Posted by Brad @ 11:45 am on January 29th 2010

Outsourcing NASA

Obama takes a middle path with NASA. Adam has long advocated nixing manned space missions, and a lot of libertarians have been arguing that the private sector is where it’s at for that anyway. Nobody has been quite sure what to do with NASA. In the 2011 budget, the administration seems be signaling a new hybrid approach. NASA will finish out their current schedule of flights, but will move more towards being a research partner and investor in private sector innovation.

President Barack Obama will ask Congress to extend International Space Station operations through at least 2020 but abandon NASA’s current plans to return U.S. astronauts to the moon … The president’s 2011 budget request, due to be delivered to Congress on Monday, will direct NASA to invest in the development of U.S. commercial space taxi services … The move is meant to reduce reliance on Russian crew transportation services after the retirement of America’s aging shuttle fleet.

The administration will provide for a safe fly-out of five remaining shuttle missions Ė even if the final flights slip into 2011. But an option to extend shuttle operations through 2015 is being cast aside, officials said. Obama’s aim is to turn NASA once again into “an engine for innovation,” one that will spur the development of commercial industry in low Earth orbit.

And despite the draw down of NASA-centric flights, their budget will actually increase, and Kennedy Space Center, which is on life support, will become instead a kind of government-leased launching pad and research space for private industry. Space Shuttle missions will now be conducted, as mentioned, by commercial space taxi service.

It’s an interesting approach. Having been around the robotics and engineering world a bit, I know NASA is a very valued partner already, and has a significant presence in silicon valley. The idea is to shift the weight from “Mission to the Moon” kind of stuff, and more towards having it be a research and investment engine. Which is an inspired idea, I think.


  1. Adam’s stance is mine as well, but Obama’s plan is certainly an improvement on the status quo.

    I find myself a bit intrigued by Obama’s framing of the issue given that orbital launches are one of the least environmentally friendly practices in which humans can engage, with particularly severe emissions of greenhouse gases. Is NASA going to impose climate-friendly launch standards on its industry partners? If it does, it will effectively kill private sector space exploration.

    The flip side of the coin is a NASA which throws money about willy-nilly to politically preferred industry partners, which would also be pretty awful.

    So…yes, one small step for NASA. But the public should be vigilant regarding the agency’s new role, lest it stumble into familiar patterns of waste and micromanagement.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/29/2010 @ 12:04 pm

  2. Actually, NASA already does a significant amount of work and “money spreading” with private-sector research. It’s a role they’re well accustomed to, and as I alluded to, I know from my time at Carnegie Mellon and later covering the robotics and engineering beat in Pittsburgh that they are already very valued collaborators in those two worlds, and in fact are well regarded for being a kind of last bastion of real public-sector science. It’s only a very small portion of NASA’s work and research that goes into, say, an actual manned mission to the moon—that’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg, the visible part supported by a broad pyramid base of a lot of terrific scientists plugging away. In short, they have a very good reputation for being diligent, smart, and, frankly, pretty pure.

    As the the “environmentally friendly” thing, that strikes me as a sort of weird tangent. I don’t think anybody but the most extreme hippies argue that everything which emits greenhouse gases ought to be stopped, period and human beings should only engage in carbon-neutral endeavors. Just that we need to do a better job, on a macro-level, of externalizing environmental cost lest it be externalized it for us down the road, and doing what we can to begin pulling on the reigns. Anyway, space folks are already looking into it.

    Besides, if we master space travel, we’re just a terraforming revolution away from not having to worry about sustainability on earth anyway.

    Comment by Brad — 1/29/2010 @ 12:19 pm

  3. I was kinda hoping for a space elevator. :( Or, maybe, for cargo purposes, a rail gun…though given the latitudinal restrictions that would probably have to be a UN project.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/29/2010 @ 12:26 pm

  4. And, natch, Republican talking heads are against the idea.

    Whether itís tax cuts or defense spending; or whether itís the courage, ambition, and sense of wonder that combine to lead great souls to great feats of exploration and discovery; one can surely say this much about Barack Obama: Mr. President, youíre no Jack Kennedy.

    Comment by Brad — 1/29/2010 @ 4:39 pm

  5. I don’t think that, other than killing off the manned moon nonsense, this is really very different from normal NASA, although I’ll probably hear some buzz about what it might mean over the next few weeks.

    Comment by Adam — 2/1/2010 @ 2:06 pm

  6. It sounds like milling of manned missions, and yes same as normal NASA, but a formalizing and increasing budget of that aspect of its operations that I think is less well known than the rocket launches and the like.

    Comment by Brad — 2/1/2010 @ 3:38 pm

  7. The fact is that until Bush redeclared the mission to Moon and Mars stuff — which was an entirely political play — the shuttle was the only thing with people on it and that was a separate boondoggle. They never even really tried to appropriate serious money for manned missions to Moon and Mars after Bush announced it so this decision — which follows a report for the President some months ago that made it pretty clear the Moon mission was going down — just makes concrete what was already obvious.

    There’ll be complaints and disgust from the space exploration enthusiasts, but this has been the likeliest outcome from the moment the words left Bush’s lips (as it was when his father tried the same play).

    Comment by Adam — 2/1/2010 @ 4:39 pm

  8. Ironically, tomorrow’s Obama announcement will reportedly involve some sort of military exploration of Uranus.

    Comment by Rojas — 2/1/2010 @ 5:26 pm

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