I Smell A Compromise In The Making

Keith's note: As is usually the case at times like this rumors abound in and around NASA. Many are of the sort that spread because you hope that they are true. Having the ring of logic helps too. In this case, the rumor or viral meme that I keep encountering is that the President will visit KSC - not just to try and woo people with his prose mixed with logic and compassion - but rather that he will augment his comments with the announcement of a compromise of sorts. He'd announce it after describing the problem and discussing the options he has available to him.

The question lingering in the minds of folks inside and outside NASA - as well as inside and outside the Beltway is why political strategists in the White House would knowingly send their boss into the proverbial lion's den with nothing but words as a defense. There are a lot of angry people at KSC who will be unemployed through no fault of their own in a short period of time - in a region where there is not another space program to go work for. As such, whether it is an anguished and angry outburst in a town hall meeting or pickets along the road, folks down there have little to lose - and their elected officials are almost as desperate. Opinions will be brutal and frank. Lots of potential YouTube moments.

So why send him down there? Well, he could say that he felt the need to speak to people face to face about this potentially dire situation - something his predecessor never did. That will score some points - but not enough. But if he really wants to connect with folks, he'll do a partial mea culpa and say "I hear ya".

And then comes the compromise. The current White House plan is to continue with the Shuttle shutdown initiated by President Bush. But instead of having Constellation ramping up to provide a human transport capability and to cover shuttle program workers, Constellation is cancelled and there is no safety net whatsoever. Bad layoff numbers now become dire.

NASA folks on the other hand are of two camps. First, here are the folks who want to shut down shuttle and yet retain as much of Constellation as possible - an "Ares V Lite" with Orion on top being their favorite flavor.

Then there is the "fly Shuttle" crowd - which is of two sub camps. One sub camp simply wants to fly the Shuttle as it is until something else is fully operational to take its place - with human access and jobs being the two main drivers. The other sub camp wants to stretch out the remaining shuttle flights and add some additional flights as they transition from shuttle to a shuttle derived (side mount) architecture that would be cheap, straightforward, use existing resources, and would also preserve human access and jobs.

The White House jumped out of the gate resolute that their plan (OSTP's plan) was perfect in every way. NASA had insight into its formulation but the decision to go in the direction that was announced was OSTP's - not NASA's. NASA had no choice but to go along with it because that is how things work. The talking points, white papers, etc. were all of White House origin.

Well, we all know what happened.

Clearly, OSTP's plan did not receive the universal accolades that they had assured themselves that it would. NASA's rollout was botched - but a lot of the blame rests with OSTP for this - not NASA. What do you do when you are kept out of the loop and only have several days to roll things out? Congress was unified across party lines (at least in the states affected by the policy) in their opposition. Something needed to be done. So, one Sunday afternoon OSTP announced the "Space Summit" at KSC on 15 April - during a shuttle mission (talk about timing). No details were released other than the fact that President would swoop in on Air Force One.

In the weeks that have followed little concrete detail has emerged. NASA PAO has no idea how this will be covered since no one has told them. KSC employees know something is up but the people most affected seem to have the least amount of input or participation in the event.

As it stands now the President will land at the KSC skid strip and be helicoptered over to the Headquarters area of KSC for an invitation-only event. While no invitation criteria have yet emerged you can imagine that the audience will be well screened and everything scripted - at least while POTUS is in the room. After that event the President will tour some KSC facilities while another venue is brought online for some subset of the KSC workforce to participate. The format is supposedly a "town Hall" - something the President does rather well at. Who gets to ask questions is still a TBD. Oh yes, KSC management is not sure they like the idea of this event in the first place given the tensions and potential for televised bad moments.

So here the President stands, confronted with a lot of very dedicated people who work as much for the income as they do the thrill of being a part of space exploration. What do you say to this group as they are about to have their ranks utterly devastated in a way that will rival the closeout of Apollo in its effect on the economy?

In my mind the only thing he can do is offer some sort of compromise. Again, along the lines of saying "You spoke loud and clear" or "I heard ya", the President offers some sort of bridge wherein money slated for use in HLV studies is added to the shuttle budget. The shuttle is flown perhaps twice a year as a shuttle-derived cargo capability is brought online - all while commercial means - including perhaps human-rated EELVs are brought online. Constellation is cancelled, commercial capabilities come online and prove their value, and NASA gets a HLV. In addition, NASA's workforce is not eradicated but manages to retain some semblance of its former self. It is not perfect, but it is a compromise.

The President could also decide to designate the jobs situation in the NASA sector as he has with other sectors - retail ("cash for clunkers"), banking (mega bailouts), construction (that train from Tampa to Orlando), etc. and use Recovery Act funds to augment the funding of such a transition.

Then again, the President could just come down to KSC, stand on that stage, gird his loins, and stand up for his decision in front of the very people most affected. Many politicians would be terrified of doing such a thing. To be certain, while the decision he defends may be unpopular, I suspect many affected will at least walk away (still angry) knowing that the guy on the stage that they elected is not a wimp.

But this scenario where the President arrives with nothing but words to offer is such a non-starter. As such, I smell a compromise in the making.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 25, 2010 7:47 PM.

DIRECT Evangelistas Just Won't Give Up was the previous entry in this blog.

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