IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NASA chief urges discussion of space priorities

NASA's chief said he welcomes the recommendations of the presidential space commission issued this week and said it’s time for a national conversation on space policy.
"I would love to see the advocates of [the new space initiative] get some vocal chords. It would be wonderful," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe says.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file
/ Source:

NASA's chief said he welcomes the recommendations of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, including possibly dramatic changes in the space agency’s structure needed to support the White House vision of sending humans back to the Moon and on to Mars and beyond.

The recommendations, issued earlier this week, will be a stimulus to advance a process of change that was already underway, says space agency Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

"It’s a focusing event to think about how to do business differently," O'Keefe said, adding that it's time the whole nation debated the costs and benefits of space exploration.

In an interview with yesterday, O’Keefe said the report held no surprises, largely because of the commission’s public hearings and press conferences. "There’s nothing here that wasn’t telegraphed very, very clearly."

But one recommendation, the proposed conversion of NASA field centers into Federally Funded Research and Development Centers like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), seems to have caught some NASA personnel by surprise.

At a question-and-answer session with agency employees by O’Keefe, after the report was released, one questioner asked where the money would come from to support government space activities at such centers. The answer, O’Keefe tells "The same place it’s been coming from. That’s not going to change. It’s a question of how is it utilized, how is it leveraged." He adds, "Look at JPL -– it’s 85 percent United States government sources."

The commission’s emphasis on new management structures, O’Keefe says, echoes changes that are already being implemented.

"There wasn’t an exploration systems office at all a year ago; now there is," he notes. "Program management used to be conducted at every enterprise level, now it’s being conducted by a single organization."

The overhaul, he says, reflects the profound changes in the driving forces behind U.S. space activities since the era of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. "Everything about that period was different," O’Keefe says. "When you look at the challenges that went into the development of this agency, it’s totally different from the set of incentives that exist today."

One result of those changes is the shift from Apollo-style program-based funding to the "pay-as-you-go" strategy described by commission chairman Pete Aldridge as analogous to the national effort to cure cancer. O’Keefe says his own efforts to promote that idea in past months have been largely unsuccessful.

"That’s an argument I made over and over and over again in the early [Congressional] hearings, and it went nowhere. That’s the problem: If I say it, [the response is], ‘Oh, yeah, that’s part of the institutional answer.’ If somebody else says it it’s, ‘Holy cow, we’re having an epiphany here.’ The message is, other credible people have to be talking about that."

In fact, says O’Keefe, it’s time for a national conversation on space policy.

"This is the time to have a national debate, focusing on the economic benefits, the technology benefits, and the education objectives that are all part of what we’re doing here." In addition, O’Keefe says, he wants to hear from space supporters, including those in the scientific and aerospace communities, whose voices have not been heard.

"What I find maddening is that people who are supportive of [the new initiative] have no throat at all. The folks who have problems, who are skeptics, who are critics, we hear from a lot." For example, says O’Keefe, "The scientists are almost stony-quiet -- except those who think they’re losing." He adds, "I would love to see the advocates of this get some vocal chords. It would be wonderful."

O’Keefe recognizes another challenge described by the Aldridge report, that of selling the decades-long effort to get to Mars to future presidential administrations and taxpayers. But he notes, "It’s a challenge that is not unique to space policy. It’s true for health care policy. It’s true for national defense. It’s true for foreign policy."

That the public has strong feelings about space exploration was stated by commission member Neil Tyson, who noted the strong public reaction to O’Keefe’s decision to cancel a planned shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, because of safety concerns following the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy. O’Keefe, who has been frustrated by claims that he made the decision because of budget concerns, says astronomers are coming to understand that it was necessary in order to comply with the safety recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

After a recent speech to the American Astronomical Society, in which O’Keefe outlined the thinking that led to his call for a robotic servicing mission, he says, one prominent astronomer came up to him and said, "Now I get it."

Indeed, O’Keefe says, the effort now underway to develop a tele-operated robot to extend Hubble’s lifetime will yield valuable experience in developing robotic capabilities like automated rendezvous and docking, listed in the commission report as one of the enabling technologies necessary to get humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Technology developed for a robotic Hubble mission, says O’Keefe, could also be applied to the construction of space-based telescope arrays to search for Earth-like planets around other stars.