Warning: This is NOT an Official NASA website. If you’re looking for space photos or information about the next ISS crew press conference, you won’t find that here. Instead, you’ll find open and honest discussions about how we can make NASA great again.
Today’s NASA is no longer the “Failure is not an option” NASA depicted in movies. It’s a shadow of the agency that beat the Russians to the moon and launched the Space Shuttle into low earth orbit 135 times.
The NASA of today cancelled the Shuttle program in 2011 without a replacement, can’t launch astronauts into space from American soil, has to pay the Russians to transport crew to and from the International Space Station, and is so over budget and behind schedule on the next launch vehicle (managed in-house) we won’t tell Congress how much each flight is going to cost.
The problem at NASA isn’t that we need more money. It’s more complicated than that. Test stands have been mothballed by the politics of making sure one NASA center doesn’t step on another, simple procurements to purchase landscaping services take years to complete (complex ones take even longer), and massive systems engineering organizations are stood up as a substitute for real engineering work.
The NASA of today has lost sight of its charter to explore and instead focuses on things that will never make us great: employee safety statistics, making sure money is spent in as many congressional districts as possible, and striving for inclusion and diversity as a metric to measure our success.
The NASA of today is broken on the inside. We’ve lost our way.
I rarely hear colleagues talking about what it might be like on Mars, or spaceflight, or emerging technologies. NASA is no longer a place that fosters new ideas. Shocking, I know. NASA has an advanced concepts office tasked with defining our path forward, but I can’t think of a single innovation that’s come out of that office in the last twenty years.
When NASA senior management is asked, “Why doesn’t NASA have the capability to launch astronauts into space?” they recite this mindless excuse, “NASA doesn’t have the resources we did during Apollo, so we’re focusing our efforts on going to Mars.” Yeh, that’s it. Just say we’re going to Mars, and that low earth orbit is for the little guys like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
But it gets worse. The NASA of today isn’t really going to Mars (even though we talk about it a lot because we’re void of current accomplishments). Your space agency doesn’t have the character. It doesn’t have the leadership. It doesn’t have the backbone to accept risk.
The NASA of today doesn’t have the skills to design a new launch vehicle in-house, yet we continue to spend billions trying. The vehicle we’re working on now (SLS) is using liquid rocket engines designed in the seventies and used on the Shuttle program. Lazy idea.
The NASA of today failed to deliver a vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle quickly enough, and thousands of workers in the aerospace industry lost their jobs because of it. With nothing to build, rocket motor manufacturers had to go into survival mode to maintain their existence. Skilled technicians and engineers at the Kennedy Space Center (who knew how to launch stuff into space) were laid off. Families were impacted. No amount of money can reassemble the teams that NASA destroyed. Shame on NASA for not moving fast enough.
My engineering friends and I worked hard for the degrees we needed to work at NASA. We want difficult, not easy. We want to go home at the end of the day feeling like we made a difference. We want to be a part of something bigger than our self.
At best NASA has become a slow, inefficient machine that takes much and delivers little. At worst NASA has turned into a jobs program—a white collar welfare program that pays high performing engineers to sit on our hands and conform to the machine that feeds us.
Most people working on the inside assume NASA will exist for forever. But NASA didn’t exist sixty years ago, and there’s nothing that says it has to stick around for sixty more. NASA isn’t an entitlement program, even though today it probably functions more like the social security administration than it does the NASA of three decades ago.
NASA is at a crossroad. What we do next will determine whether we continue to exist, or whether we become irrelevant in the space exploration arena. Yes, I just suggested that NASA could perform its way out of a job.
Perhaps NASA’s greatest failure is that it no longer inspires anyone who can see past pretty adjectives describing what NASA did in the past and what we promise to do in the future. Fewer students choose to pursue technical degrees in math and science because we don’t do anything to stir their imagination. We haven’t launched humans into space from American soil for seven years and counting. If you’re a teenager today, you haven’t seen NASA launch humans into space while you’ve been a teenager. Freshman entering college this year saw astronauts liftoff from Florida last when they were ten years old. We will never get back that lost opportunity to inspire. Our country was better (and safer) when NASA did its job.
NASA needs a major overhaul. NASA needs people who can imagine the future, not just remember the past. NASA needs a younger workforce with fresh ideas.
I’m not the only one on the inside who knows all this. I’m just the only one who can’t sleep another night without trying to do something about it. Enough is enough. NASA needs to deliver or close shop.
NASA needs to accept measured risks as the price for doing hard stuff. NASA needs to eliminate the processes and procedures that make it impossible to compete with the private sector space companies. NASA needs to measure our progress based on real performance metrics (like how many planets we visited last year), instead of how many small Indian owned companies we did business with. NASA needs to be held accountable.
The private sector space companies (SpaceX and the like) have been running circles around NASA for years. Yet, there’s an arrogance inside NASA that permeates the organization like a cancer. It’s probably because senior management is constantly preaching to us (almost in a cult-like way) how great we are. What benchmark are they using to measure our success? I have no idea. Oh wait, we’re going to Mars (sarcasm).
NASA is no longer a place of dreamers. Innovation has been replaced with political correctness and feel-good-ism. Until we’re willing to have an open discussion of where we really are, we can’t do anything to make it better. It’s time we make NASA great again, while we still can.
Join the movement at NASAology.com.