Friday, January 7, 2011

On Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones

This so-titled, 1992 break down of America's fumbling of national space policy should be required reading amongst advocates in all corners.  S. Pete Worden, former Deputy for Technology at the old SDI Organization takes a belt to every player involved in NASA's budget process, detailing each step of the way from formulating the budget request to expending the funds.  Main points to take away:

  1. NASA's primary mission is to continue its bureaucratic existence.

  2. Appropriators--not the President nor the authorizing committees--are the key determinants in formulating national space policy.

  3. Appropriators don't give a crap about science or space.

  4. Appropriators do care deeply about pork.

  5. There is great synergy between NASA's instinct to survive and appropriator's instinct to earmark.

No President has ever vetoed a NASA appropriation.  Appropriations frequently pass under suspension of the rules in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate, meaning the underlying authorizations generally don't matter a whit.  The authorizations themselves are generally rubber stamps of NASA's budgetary aspirations, often more generous than the Executive's requests.  The President, who is nominally tasked for setting the direction of space policy,  is reduced to contributing little more than unenforceable mission statements.

Worden blames the budget process for the woes befallen American space policy.  I disagree.  The process surely exposes and picks at the scab, but it's not the underlying wound.  What NASA, the President and Congress lack is a detailed understanding of our interests in space.  Americans clearly understand space is worth something; we keep throwing tens of billions at NASA annually.  But beyond that the public is largely indifferent to what we do in space.  With a political safe stream of revenue but no pressure to actually achieve something, NASA and the appropriators set themselves to the serious business of scratching each others back.

That is how we ended up with a 50-state supply chain for a  spacecraft that cost $1 billion and change to launch and had a nasty tendency of exploding.  That's how we ended up with $100 billion space station that exists solely to justify the existence of its supporting launcher.  That's how we ended up in the business of Muslim outreach, 15 ton Earth Observing Satellites, and billion dollar telescopes for cosmic navel gazers.  And that is how we ended up with a space policy that can't put more than a handful of people in space and returns nothing of value for our trouble.


  1. I passed this on to a friend or two in Congress. Thanks for writing the post.

  2. Too bad I neglected to lay out what American interests in space are, or at least what I think they should be.

  3. Well that can be your next post Mr. Cannady. BTW...I have you linked from my site now. I don't always agree with you, but I do think you do a bang up job of thought provoking debate and reason (with a bit of sarcasm thrown in).

  4. Much appreciated. Allow me to return the favor.