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A New NASA Rising

a bold new vision or just rhetoric for an election year?
by Staff Writers
Gerroa, Australia (SPX) Aug 30, 2004
New Moon Rising is a timely account of tumultuous changes occurring within NASA between February 2003 and June 2004. It exposes on a human level the inner workings of American government- how a small, unlikely band of people, led by President Bush, are attempting to implement a bold new national space policy.

Frank Sietzen Jr. and Keith L. Cowing make extensive use of interviews and recounted events by senior policy makers in a tale that is still determining the future direction of America's civil space program.

The authors use the Columbia tragedy as their starting point for NASA's transformation, describing the jubilant anticipation of Columbia's touchdown, as Administrator O'Keefe and shuttle crew family members stand by at Cape Canaveral, only to watch Columbia's destruction on TV as it reentered over Texas.

Sean O'Keefe suddenly must confront grieving families, a relentless press, official investigations, commissions, and congressmen. O'Keefe is jolted into an urgent and long-overdue re-assessment of NASA's purpose and operations.

The reader is made to feel almost sympathetic- or at least empathetic- for O'Keefe, who having assumed his position as Administrator just over twelve months earlier, and with no prior experience in the space industry, now faces a barrage of criticism.

O'Keefe inherited an organization that had four billion dollars in cost overruns for the ISS.

Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) findings focus attention on an organization that badly needed an overhaul, that 'had neglected flight safety, and that had lacked a space vision since the Apollo program'.

Nevertheless, the board deemed the three remaining shuttles safe enough to continue the construction of the International Space Station, albeit with massive bills to retrofit the shuttles to meet an extremely tough list of requirements that must be met before RTF can occur.

The authors give a clear, non-technical description of the new measures and technologies NASA must implement to ensure a safe return-to-flight.

The unusual timing and stratagem for remaking NASA, and the collection of unlikely individuals, working together towards NASA's new vision, is what the authors of New Moon Rising have set out to document and reveal to readers.

The authors show how O'Keefe's careful selection of inner aides- individuals from outside the 'fractured, self-interested, fiefdom-like parts of NASA' (various field centers, all with their pet projects) helps him to implement a new structure and vision for NASA.

Through the formation of this secret group-which they name the NASA Advisory Council (NAC)- they set out to overcome NASA's institutional inertia, to wholly remake it, with the aim of fulfilling 'The Vision for Space Exploration'.

The group consists of White House staffers, a former astronaut, and a former head of a defense company, a former navy secretary, a university director and a current serving Department of Defense official.

Tension builds as O'Keefe's inner circle tries to keep the White House's Moon, Mars and Beyond plan under wraps- for they're sure that if its high costs and radical restructuring requirements were leaked, Congress would abort it before it ever began.

Projects will need to be terminated to free-up funds for new ones. This would adversely affect certain field centers and companies with pre-existing contracts with NASA, as well as universities with grants, and employees working within all of these organizations. It was crucial, then, for O'Keefe to downplay any rumors about the new NASA, until January 2004, when President Bush was to announce it ahead of Columbia's first anniversary.

Sietzen and Cowing discuss the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and Aldridge Commission findings, to reveal the dysfunctional state of NASA today:

'NASA lacked a strategy. It had no big picture, direction, or destination in mind. This led to inefficiencies. The institutional needs of the centers are driving the program rather than the program requirements being served by the centers. When budget costs were made, they were spread out, rather than ranking research in priority (according to what its goals were), and then canceling grants, to preserve the most important research- instead of diminishing everything. But little groundbreaking research was made, as NASA wasn't really looking for it. The ISS, likewise, suffered from an attempt to satisfy everyone'.

After President Bush's "Space Vision" announcement in January 2004, the challenge became how to turn a vision in a speech into an actual program:

Some pressing questions arose:

  • How can NASA revolutionize all of its employees to achieve its desired transformation (not just a handful at the top)?
  • What should NASA do with its field centers, with the duplication of research portfolios?
  • How can NASA centralize itself?
  • How can NASA achieve its new ambitious vision with a flat budget, with no increase in funding?
  • Should NASA abandon its return-to-flight program or use its limited resources to build new manned spacecraft?

Sietzen and Cowing illustrate the newly geared mindset of NASA by comparing the jargon advocated by people like Craig Steidle- its new Associate Administrator- against the language once used under Dan Goldin's stewardship.

Now its concepts like 'form follows function', 'spiral development' and 'affordable, sustainable, and credible' are replacing the old mantras of 'better, faster, cheaper'.

Within this context, the authors of New Moon Rising show how NASA leadership is trying to make itself more efficient, once it defined its own purpose and goals.

The authors point out the difficult financial choices NASA will have to make if it wants to fully implement the new "Space Vision"- whether to focus exclusively on manned exploration or to preserve human life sciences on the ISS.

New Moon Rising, though long winded in some details, provides an excellent overall tapestry of the different forces presently shaping America's civil space program, and ultimately humanities next tentative steps out into the universe.

Its strength and appeal comes from its human focus, and the way in which the authors use the challenges facing the US Space Program, to paint a portrait of the key players and their various personalities, styles and politics.

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Apollo Inspires New Moon Rockets
Washington DC (SPX) Aug 25, 2004
NASA planners working on the next generation of spacecraft that will ferry cargo, robots and astronauts to the moon beginning in the next decade are seeking as inspiration the work of their predecessors, both in the space shuttle program and even going back to Project Apollo of the 1960s.


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