The U.S. space program’s leadership black hole

July 11, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with four expert contributors — Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, Space Policy Institute Professor Emeritus John Logsdon, NYU Professor Kerry Sulkowicz, and former NASA leadership program director Gail S. Williams — about the leadership challenges of shuttering NASA’s iconic space shuttle program.

There are too many leaders of the U.S. civilian space program, and not enough leadership. These several leaders at this point are not in agreement regarding how best to transition away from 30 years of the space shuttle being the visible centerpiece of the U.S. human space flight effort. Attempts at leadership without agreement among leaders is a recipe for short-term confusion and longer-term drift.

But isn’t space program leadership the responsibility of the NASA administrator and deputy administrator, selected by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate?  It would certainly be desirable for that to be the case. Yet that would require some form of consensus among the country’s overall policy and political leadership regarding NASA’s future direction, and that agreement is sorely missing.

So NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver find themselves pulled between the rather incompatible directions coming from the White House and those emerging from the elements in Congress with a particular interest in NASA. Their job is to implement policy, not set it; and they are not getting the clear guidance they need to deal with the challenges of convincing NASA’s workforce that the agency’s future is bright.  Bolden’s and Garver’s public statements are relentlessly positive, but they have not persuaded the NASA rank-and-file to accept their optimism. And this hobbles their ability to lead.

In more than 40 years of close observation of the U.S. space program, I don’t think there has ever been more uncertainty and fear of impending program collapse. One result of the current confusion is the too-widespread impression that  the final flight of the shuttle means that the U.S. program of human spaceflight has come to an end. This is most certainly not the case. Many American astronauts will be living and working on the International Space Station for the decade to come. And yet equating the end of the shuttle program with the end of human spaceflight is symptomatic of the failure of national leaders to agree on and then communicate a vision of the U.S. future in space.

There is no precedent for the White House and the Congress being so much at odds about how best to move forward in space, particularly since Congress has taken upon itself to specify the technical parameters of new developments, something traditionally an executive branch prerogative. Congress has lost much of its trust in NASA’s decisions and, in an unprecedented move, has specified both the basic design features and schedule for a new space booster. High among congressional concerns is preserving the manufacturing and operating capabilities—and the associated jobs in the space industrial base—that were developed during the shuttle era. Substituting congressional directives for NASA’s technical judgment seems ill advised.

There is also disagreement on destinations. The Congress prefers to focus on “cislunar” space – the area between the Earth and the surface of the moon, while President Obama last year announced that the moon will not be the first destination for new exploratory missions, suggesting instead a visit to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. That goal has not caught on, so NASA has developed a strategy for building the capabilities needed to visit a variety of solar system destinations. But that approach is too vague to be publicly understood; it needs to be linked with a clearer sense of what those destinations will be.

There is one path out of the current uncertainty. Both branches do agree on certain development needs: some form of new transportation service to the International Space Station to replace the shuttle, a new spacecraft for journeys beyond Earth orbit, a new heavy-lift launch vehicle to send that spacecraft on its way, and more investment in innovative technologies than has been the case during the shuttle era. Where they differ is the relative priority and schedule deadlines among these objectives; and it is these lingering, and fundamental, differences that are causing the confusion. To move forward, these differences have to be reconciled.

Here is where effective leadership is so badly needed, and it can only come from the White House. Barack Obama in public statements has offered his personal support of NASA; as the shuttle lifted off last Friday, he said, “Today’s launch may mark the final flight of the space shuttle, but it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space.“ The president and his senior staff need to back up these words with intense engagement with Congress to reduce the differences between the president’s vision for space and  congressional preferences, so that the level of uncertainty can be significantly reduced. Without strong White House support, NASA leaders by themselves cannot achieve that goal. With it, there can be grounds for agreement on a sustainable path forward.

Given everything else on the president’s plate and the many other issues dividing the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, suggesting more active high-level White House involvement in space issues may not be very realistic. But it seems the only way out of a deplorable situation. It does no honor to the achievements of the space shuttle program to have its end come with no clear sense of what will follow.

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