We get what we pay for

This is something that’s been bugging me for a while, and while I started on a post some months back, I never finished it. I need to, especially in response to a new article. More below.

Let’s say you have heard of a new species of fish in Lake Tanganyika, and your job entails studying rare fish breeds. Your boss turns to you and say, “We need to bring back live specimens. How much is it going to cost?” Can you work up a budget for this?

There’s too many variables, aren’t there? Where is the fish? How deep does it live? How numerable is it? What’s it eat, what eats it, does it migrate for spawning, can I hire dive boats and equipment nearby, or perhaps seine boats… it’s pretty hard to come up with a budget, isn’t it? Instead, if you have any sense at all, you simply set “obtaining live specimens” as a goal, and attempt to secure open funding for it.

Maybe your task is to create a new fuel efficient engine, from scratch. How much would that cost? You’d certainly be within your rights to look askance at someone making that inquiry and consider them naïve and, certainly, not good management material. After all, you’re not using off-the-shelf parts, cannot determine how long research is going to take, and have only basic physics goals to aim for. One can certainly set a budget, but cannot reasonably guarantee results within those constraints.

Why, then, do we expect something different from NASA? A scathing article in Discover Magazine demonstrates this approach, as well as a near-total innocence of space programs in general and the Space Shuttle Orbiter in particular.

Nearly every time I hear NASA mentioned in any form of popular media, some comment about “budget overrun” is made, and this article is no exception. And it is abundantly clear that such issues are what helps direct Congressional funding decisions. The other item you hear often enough is “management problems,” which has been paraded endlessly throughout the media as being responsible for the space shuttle accidents.

If you’re faced with a project or a department that suffers from bad management, what is your choice of action? Slash funding? That’s going to fix the matter, is it? If you have any sense at all, you raise the standards for managers, and try hiring better choices. Are these going to come cheaper? Well, fast food franchises think so, but I’d suspect that’s not a model of business we’re really aiming to emulate. Quite often, the solution is to bite the bullet and hire the best person available, even though they are very likely to come at a higher price.

If you buy a bargain DVD player and it fails within a month, who, exactly, is to blame for this? No, wait, let me rephrase that: if you hand your employee $20 and instruct them to get a DVD player, which fails, now who’s to blame? If you blame the employee, you’re not good management material yourself (I was going to leave the question hanging, figuring it was self-evident, then I remembered some of the idiots I’ve worked for.)

I do feel the need to point out here that the entire United States consistently runs over budget. We should either slash taxes or figure there’s serious management problems, shouldn’t we? Maybe we need to be looking carefully at those people we keep putting in management positions ourselves, the ones that generally couldn’t pass a high-school science final exam. Are these the people we need making decisions on funding such programs?

Leaving congressional incompetence aside, another aspect that continually comes up is what kind of returns we can expect from things like space programs. It’s just research – there’s nothing we can sell afterwards, right? Why bother with NASA at all?

You see, this is a significant part of the problem with a capitalist society – everything is supposed to make a profit. I could go into the economics of how there’s a finite supply of money in the world, and the quest for this to increase is what drives inflation, but that’s not even as direct a point as can be made. Instead, I’ll ask you how much you’re paying per day to receive a GPS signal in the car, or to see weather reports on TV. Do we pay royalties to Maxwell’s family, for the advancements of electrical theory, or Salk’s for the idea of vaccines?

Knowledge itself is a worthwhile investment. Once we have knowledge, we never actually stop using it – it is a permanent, perpetual benefit to all of us. In fact, it is demonstrably the best investment we can make, period. How much is too much to pay for something the entire human race (and even other species) can use forever?

When Einstein proposed the Theory of Special Relativity, where the passage of time between two bodies depended on their velocities relative to each other, it remained just a curiosity for 55 years, because we had no way to test it before then. If, when he presented it, he was asked what the practical applications were, he could only have spoken in terms of a space program we did not have. I doubt he would, in his wildest dreams, have said, “it will one day be used to prevent people from getting lost, for navigation of aircraft and sailing vessels, for pinpointing accident victims, finding missing children, and determining cheating spouses.” Yet the aforementioned Global Positioning System requires precise time measurements to even function, and these could not be made without the knowledge imparted by Special Relativity, since time passes differently for those satellites in orbit than it does here on earth.

If that knowledge had required a demonstrable, immediate profit to even have received funding in the first place, we would not have it now. We would not, in fact, have at least half of the scientific advancement we now use every day.

Returning to NASA, countless pundits decried the lack of foresight demonstrated by both the Challenger and the Columbia accidents, and continue to do so with the lack of a space shuttle replacement program. This borders on the asinine, however, and needs to remain in context; NASA has never been short of ideas, contingencies, and projects. The question has always been, how many actually get funded? Zeeberg might have exercised his remarkable journalism prowess, and referred to Wikipedia if he found himself that unaware of how the program works:

Based on the advice of the Space Council, President Nixon made the decision to pursue the low earth orbital infrastructure option. This program mainly consisted of construction of a space station, along with the development of a Space Shuttle. Funding restrictions precluded pursuing the development of both programs simultaneously, however. NASA chose to develop the Space Shuttle program first, and then planned to use the shuttle in order to construct and service a space station. [Emphasis mine]

Another example is the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle, a proposed standby spacecraft to evacuate up to seven people from the ISS in the event of an emergency. Able to be launched on a rocket and docked autonomously with the ISS, it can simply remain in place until needed. Or at least, that was the idea, until funding for it was cancelled. Because of this, the emergency evacuation option is a Soyuz capsule, a product of the 1970s which holds only three people. So the greatest crew the ISS maintains due to this is three, which is far from both functional and supportable capacity. While Congress may make noises about both efficiency and safety, it doesn’t appear that they know what either word means.

The Space Shuttle Orbiter was proposed as a fast turnaround, frequent-flying craft able to perform multiple functions. Once built, however, it turned out to be more expensive and higher maintenance than proposed. Is this bad planning? Perhaps – unlike others, I wouldn’t presume to judge without knowing at least something about the management of such a program – but possibly a lot more like non-psychic designers. No one had ever produced a vehicle even remotely like it before, and virtually none of the parts or components existed. Remember that, when proposed, we’d been in space less than a decade. This was uncharted territory and no one could operate from experience. That’s the very nature of space exploration. The only attitude that makes sense is to accept what comes. However, the inability to meet initially proposed expectations has been held against the shuttle from the flight test days, despite the long list of successes throughout its history.

Yes, the Challenger and Columbia accidents are a tragedy. Were they avoidable? With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s easy to say, “Yes” – but that’s true of any accident, isn’t it? The car you drive right now could be safer – I can say that without having the faintest idea what you drive, and you probably know you cannot reasonably argue with me, either. To be fair, though, automobiles are a new technology, only existing since before powered flight began…

Space exploration encompasses a list of hazards that will remain unsurpassed for decades. This is not news to anyone in the industry, and most especially not the people flying them. Yes, it’s dangerous – so is firefighting. Any pundit insisting or implying that space exploration should be safe is talking out of their ass, and such an attitude need not be fostered or continued – it actually deserves to be treated with contempt and derision. It can be argued that safety can be increased, and this is almost certainly true – but that comes at a cost, does it not? Complaining that the US space program isn’t safe and costs too much is talking out of both sides of your mouth (or ass, or we determined previously.)

The media likes to present simple explanations to people, but this is a bit of a disservice when it comes to space flight, and we need to stop falling for the attitudes implied in every hand-wringing sensationalistic article. The number of people who have died in space flight, the world over, doesn’t even approach monthly highway deaths for most states, much less “friendly fire” incidents in military endeavors. Aren’t these both avoidable? Let’s use some intelligence, here – orbital flight involves accelerating machines magnitudes faster than anything else on earth, using highly volatile compounds. Thousands of factors bear on every flight, every exercise, and they all bring a certain degree of reliability, or lack thereof. Weighing these risks is a routine aspect, but there is no way to reliably assess the total risk involved. The confluence of factors in both the Challenger and Columbia accidents were known, as were countless others that had no bearing whatsoever on the accidents. One must also consider, for instance, the lost opportunities for effective orbital insertion (one of the payloads on the STS-51L, the fateful Challenger mission, had to rendezvous with Halley’s Comet, and needed a very specific trajectory to do so.) One must know how soon the orbiter will be back and overhauled for the next mission (and its own time constraints); one must have emergency options for launch abort available (one of the 51L delays was the unavailability of the emergency landing field in Senegal, a specific and important safety procedure); one must calculate what expensive missions will be thrown away if the SRBs go in for radical redesign. You may have noted that Thiokol repeatedly maintained that they warned NASA about the O-ring issue; did you also consider that this was their own design flaw, incorporated into every solid booster for decades? Why did it take them so long to find it, much less fix it?

You notice that Zeeberg, in the Discover article, points out the difference between projected launches per year, and actual; he also points out projected launch costs, and actual. Did he point out that these were based on initial funding requests from Congress, something that was never received? Did he tumble to the fact that number of launches per year and cost of launches are directly related, having to be worked into the yearly budget approved by Congress? Welcome to the New Journalism, where having some knowledge of your subject is considered completely unnecessary.

Was he thorough enough to compare shuttle costs against other launch vehicles capable of performing the same missions? Too much to ask, I suppose. How about considering the multiple mission scenarios practiced in virtually every flight? How about the construction of the ISS – was an unmanned rocket going to handle that? Repairs to satellites? While Hubble was launched with an unfortunate major problem, most definitely avoidable, it also received not only the repair it needed, but also a major upgrade extending its life, not something even remotely possible with an unmanned mission. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned vehicles were all discontinued, and the products of long-obsolete technology, so some manned vehicle had to be in place, and the shuttle performed far more than simply boosting a small capsule.

Now, of course, we find ourselves with a gutted program and countless cancelled projects, and the absolutely brilliant idea of farming virtually everything out to private contractors. Somehow, this is supposed to make sense, as if a profitable organization is somehow going to provide the services we need cheaper and/or safer than a specific government agency. Now, think about this a second: Congress, in effect, has said that a government agency under their direct purview is too incapable of maintaining both oversight and efficiency, and subcontracted these both out to large-scale corporations with no oversight whatsoever. I suppose we’re lucky they didn’t turn it over to the banking industry.

Too few seem to understand that no private organization is going to pursue this unless they can make a profit, which remains to be seen, and that they’re under no obligation to produce anything, much less the specific launch vehicles we might need in the next few decades. While innovation is all well and good, and I applaud the idea of seeking outside input, I can’t feel that dropping everything in the laps of companies that are far behind their own projected schedules and have no track record to speak of is establishing this “foresight” that everyone seems so concerned was lacking in the shuttle program. I mean, if you find the family car is getting a bit unreliable, does it make sense to throw it out and wait for a brand new one to be created from a company that has never even built a go-cart? And when they cannot, or it turns out to be far worse, what then? And most especially, who’s to blame for that utter fiasco?

Notice that almost nobody ever says anything about the successful NASA missions, either. How we landed people on the moon within the projected schedule, despite it being a complete unknown, and negated the Soviet Union’s head start in doing so (NASA’s budget has never been higher than that period, by the way.) How we landed probes on Mars and radar-mapped Venus through an obscuring cloud cover, and the numerous probes both in orbit and fully operational right now, returning information on a daily basis. How the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are just a wee bit over their projected 90 day mission profile. How we are taking for granted the surveyors of both Mars and the moon which provide exceptional information with every pass; satellites orbiting Mars have returned repeated photos of the rovers, previous missions like Viking 1, and even the parachute descent of the Phoenix Lander. Hubble has confirmed and refined numerous theories regarding the age of the universe and measuring distant stars, and has produced images of the most distant (and thus oldest) objects to date, and Kepler and Spitzer are responsible for the frequent announcements of new planets found orbiting other stars. This says nothing of the global communications, weather, and navigational satellites that every one of us uses multiple times daily.

Now, we hear that the James Webb Space Telescope is proposed to be removed from the budget by Congress – again, citing cost overruns and management issues. The JWST, considered Hubble’s successor, is designed to be capable of many times the imaging power of the hugely successful Hubble, working in bandwidths much better suited towards the information we’ve been receiving. What we learned from Hubble, we can expect to be multiplied significantly from JWST. Not only that, but this is a joint venture with both the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, and bailing on this is, in essence, reneging on an agreement.

I can ask a lot of questions regarding this. I can ask what the monthly cost of maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is (better than twice JWST’s total budget of 6.81 billion dollars); and what the expected advancements from those investments are (nothing – we’ve already achieved the supposed goals, and have been doing nothing but damage control for years.) I could ask what benefit we can receive from the not-quite half of the budget already spent (nothing); or what percentage of the bank bailout that JWST’s budget represents (estimates vary, since it’s ongoing and constantly revised, but 10% is close enough to illustrate); or what percentage JWST is of the annual corn subsidy budget, which largely supports the total boondoggle of ethanol fuel additives (they’re roughly the same, showing that Congress once again needs some help in identifying inefficiency and mismanagement, or even basic science.)

If we’re going to have any space program at all, then we need to speak up to Congress, and emphasize that the goal is to have a space program, not to see if one fits into “disposable funds.” We need to reiterate that science (and education as well, while I’m at it) are not goal-oriented programs, but investments in future prosperity, health, and advancements – there is nothing more important. If management is an issue, then commit to good management, which often means deferring to those that actually work in these fields, rather than treating them as opportunistic swindlers, which has been the attitude towards science advisory in Congress for at least the past decade. We spent twenty billion dollars a year having air conditioning in tents in Iraq – how much could it have possibly cost to start a factory in Iraq that manufactured the damn things (and would have provided ten times the benefit on top, creating jobs and improving economy and relations in that country)? Science and educational funding is a drop in the bucket of the annual budget, and a smidgen of the defense budget – where I don’t see Congress worrying about efficiency or management, much less recognizing that there is literally no country that could effectively pose a threat to us. If you want to argue that, figure the logistics of forcefully occupying half a continent.

We need to be able to dispose of the senseless rhetoric, and focus on what produces results. And we need to hold our representatives to this as well – which means we actually write to Congress over this issue.

And you might notice that this is more of a solution than Zeeberg’s idiotic rant…

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