The Houston Chronicle reports that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) are working on a new budget bill that would give greater stability to the NASA budget. Their bill would create a 10-year appointed term for the NASA Administrator and a multiyear budget cycle for NASA.
This plan has been endorsed by Johnson Space Center director Michael Coats, who complains about NASA programs that have been canceled by budget shifts in the last seven years. Coats “notes that if they were able to plan out four or five years ‘it would be amazing what we could do with our team.’”
The Congressmen are addressing an old complaint from some pundits in the space-policy community. According to these commentators, NASA’s success is impeded by the electoral cycle, which brings changes to the makeup of Congress every two years and a new President every four to eight years. Each time, there are major changes or minor tweaks to space policy, which make it impossible for NASA to effectively pursue long-term projects.
This bill is troubling for two reasons. First, because it attempts to insulate NASA from political control and the electoral process. Making unelected government bureaucrats less accountable to the American people is never a good thing. Wolf and Culberson justify their action by pointing out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation enjoys similar protections. The problem with that analogy is that it’s not analogous. NASA is not a law-enforcement agency. It does not conduct legal investigations that may affect politicians and political interests, so the justification for long-term political autonomy does not apply.
Second, the bill fixes the wrong problem. What NASA needs is shorter planning cycles, not longer.
NASA’s management model, which cannot see a project through to completion in a single four-year electoral cycle, is badly broken.
In the private sector, successful technology managers do not demand stability over 10-year periods. Ten years in an eternity in the high-tech world. Successful companies thrive on chaos. Project and product plans are in a constant state of flux, changing from month to month and week to week, right up to final release.
A good example is the Apple iPhone. Steve Jobs unveiled the revolutionary device to the world at the MacWorld conference in San Francisco in January, 2007. At the time, it had a plastic touchscreen. Everyone, including Apple, thought was the final design, but Apple engineers quickly realized the plastic screen was not durable enough and the phone was redesigned, with a glass screen, in time for its scheduled release in June. Since June 2007, Apple has released new iPhone hardware on an annual basis. But even that annual release cycle isn’t fast enough, so Apple designed a system that allowed the iPhone software to be updated between hardware releases. As a result, Apple can now introduce new iPhone features at any time.
Many of the features that Apple has introduced since 2007, including the hugely popular App Store, were not even planned when the iPhone was first unveiled. If Apple followed a rigid 10-year product plan, the iPhone would have no apps except for those preloaded by Apple, no 3G data, no turn-by-turn navigation, etc. It probably wouldn’t even have a touchscreen. (Touchscreen technology was virtually unusable in 2002.) The sort of innovation seen in the iPhone is only possible in an organization that thrives on chaos.
A more relevant example for NASA is the PhoneSat project at NASA Ames Research Center. NASA used Android smartphones to develop the lowest-cost satellites ever built, which also have more computing power than any satellite ever built. The PhoneSats could not have been developed on a 10-year planning cycle because Android because Android phones did not even exist 10 years ago.
There is a long history that proves it’s possible (and efficient) to develop aerospace vehicles on short cycles. Historically, most aircraft were developed on a four-year cycle. Only in recent decades has the growth of bureaucracy made that impossible. The result has been projects like the F-22 Raptor, whose development began during the Cold War but wasn’t completed until long after the Cold War ended. Production of the Raptor was then drastically curtailed by Congress, because the aircraft no longer fit the requirements of the new environment, resulting in a massive increase in per-unit cost. NASA projects have seen similar cost increases due to long development cycles and the inability of project managers to foresee changing conditions (some, but not all, of which are political).
When necessary, engineers have beaten that traditional four-year development cycle, by a wide margin. During World War II, North American built and flew the P-51 Mustang in less than five months from the time it received the first order. The famous Lockheed “skunk works” led by Kelly Johnson matched that feat, developing the P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first successful jet fighter, in less than six months.
During the Cold War, the Lockheed skunk works continued to churn out revolutionary aircraft at an incredible pace. The U-2 spy plane and the A-12 Blackbird (the Mach 3 prototype for the SR-71) were each developed in less than two years. The A-12/SR-71 remains, to this day, the fastest aircraft ever built. Developing an aircraft that can match the speed, range, and capabilities of the Blackbird would be a challenging feat for any aerospace company today. In the 1960’s, few engineers believed such an airplane was even possible, let alone that it could be developed in just two years.
There are many more examples of rapid development such as the Thor IRBM and Polaris missile submarine system, both developed in less than four years, and the Gemini space capsule, which took just over three years.
What is even more remarkable is that these systems is that they were all developed by engineers sitting at mechanical drafting tables and working with slide rules, without modern computer-aided design tools, computers, or even electronic calculators.
No competent aerospace engineer would argue that developing a space capsule, with current technology, is more challenging than developing the A-12 Blackbird was in 1962. Or developing the Gemini space capsule, also in 1962. So, why does developing the Orion capsule (“Apollo on Steroids,” as Mike Griffin famously put it) have to take 12 years – three times as long as a traditional aircraft development program, four times as long as the Gemini capsule, almost twice as long as Apollo, and six times as long as the A-12?
Burt Rutan, who followed in the footsteps of Kelly Johnson and created Scaled Composites as the intellectual heir to the Lockheed skunk works, once asked rhetorically, “If all NASA wants to do is go back to the Moon in a space capsule, why don’t they do it next Tuesday?”
What NASA needs is not more stability in its programs and planning process. Stability is stagnation. The Space Shuttle program was relatively stable, at a very low flight rate, for 30 years. As a result, the United States made relatively little progress in space during that period. The goal should not be stability but innovation. NASA should always be moving forward, trying something new. If it can’t fit its desired programs into a four-year Presidential election cycle, the solution is not to ask Congress to change the cycle. The solution is to design programs that can fit into that four-year cycle.
It’s nonsense to suggest that nothing of value can be accomplished within the confines of a four-year election cycle. In the 1940’s, the United States developed the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang fighters, the B-29 bomber, the Essex-class carrier, and the atomic bomb in less than four years, while simultaneously destroying the two largest military powers on Earth.
By contrast, NASA has been working on what Wernher von Braun termed the “conquest of space” for 50 years, and it hasn’t even conquered Low Earth Orbit in any meaningful sense. The last thing NASA needs is a new budget cycle designed to slow things down for the sake of bureaucratic stability.