Back To The Journey To Nowhere (Update)

AIA's Mike French on House NASA Authorization Act

"The space policy community should be smiling. After record marks last month, we now have bipartisan, bicameral support across Congress and the Executive Branch to return to the Moon this decade and go on to Mars. On the eve of an anticipated strong budget request, I'm looking forward to working as a community to secure and fund this consensus."

Commercial Spaceflight Federation statement on House Space Subcommittee Draft NASA Authorization Bill

"As written, the NASA Authorization bill would not create a sustainable space exploration architecture and would instead set NASA up for failure by eliminating commercial participation and competition in key programs. As NASA and the White House have repeatedly stated, any sustainable space exploration effort must bring together the best of government and commercial industry to achieve a safe and affordable 21st century space enterprise. We look forward to working with members of the House Space Subcommittee to address a number of concerns with the bill."

Letter to Congress From The Commercial Spaceflight Federation Regarding The NASA Authorization Bill

"This Committee should withdraw this bill and engage in a fully transparent process to seek NASA, industry, academic, and public input in a meaningful way. This legislation was apparently drafted with no input from critical stakeholders, the public, or even Members of the Committee, and should be reconsidered."

Coalition for Deep Space Exploration Statement Regarding H.R. 5666

"However the path to executing this goal - including meaningful activity at the Moon - remains a topic of significant discussion, and this bill is helping to spark a robust exchange about the best way to achieve that bipartisan vision."

Keith's note: Vice President Pence put his authority on the line last Spring when he directed NASA to do the Artemis return to the Moon effort by 2024 "by any means necessary". His direction had the implied, implicit backing of the President. And Pence entrusted NASA to make it happen. Jim Bridenstine took that ball and, to his credit, ran long and strong with it. 

Now Congress, in a bipartisan action in the House with new NASA Authorization legislation, delays human landings, deletes hardware and puts a new item in the critical path, and deletes any useful use of capabilities on the lunar surface once we return with humans. Exploration and utilization is now Flags and Footprints 2.0. This action by Congress seeks to kick Pence and Bridenstine in the knees and remove any urgency or sense of purpose. While the 2024 date did have a few people wondering if it was doable, NASA's push to try and make it happen has been admirable - and refreshing - at least in my personal opinion.

The exact means whereby NASA would accomplish this 2024 goal has been lacking and is overdue for delivery. A rebooting of HEOMD management led to a rethinking of the overall game plan thus delaying things further. Congress has expressed doubts too. A new federal budget is due to be dropped by the White House soon wherein their plans for NASA will be revealed. Now this proposed legislation seeks to impose its own, downsized architecture upon NASA, undermine presidential directives, and negate a series of high-level procurements NASA has already put into motion.

Are there other ways to accomplish this 2024 goal? Of course there are. But that is not what this legislation does. It eviscerates the goal itself and shoves it off into an increasingly distant and uncertain future.

There is some discontent on the part of Users Advisory Group (UAG) members to the language in the NASA Authorization bill. Some of that discontent is in the process of being conveyed up to Pence. The bill's mark-up is scheduled 29 January and some NASA briefings to UAG members and others over NASA's Artemis architecture issues. There is also a big FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference event here in DC this coming week and NASA will pause to mourn the people lost in the exploration of space. Lots of things happening in simultaneity.  

Will Pence say something? Will Jim Bridenstine? I will be watching to see what, if anything bubbles up into the public arena. I am not sure that being optimistic is a useful place to be.

Most of the UAG is composed of big aerospace representatives and political appointees who will still make money anyway or not be affected by any change in course. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation has made their stance clear about this bill which "would not create a sustainable space exploration architecture and would instead set NASA up for failure by eliminating commercial participation and competition in key programs.". Yet AIA's statement and lack of any response from the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration or any other of the big aerospace industry groups suggests that they are fine with whatever happens since their corporate members and supporters will do OK. AIA's Mike French sits inside his bubble inside the Beltway and suggests that everyone is "smiling". In his world that is an expected opinion to promote since big aerospace will get more money to do less exploration. But who cares. The money must flow.

Keith's update : Coalition for Deep Space Exploration has issued a statement. It is wimpy and takes no stance whatsoever - since their member companies stand to benefit the most from the way this bill is written.

Authorization acts do not necessarily affect reality since they have no teeth when it comes to actual funding.  Agencies ignore these authorization acts when they can and embrace them when they need to.  NASA has often operated just fine for years without an authorization act governing their activities. But these authorization bills do reflect congressional thinking that can affect appropriations. And they also reflect the impact of corporate lobbyists on that thinking.

Up until Friday afternoon NASA was embarked on a plan to swiftly return to the Moon - with some urgency, And once NASA returned it had plans to make the most of a renewed human and robotic presence on the lunar surface. Indeed, Jim Bridenstine openly talked of extracting lunar ice. That is not flags and footprints folks. That's advanced exploration and utilization of another world. 

Now the House, bolstered by some aerospace company lobbying, wants to pull back from that urgency and turn the Artemis program into a long-term, level-of-effort endeavour where all of the aerospace companies get guaranteed income while taking forever to actually accomplish the end goal. The lunar landings will now be glorified stunts, and the goal of landing humans on Mars has been replaced with a goal of simply orbiting Mars.

We went to the moon in less than a decade half a century ago - inspiring a generation in the process since it happened in a time scale they could grasp in their daily lives. Half a century later it will take us much, much longer to just do a pale imitation of that earlier effort. Where is the inspiration in that? We used to actually do great things in space. Now our national goal in space is to delay doing mediocre things as long as possible.

When I was growing up in the mid-1960s as a young boy we were all told that we'd be on the Moon by the "end of this decade". My young life was pegged against the regular progress made toward that goal which we as a nation achieved. Jim Bridenstine has been telling young boys and girls and their parents of a similar goal. After more than a decade of development there will be a landing of men and women on the Moon in their immediate future. Now after mere months that 4 years is 8 years unless it changes again. We used to be able to set goals and meet them. Now everything is up for negotiation. Its hard to pin your hopes on something that is constantly changing.

Jim Bridenstine opened his initial presentations about going back to the Moon with a cautionary note that this is not another "Lucy and the Football" effort - one wherein everything is set up - only to have the ball taken away and the goal posts moved. NASA has been through this sort of policy stop-and-go pivoting whiplash far too many times in the half century since we dared to walk on another world.

Alas, in less than 2 years NASA is once again being denied access to the ball that was supposed to be in play. Sitting on the sidelines on the journey to nowhere is now what we aspire to instead. Sad.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on January 27, 2020 10:40 AM.

New Space Authorization Bill Introduced In The House was the previous entry in this blog.

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