A cancer is overtaking our space agency: the routine acquiescence to immense cost increases in projects.” He goes on to explain just how and why NASA’s budget processes aren’t working and why HUGE cost overruns on the few programs NASA is planning to do in the future may well be threatening that future. These are important missions, but they are running way over budget, threatening the existence of the agency at a time when it can’t afford to have its budget slashed (but, instead, needs guidance from an honest administration about how best to run its budget to the best science at affordable costs (and no, I’m not suggesting the failed “faster, better, cheaper” approach)).

There are, of course, many factors that affect mission costs, as Alan points out. Some can’t be helped, others can. But, there remains the issue of political will to do the right thing. In that regard, one paragraph of his piece really stood out:

As a scientist in charge of space sensors and entire space missions before I was at NASA, I myself was involved in projects that overran. But that’s no excuse for remaining silent about this growing problem, or failing to champion reform. And when I articulated this problem as the NASA executive in charge of its science program and consistently curtailed cost increases, I found myself eventually admonished and then neutered by still higher ups, precipitating my resignation earlier this year.

It turns out that the politics of the outgoing administration played into many NASA decisions that affect the science and technology advances that NASA routinely delivers. On the one hand, the Bush administration put people in charge who had little knowledge of science, and fostered a poisonouse atmosphere at the top.  Money was sluiced in by pork barrel politics in order to help Congresscritters and Senate folk who have NASA bases in their districts. There are countless other examples of mismanagement and bad decision-making by folks at the top of NASA.

Of course such politics has always infested NASA decision-making at some levels, but it seems that the worst political interference has come in the past eight years, done by anti-science zealots who were determined to gut one of the few government agencies that has (for the most part) routinely done good things for our culture, our economy, and U.S. technology dominance. I have many friends who work for (and with) NASA and they are good, solid folks who want to do the best science they can. The processes that threaten NASA’s overall budget will almost certainly affect them and the work that they do. I want to see that they get what they need to do the best job they can, unaffected by the political horseplay that has inflicted that cancer that Alan refers to.

I am hoping that a new administration and a morally courageous Congress and Senate can see their way clear to stop playing politics with NASA and help the agency grow back to do what it does best. As I’ve said in other places, screwing with NASA is like eating your seed corn. Once you’ve done that, you have nothing left to grow. Alan Stern gets that — the rest of us who support NASA and space exploration should make sure our Congresscritters and Senatorial folk understand it, too.


  1. Tavi

    “I am hoping that a new administration and a morally courageous Congress and Senate can see their way clear to stop playing politics with NASA […]”

    I am hoping, too. I have confidence in the new administration, but I’m not so sure about the rest. We all have a responsibility to be more vocal, more demanding, that Congress and the Senate leave their personal agendas at the door and make those decisions that best address science.

    As harsh as Mr. Stern may sound, it is this very candor that best serves NASA right now, as one “failed” administration leaves and a new one steps in.

  2. Pingback: A Stern warning | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

  3. ccp

    PirateJohn: The universe created that image. : )

    It’s the Horsehead Nebula (see credit in the credits at the bottom of the page). I did a little photoshopping to adjust the levels, but that’s it.

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