Last Monday, celebrations were held to recognize the 40th anniversary of the United States’ first mission to the moon. Many individuals acknowledged NASA’s accomplishments, but some may have found themselves posing the question above – what on Earth are we waiting for to travel back to the moon? Others may argue and say we are waiting for the recession to blow over…let’s take care of our troubles on Earth before we venture back into space. Well, no matter what side you are on, it is important to note that the last manned mission to the ball of cheese was nearly 37 years ago. NASA needs to be either rejuvenated or extinguished. Tapping into the private sector and engaging alternate suppliers may help keep the agency alive.

NASA was created in 1958, shortly after the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer 1. The federal agency’s sole reason for existence is to explore the heavens. Its only goal after its formation was to catch up to the Soviets and beat them to the moon. We all know it as the space race, when the two nations tried to prove who was most superior, scientifically and militarily. Once the U.S. won the race, NASA’s direction dissolved; and although there were additional trips to the moon and back, no real advancements were made over the years.

In the prime of the 1960s, when every child’s dream was to be an astronaut when they grew up, NASA’s annual budget was $5 billion. A decade later, it dropped to $3 billion. NASA did not have a vision after its greatest accomplishment of landing on the moon. Discussions were had on going to Mars, but when the budget shrank, the possibility of traveling there did so too. Today, NASA’s annual budget is equal to less than 1% of the federal budget, estimated to be around $18 billion.

NASA’s most recent efforts have been focused on the Constellation project, a costly plan to build a new fleet of rockets and space capsules as the space shuttle nears retirement. Due to NASA's reputation of having a short-term mindset and being mission-oriented, recent steps have been taken to assess the agency’s current capabilities and future goals. Taking into account NASA’s annual budget and the costs associated with building the new fleet, this assessment is necessary in order to figure out how to keep the agency afloat. Lockheed Martin’s former chief executive, Norman Augustine, is heading up the commission created to conduct the evaluation. Investments in research and development and pursuit of the commercial sector are the two main avenues the commission is exploring as potential opportunities for NASA’s new direction. Hopefully, the results of the review will be motivating. If so, NASA’s exploration plan may seem some major adjustments.

NASA’s engagement of the commercial sector is the first step towards legitimizing its existence. An article I came across in BusinessWeek titled Commercial Space Flight: NASA May Get Onboard discusses the possibility of NASA tapping into the private sector for help in lowering its costs associated with the international space station. This article states that two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have received $500 million to “see if they can develop technology to deliver cargo to the space station. The two companies need to prove their capability with three demonstration flights by the end of 2010. If they’re successful, NASA will pay each company $1.6 billion to run 12 cargo missions to the space station through 2015. The $133 million cost per flight would be less than one-third NASA’s cost for such missions.”

There is more potential for cost savings if NASA conducts a full strategic sourcing initiative. This would not qualify as your typical strategic sourcing project. Potential suppliers cannot simply be engaged and then selected based on their proposal and capabilities and further negotiations. As the WSJ article, Space Program Struggles for Direction, suggests, it gets much stickier with all the “contractors, lawmakers, interest groups, and even parts of the Pentagon maneuvering to benefit from possible program changes.” Many people are concerned with protecting the jobs at Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other major suppliers.

The U.S. will maintain the international space station through 2016, and it remains to be seen if the station will remain after that year. If NASA were to select a commercial supplier who can carry both supplies and astronauts to the international space station and deliver significant savings, the greater the possibility is for the space station to remain after 2016. Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX notes, “If you look at any other mode of transporting goods and people, on planes or trains, most people would say that these things should be done by the commercial sector.”

If the private sector is pursued, costs will be lowered and more money can then be pumped into R&D. NASA’s current budget makes it difficult to invest money into the research and development of technological advancements. The most important step for NASA is to transition itself into having a long-term outlook and an overall vision for the agency. If more money had been pumped into research and development in past years, the costs of the new fleet could have been significantly lower. NASA has not been continuously innovating itself. It has been standing still for quite some time and it is going to be difficult to get the agency moving again.

After exploring the topic of this article more in depth, there seems to be a great deal of opinions floating around regarding NASA. Many think the agency should be extinguished, while others think it still serves a purpose. Some things to keep in mind is that it is really up to the government as to how they see NASA fitting into the overall future of our country. Is the agency delivering any type of value to us as citizens? If we begin to see other countries investing the money to explore space, we may follow suit and be required to make a decision about NASA’s future. History may repeat itself. There is also the possibility that the potential changes to NASA’s exploration plan may lead to an even greater delay in getting us back to the moon.

We’ll just have wait and see how the stars align for NASA.
Share To:

Kathleen Jordan

Post A Comment:

0 comments so far,add yours