A SPACE CASE: The Future of NASA

Thursday, July 15, 2004

In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a plan for a manned mission to Mars in the first half of the twenty-first century. Is NASA up to the task? Given the recent failures of NASA's manned space program, from Space Shuttle disasters to the overbudget and barely functional International Space Station, should NASA even be running a manned space program? If so, what can be done to revitalize NASA and restore both its sense of purpose and the public's excitement for space exploration that has been missing for twenty years? Peter Robinson speaks with Sean O'Keefe.

Recorded on Thursday, July 15, 2004

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a conversation with NASA head, Sean O'Keefe. In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new goal for NASA, a manned mission to Mars. Yet recent failures at NASA from shuttle disasters to the over-budget and barely functioning international space station lead to this very simple question: When it comes to manned flight in space, is NASA up to the task?

Sean O'Keefe has a career in public service dating back some three decades. In 1992, the first President Bush named him Secretary of the Navy. In 2001, the current President Bush named him NASA Administrator.

Title: Mars Bores

Peter Robinson: Two quotations. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, May 25, 1961, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No project will be more impressive to mankind." George W. Bush, January 14, 2004, "With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will be ready to take the next steps of space exploration, human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond." John Kennedy's announcement in 1961 thrilled the nation and is still replayed on little monitors in the Air and Space Museum right there on them all. George Bush's announcement of the mission to Mars received such a mixed reaction that the president himself didn't even mention it when he delivered the State of the Union address just six days later. From thrilled to eh, what's happened with the nation and NASA?

Sean O'Keefe: It's a journey, not a race. The whole objective of what John Kennedy was trying to define in the early 1960's was respond to international threat. We don't have that in this particular policy today. We face an entirely different set of threats. It's a journey, not a race. And the price for losing that race was unbelievably high. Today we're about the process of building the capabilities.

Peter Robinson: Okay, now let me--so the Cold War, NASA has a very clear justification, wants to demonstrate the superiority of American technology and by pretty direct implication, the superiority of the American way of life. Okay, grant you that. Today NASA, according to the President's--that same speech I quoted--NASA expects to spend some eighty-six billion dollars over the next five years. Now in John Kennedy's time during the Cold War, everybody knew why we needed NASA. Why do we need NASA now? Let me give you this, David Barry, the humorist often says that he has a test for federal spending. He pictures a woman he knows, a waitress, she works two shifts, she's a single mom, she's raising a couple of kids and he says to himself, is it right to tax her to support this program? So you tell me why it's right to tax that--Dave Barry's friend the waitress to support NASA.

Sean O'Keefe: Great nations do great things. This is what we're all about. In every major advancement in the human condition over the course of history has always been attained by exploration, by the act of seeking discoveries. And sometimes we set out from one set of objectives and end up with an entirely different set of understandings of what we've learned. But it's the act of exploration, it's the--it's yielding to the human desire to want to explore and understand and know more about that which we don't know which is what the investment's all about. And indeed for less than a penny of every dollar that the taxpayer contributes that your, you know, hypothetical person…

Peter Robinson: Down to under one percent of the federal budget.

Sean O'Keefe: You betcha. Less than a penny of every dollar is spent on what we do to develop technologies, to devise the capability to explore. And from that comes a whole range of capabilities that we never would have imagined. Every single day our lives are touched by the same technologies that were developed as a consequence of those words that were uttered in the early 1960s on why we needed to go to the moon. Yes, it was about an international policy. Yes, it was about demonstrating the American prowess to develop technology to respond to a threat. But what we also developed along the way were things that we experience every single day that materially improve our lives. Every time any loved one goes into a hospital for a cataract detection, that methodology was developed because of a NASA technology, a NASA imperative to understand how that particular phenomenon happens faster in low earth orbit.

Peter Robinson: So your contention is A, that there's something deep within the human spirit, this is--you have to kind of picture America the Beautiful playing in the background--but that's really the contention, that there's something deep in the human spirit that NASA fulfills. And B, that there are material ways in which our lives will somehow or other become better here on earth because of what you're--you guys are doing.

Sean O'Keefe: Positively. And it's not just American spirit. It is something throughout the course of human history that's been demonstrated as the human spirit.

Peter Robinson: In his January 2004 speech, President Bush outlined three goals for NASA. Let's look at each.

Title: A Space Case

Peter Robinson: In that January address once again, President Bush outlined three goals for NASA. I'd like to consider each one of them. Goal number one, I'll quote President Bush. "Our first goal is to complete the International Space Station," international--the human spirit--"by 2010. To meet this goal, we will return the space shuttle to flight as soon as possible." Now let me follow that up by quoting Tim Farris, very fine science writer, whom I'll quote a couple of times here because he knows a lot about NASA. "The shuttle is already on its way out and the space station has been pointless from the beginning." Why is the President right and Tim Farris as well?

Sean O'Keefe: Well, first of all, I think the President of the United States has a touch more standing than most of the science writers do on this question in large part because the focus of what we're attempting to do on the International Space Station is not just honor our international commitments. It is to develop a laboratory in low earth orbit in micro gravity condition that can only develop the kind of capabilities to understand long-term human endurance challenges, physiology effects--wait just a second--that affect all of us, that is like that cataract detection question. That's how it was devised.

Peter Robinson: What will you be doing in the International Space Station that the Russians haven't already done in theirs? It's my understanding that they conducted just these--this sort of experimentation on the long-term effects of space on the human body.

Sean O'Keefe: Not to my knowledge.

Peter Robinson: No?

Sean O'Keefe: We are still attempting to gather all the information--look we're just now in our--approaching our third year of continuous human presence in micro gravity conditions. We've had lots of different shots that last two or three weeks at a time. The Russians have certainly had, you know, a lot of experience in sending folks onto Space Station Mir for extended periods of time but months usually in calibration. This is the first time we've had a continuous human presence on the international space station for the last three years. This is the first time.

Peter Robinson: All right. And you're testing these guys--the effects of space on the human body in low earth orbit over extended periods of time. And let me quote Farris again who thinks the whole enterprise is pretty--is dubious. "NASA's unmanned programs are flying high. Robotic probes have sampled the sands of Mars, mapped every planet in the solar system this side of Pluto, inspected comets and asteroids and made incalculable contributions to terrestrial communications." They're the contributions to the way we live here no earth, "agriculture, geology and weather forecasting, all at a fraction of the cost of sending astronauts up there. Meanwhile the manned program is stuck in low earth orbit." What do we get from the manned program which is vastly more expensive and as we have seen, more dangerous than the unmanned program? Why not drop the whole darn thing and take those billions of dollars and put them into unmanned…

Sean O'Keefe: Sure. This has been a debate that's been going on since Yuri Gagarin first flew in the early 1960s.

Peter Robinson: But wouldn't you say that--it's my impression that people are becoming less willing--scientists are becoming less willing to see all that money spent on…

Sean O'Keefe: It sounds like you've made up your mind. I mean, the issue is--this is an old shop worn debate. Congratulations, you're entering into it for what is now the fourth continuous decade of argument about should robots or humans do something? The fact is it's both. It's a balance. And the issue that somehow robotic capabilities can do this exclusive of human beings just doesn't make it. What we see happening on Mars right now in spirit and opportunity has a fantastic achievement, no doubt about it. This is an engineering marvel. And what they've done in the last six months in collecting data and information has been stunning. The fact is if we had the capability today to send a human being there given our cognitive skills as humans, to be able to adjust, adapt, reason, make judgments, we could have done the same science package in less than a day than what we've done in the last six months. Now the fact is we don't have that capability today. We don't have the means to accomplish that.

Peter Robinson: And you won't for two decades. Isn't that about right?

Sean O'Keefe: Well we'll see. I mean it depends on how fast technology moves. If you want to be a technology forecaster and know exactly when that's going to occur, come join us at NASA. But as it stands right now, what we're trying to devise is the capability in order to precurse those missions with robotic capabilities there to know what we're getting into and then avail ourselves of the human opportunity to really understand what's involved here.

Peter Robinson: You said it's a balance. How do you decide that balance?

Sean O'Keefe: First and foremost, you have to make sure that the data is collected, the information is yielded, the facts are understood of what it is you're getting into by exposing a human being to those conditions. And that's the first big step that we're doing clearly on Mars, that we did on the moon, that we're going to continue to do as part of this exploration strategy the President's laid out.

Peter Robinson: On to the President's second major initiative for NASA.

Title: Rocket Man(date)

Peter Robinson: Bush's second goal to develop a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle which undoubtedly is already being referred to everywhere as the CEV within NASA. Is that the acr…

Sean O'Keefe: Project Constellation, yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay. By 2008 and to conduct the first manned mission in this new vehicle no later than 2014, Tim Farris again. I can tell he's a favorite of yours Sean. "Developing a safer spacecraft to replace the shuttle makes sense if the new craft has a meaningful mission. Unfortunately its first assignment as Bush put it will be,"--here he quotes the President himself, "ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired." And then Farris continues to say, "a prospect every bit as dismal as it sounds." Can you give this new vehicle that you're developing a more meaningful mission by simply replacing the shuttle?

Sean O'Keefe: More importantly I think the President gave it a much more meaningful mission. The shuttle, by definition, is restricted to within about three hundred miles of earth's surface.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Sean O'Keefe: And it was designed purposely for being in low earth orbit. This has a capability go beyond that, to go not just to the International Space Station but back to the moon, to Mars, whatever destination you like. It is development of a capability that gets us out of low earth orbit and can explore. When those conditions, you know, are served up as we talked about a little bit earlier, of when you have the robotic capabilities that have given you all the information of data you need, that would inform the reasons why you'd have a human go visit and understand and pursue some scientific or discovery objective, then you have the means to do so.

Peter Robinson: You have the vehicle ready, right.

Sean O'Keefe: So the near term proposition--I sure wish, you know, some of the writers would look beyond the scope--just their hand right in front of their face. There's a lot more that this capability will provide for us down the road.

Peter Robinson: Tim Farris' point, of course, is get rid of that space station. You can start sending it farther right away. But we've been through that. President Bush's third goal, "To return to the moon by 2020 as a launching point for missions, including the next steps of exploration--space exploration, human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond." All right now, we've been to the moon already. Obvious question, why do we need to go back? Why not overshoot it and just go on?

Sean O'Keefe: The duration and length of a trip back there is going to be something we'll continue to examine. But the issue is going back provides the capability to demonstrate how we use a Project Constellation Crew Exploration Vehicle, how to set up their capacity potentially to launch from there to beyond…

Peter Robinson: From the moon?

Sean O'Keefe: Potentially. To establish the capabilities and look at what natural resources may be available there as well. There's a big brewing debate within the scientific community about how much or how little the resource opportunities to be availed on the moon may present. Let's go find out. Let's stop the debate and let's go find out. And there's a number of opportunities to do it plus the great advantage is the moon is 250,000 miles away. Mars is 150 million miles away. If you want to test out something, let's do it a little closer to home and understand what that'll take.

Peter Robinson: Is NASA working its way back to Werner Von Braun's original plan? His notion was to use the moon as a space station in the first place and launch from there. Is that what we're working our way to?

Sean O'Keefe: That's a potential. It's a potential. There--again this is an argument and a debate that continues of exactly how exhaustive would a capacity, an infrastructure on the moon, serve us? And not sure yet. Let's go figure it out but it--the bottom line is let's get the capability to go examine this, understand how to do it and in the process, it also gives us the capacity to get beyond low earth orbit into worlds beyond.

Peter Robinson: Next the relationship between NASA and private enterprise.

Title: These Are the Voyages of the (Private) Enterprise

Peter Robinson: There are a number of sources of income from the moon that different people consider at least plausible, storing electronic data on the moon, building solar panels to produce electricity, tourism, a number of ways of generating income from having a presence on the moon. But these are the kinds of things that one would think begin to lend themselves to private enterprise rather than a public enterprise like NASA. The other thing that one discovers googling around--I'm sure you're aware of this--is that there's one complaint after another that NASA attempts to be controlling, to keep all of space to itself, that it hasn't been reaching out to the private sector, that the time has come now for reaching out to the private sector. And let me ask you what you're doing--is that in general correct?

Sean O'Keefe: I think so.

Peter Robinson: What are you doing about it?

Sean O'Keefe: I think it's a very fair assessment of it and in many ways, if you think about NASA's legacy in its earliest phase…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Sean O'Keefe: ...it was an institution that was extremely friendly and very--created a climate and an environment for entrepreneurs, innovators, technology developers, things with--people with different ideas on how to accomplish objectives. And along the way, we've become much more institutionalized and a lot of the observations have been how do you reopen this process to get those creative ideas back into this. And that's precisely what we're about doing, the transformation objectives we're after within the agency. And further, the President's Commission released its report on how to implement the strategies necessary to achieve this vision really call for how do we, you know, reconstitute ourselves, transform ourselves to do that. That's what we're about.

Peter Robinson: This past spring, Spaceship 1 was the name of the vehicle.

Sean O'Keefe: True.

Peter Robinson: First privately financed spacecraft to send the moon into space, just barely into space but it did send a man into space and bring him back down.

Sean O'Keefe: Fantastic achievement.

Peter Robinson: Are you talking to those guys? Are there any commercial opportunities if that opens up?

Sean O'Keefe: That's precisely the kind of folks we want to continue to encourage out there. I mean, it is--the notion that a commercial, privately developed capability has now come close to duplicating the same thing Alan Shepard did forty years ago…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Sean O'Keefe: …you know, is from a technical standpoint not a real marvel. From an expansion of market opportunities, it's a tremendous achievement. It's fantastic. This is precisely the kind of creativity, innovation, and I think entrepreneurship we need to be encouraging more. In a lot of ways what the President's Commission talked about is we need to facilitate those kind of opportunities to develop on their own as options for all of us to appreciate and enjoy.

Peter Robinson: Let me give you another one. Space eng--of course, you are talking to a laymen here so I google around and find out about NASA what I can and some of these things that I come across strike me as crazy but then, of course, landing somebody on the moon seemed crazy forty years ago. Space nngineer Bradley Edwards who's working on a grant provided by you guys has talked about the design of a space elevator which would lower the costs of taking people and cargo into space. First of all, will you explain to me in a way that I can understand what a space elevator would be.

Sean O'Keefe: This is--this--again…

Peter Robinson: And you may preface it by saying the whole thing is lunacy if you want to.

Sean O'Keefe: No, no, no. No, there are a number of concepts. Again this is what made, I think, NASA's reputation in the beginning was looking at a number of different ideas that were considered to be--how is this going to work…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Sean O'Keefe: …to something that becomes reality.

Peter Robinson: In the old days, your institution was intellectually alive.

Sean O'Keefe: I still think it is. It still is today.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Sean O'Keefe: In many ways, what we're trying to do is regenerate that evidence of it with regularity.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So tell me about the space elevator.

Sean O'Keefe: Well this is, you know, it's a different idea of employing different principles as a means to use, you know, gravitational condition and other means in order to launch capabilities and assess or access those capabilities in principally low earth orbit.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Sean O'Keefe: We're going to see how that works out. I mean the concept is being…

Peter Robinson: And the idea is very super light, super strong cable really in somehow or other attached to a satellite that's in geosynchronous orbit, right? And that--that is sound? It isn't crazy?

Sean O'Keefe: Might be. I don't know. I mean we'll see. I mean, it's a concept that's been kicked around and it's an idea that we're now going to evaluate that is as preposterous as some of the ideas advanced forty, fifty years ago.

Peter Robinson: From new missions in outer space to new attitudes right here on the ground.

Title: Culture Wars

Peter Robinson: Rick Tumlinson, founder of Space Frontiers Foundation writing in Space Review, "NASA's human space flight program is like an old ex athlete who won the Olympics a long time ago but it's bloated, inflexible, self-indulgent and lives on reruns of better days." From the report of the Gehman Board…

Sean O'Keefe: Otherwise, he thinks we're doing a great job.

Peter Robinson: Well now here's the--let me quote now from the report of the Gehman Board on the disintegration of the Columbia Shuttle and you've already spoken very highly of this report. Indeed you said all the recommendations are sound and you intend to abide by them. The accident was the result of "persistent, systemic flaws" in NASA management. The board--the Gehman Board recommended changes in NASA's culture but conceded that "the changes we recommend will be difficult to accomplish and will be internally resisted." We've been through the President's goals for outer space. I want to know your goals. You've been there for about two and a half years. How do you--what levers do you as the manager, the man running that institution, have to change the institution? Are you hiring and firing people. Your budget is more or less capped. It's clear the Bush Administration doesn't want to spend vastly more--how do you do this? How do you change that institution?

Sean O'Keefe: You put a number of comments on the table all of which were stated as fact that unfortunately are not.

Peter Robinson: Okay, go ahead. Go ahead. Adjust the question before you answer it.

Sean O'Keefe: Thank you. First and foremost, the proposal the President's made this year…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Sean O'Keefe: …is an increase in the NASA budget. It's the largest single domestic discretionary agency increase of any agency of the federal government except Defense and Homeland Security.

Peter Robinson: What percentage increases?

Sean O'Keefe: About five percent.

Peter Robinson: Five percent.

Sean O'Keefe: In order to pursue the President's vision as he laid it out. He's also laid out a five year plan that defines exactly how we would resource that, how we'd finance it, how we'd pay for it. This is the first time this has been done in the better part of thirty years to have not only a policy but a specific resource plan. How you going to pay for it plan of how you do this. So therefore, the notion that somehow we're going to just kind of limp along on the same basis is wrong. The policy itself is different, it's vibrant, it's focused. It has a very specific set of objectives and it's a path ahead of how to finance it. So that's the first step.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So the first step…

Sean O'Keefe: That's the first…

Peter Robinson: You helped draft this and…

Sean O'Keefe: Well sure.

Peter Robinson: …what you have now is a specific set of objectives?

Sean O'Keefe: You bet and that's the first major step in this culture change you're referring to but certainly the Columbia Accident Investigation Board observed as well which is you got to get a focus. You got to have a specific strategy. It's one of the central things that led to the observation you read as a dramatic reading of what they observe which is this is an agency that's a loose amalgam of lots of different things. What's the unifying theme? Unless and until the President of the United States makes a determination of what that unifying theme is, it's going to continue to bump along without direction. That's what the President delivered on January 14, a very clear direction of where to go and a budget to support it and a means to go carry it out, and a very specific strategy…

Peter Robinson: What about morale?

Sean O'Keefe: …say here's how achieve it.

Peter Robinson: What about morale? Your people have been beat up. They've had the shuttle disintegrate in the air.

Sean O'Keefe: Let me just step back to the last part of the question which you observed. Again which is what are the other things you need to in order to achieve this transformation? It is again, focus on those objectives…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Sean O'Keefe: …focus on that understanding of exactly what the strategy's all about. This becomes the unifying theme. And as a result, the reaction I think among our colleagues in NASA is--as pertains to morale is, hey this is great. We've got a direction. But what is it going to mean in terms of changes in the way we do business? And that's the part we've got to continue to work. That's the culture change that Hal Gehman and his colleagues on the Accident Investigation Board I think very astutely observed as part of the challenge we've got to confront.

Peter Robinson: What's the demographic in NASA? Have you got mostly older people now or have you got--is NASA once again an exciting place for young physicists and engineers and so forth?

Sean O'Keefe: It's an interesting combination of both. The average age is my own. I'm 48. We have three times as many scientists and engineers over 60 as we have under 30.

Peter Robinson: Really.

Sean O'Keefe: So as a consequence, it is a real change in the approach that was taken I think in the last decade in terms of recruitment objectives to try and look to this. So our approach is to recruit vigorously for the kinds of career fields and disciplines, professions…

Peter Robinson: That's a huge opportunity for you…

Sean O'Keefe: You bet.

Peter Robinson: …as the older folks retire.

Sean O'Keefe: Because what you get is the expertise and the experience of the older professionals that are within our organization. At the same time, you bring in a new cadre of folks with new energy, new enthusiasm and new ideas and approaches on how to accomplish that. You get the best of both worlds.

Peter Robinson: Final topic, predictions.

Title: Martian Chronicles

Peter Robinson: Name the year by which you would feel reasonably confident we will have placed a human being on Mars.

Sean O'Keefe: I wouldn't want to speculate on that. I think it's--that would be a technology forecast of exactly what has to develop between now and then. Certainly…

Peter Robinson: Can you give me a rough number of decades?

Sean O'Keefe: Nice try.

Peter Robinson: Two decades, three decades?

Sean O'Keefe: Nice try. Nice try. I think the real fool's errand we've been after in the past has been to name a destination and pick a date to go match it because gee, that's what really got us excited in the early 1960's. That's not what this is about.

Peter Robinson: It worked, Sean.

Sean O'Keefe: But that's not what this is about. It's about developing that capability and understanding how to do it and doing so by knocking down those objectives and the challenges of achieving that task in turn, power generation of propulsion, human endurance challenges. All those are the things you must do in order to achieve that.

Peter Robinson: Last question. The way you have just framed this you are now asking the American people, the American taxpayers, to support a mission that is open-ended, to support it for some unknown number--some unknown but large number of years year in and year out in an uninterrupted way at a cost of some billions of dollars every year. In a sentence--two at the most because it's television--tell us again why sending a man to Mars will be worth it.

Sean O'Keefe: For the price of a family of four to go to a movie one time a year for less than fifty dollars per taxpayer, that's what we're investing. And from that comes a series of capabilities--improvements to our material lives here on earth--in ways that are countless. We've just begun to scratch it--the surface of the kinds of things that benefit us in this discussion today. Those are benefits and opportunities that are presented to us for a fraction of that kind of cost. Great nations do great things. That's what we're about here.

Peter Robinson: And you will increasingly invite the private sector to participate offloading some of the costs off taxpayers onto investors. Right?

Sean O'Keefe: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: I'm just giving you the opportunity to stick that in there as well…

Sean O'Keefe: No, absolutely. There's no question.

Peter Robinson: …if you want to.

Sean O'Keefe: That's part of what this is all about. It's again creating an atmosphere to generate that entrepreneurial spirit we saw in Spaceship 1.

Peter Robinson: Sean O'Keefe, thank you very much.

Sean O'Keefe: Thank you sir. Pleasure to be with you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thank you for joining us.