I am a big fan of spaceflight. In a few weeks I will go to watch the last launch of Endeavour with a sense of sadness, firstly because she will be retired, but also because there really isn’t anything replacing the shuttles. There are some commercial developments certainly and I am all for them, but there is no real national space policy anymore. Instead you have the latest four year NASA authorization. Basically it tells NASA how to make a rocket. So instead of actual, you know, rocket scientists developing a rocket, the staffers for Congress dictated how to do it. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone? Let’s break it down a bit and then we will see how this relates to Education.
In late September of last year (2010), Congress passed a four-year authorization for NASA which, among other things, stipulated that the agency must build a heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2016, though it did not authorize sufficient funding with which to do so, at least if done in the manner that Congress demanded, basing it on existing and expensive Space Shuttle components.
What this law did is specify that NASA should develop a heavy lift rocket (which is very, very expensive). The last one of these we did was the Saturn V in the 60s that went to the moon. While very capable, the Saturn V was hugely expensive. It was only because we were in a Space Race with the Soviets that we were able to spend that. As soon as we won, the last 3 Apollo missions were canceled and the rocket was scrapped. Although the Space Shuttle is an amazing machine, it’s big flaw is it costs so much to operate. You see, when you develop a rocket you can either A) pay a lot up front for development in exchange for lower operating costs, or B) you can do development on the cheap and then pay a lot to operate. After Apollo, NASA got it’s budget slashed and were told to develop the shuttle. They really didn’t have enough money to do this right so they had to choose option B. This means there was a huge army of people necessary to keep the shuttles flying. If you read the NASA four year authorization there is some language in there to develop a heavy lift rocket (but NASA says the funding won’t be enough to do it). The next section makes the problem worse.
It is simply not possible to engage in a “timely and cost-effective development” of SLS and MPCV using legacy infrastructure and contracts. Constellation was overrunning by billions, and slipping more than a year per year in schedule, and insistence on simply extending existing (and in many cases sole-source, without competition) contracts will fail just as surely.
Basically Congress told NASA to use existing contracts as much as possible. So rather than design the vehicle first, they have designed the costs first by specifying NASA to use the existing army of shuttle workers. This only makes sense if you realize that Congress doesn’t care at all what NASA actually does, they just want to keep the jobs and companies in business that are donating to their campaigns. The author of the article Rand Simberg states this beautifully in this last paragraph.
All of these requirements, from specifying vehicle size and MPCV functions, to how they should do it, and with what infrastructure and contractors, are far below the pay grade or competence of congresspeople and their staff. They may have many skills and talents, but they are not rocket scientists. Such requirements should be the result of engineering trade studies performed by NASA with the aid and input of the commercial contractor community. But, because our actual progress in space is not nationally important, what should be technical decisions have become raw political ones.
So how does this relate to Education? Simple. These same people are designing the reforms for the education system, and have exactly the same concerns in mind. I submit they don’t really care about if children are learning, they just care about keeping the existing system contributing to their campaigns.
This is not about Education, it’s about politics, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.
Feel free to read the original article linked below, it’s fascinating!