Serving Two Masters


Illustration by Chelsea Conlin--

 Back in Febuary, when I wrote about the cancellation of the Constallation program, I thought that President Obama had the authority to just say, “It’s over.”  I wrote about Constallation in the past tense.  Things appear a bit more complicated than that.  

As it turns out, Congress has a say in the matter, due to a law that they established to protect long-term NASA programs from wimsicle changes.  Now, NASA administrators have faced a dilema: How do you begin anew and spend Congressionally controlled resources to look for alternatives to Constallation without breaking the law.  On the one hand they have to pursue a new direction as per the President’s directive, while on the other hand continuing onward with a Congressionally protected program that many in Congress want to keep.  

Obama and Bolton are in charge, but Congress controls the money.  Bolton can hire, fire, or reassign people, direct change, and tell folks that Constellation and Orion are toast right now, but the law says that Constellation is still fully funded through 2010 and that it is illegal to fiddle with it until Congress votes.  

Plus there are contractors—companies—who employ people who must continue to get paid through 2010 to do work on Constellation.  Legal paperwork designed to allow the government and the contractor to rely on each other and work together on complicated plans has to be reviewed and a clean break worked out—without breaking the afore mentioned law.  

Artist's conception of the Orion Spacecraft in...

Image via Wikipedia


So, in short, everybody at NASA has to keep their boss happy by acting like Constellation is dead, but do it without getting called up before Congress and publically accused of breaking the law.  Thrown into the mix are some Senators who may be thinking more about the jobs in their respective states than they are the future of America’s manned space program.  

NASA employees, outside experts, and NASA watchers like myself are certainly not unanimous in their enthusiasm for Constellation—everything from those who don’t like the program at all to those who want to go the course with it and Orion unchanged.  While it’s true that using an inter-planetary spacecraft to ferry people and equipment to the space station in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) is more complicated and expensive than it has to be, but launching a new spacecraft to Mars without a few shakedown voyages under it’s belt is more dangerous than it has to be.  Many think that we don’t need Ares, but Orion, the crew capsule, should continue and be adapted to existing launchers.  Many think that the Constellation program would not have been late and over budget if it had had been given sufficient funding in the first place.  

Is it just me, or is it starting to look like the President took an overly heavy-handed approach to all of this?  It is spawning new controversy and getting NASA lots of press coverage—not all of it good.  Some have said that all of this public awareness is a good thing, and maybe it is, from a funding perspective.  But it’s distracting and may blossom into a full-blown scandal.   

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

Image via Wikipedia


Are we looking at the first stages of “NASAgate”?  “Constallationgate” has too many syllables, and “Spacegate” to few.  

The people whos jobs are on the line still have house payments and car payments and the work they do can kill people if mistakes are made.  I have worked places where conflicting elements of management have put myself and my low totem-pole coworkers in a tough spot by issuing conflicting instructions—making us make the decisions they couldn’t work out themselves and forcing us, the workers, to serve as pawns in their power struggle.  It is not fun.  

The President and Bolden need to back off and let the work on Constellation continue to move forward, at least until 2011, while they and Congress work out the details of what to do with Constellation.  The President never should have directed Bolden to treat Constellation like it was already dead and nothing could be done about it.  He never should have tried to bypass Congress and kill Constellation behind their back, and may have directed Bolden to break the law when he did.  

Project Orion logo

Project Constellation insignia
Image via Wikipedia



~ by Bill Housley on July 17, 2010.

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