Until the Fat Lady Sings

There is a poignant story told about a poor immigrant family when the eldest son tells his father that he wants to go to college.  His father ponders this request for a few minutes then replies:  “You have my permission.”

That is authorization.

The United States Congress has just passed an authorization bill for NASA.  In the finest tradition of the American leadership this was a compromise at the last minute before the end of the fiscal year and the adjournment of the House and Senate

As with all compromises, no faction got everything they wanted, some got nothing; no one is entirely happy, most are glumly resigned.  And so, I too, am not happy – but not for the typical reasons.

The authorization bill asks NASA to do, once more, more things than there is money to do them with.  Several of the directives, both old and new, have woefully underestimated budgets attached.  Unfortunately this is not a new phenomenon; it has been going on for decades.  More than one blue ribbon commission report has emphasized the need to have NASA’s appropriated budget match the authorized mission.  This authorization bill fails to heed that advice.

Expect in a couple of years there will be speeches made on capitol hill by congressmen who are shocked, shocked that some of NASA’s projects are behind schedule and over budget.  There is not enough in the authorization budget estimates to make them successful.  What is that definition of insanity?  Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  The US Congress is setting NASA up again, just like it has over and over again for failure.

To add to the problem, the Republicans – who by every poll are forecast to take control of the House in the upcoming election – have pledged to roll back Non-Defense Discretionary Spending (e.g., NASA) to the 2008 funding levels.  Whether or not you think this is a good principle in general for the US Government, it would strangle many of the new initiatives proposed by the freshly passed NASA authorization bill.

The next move in the grand American system is up to the appropriators in Congress.  They will decide what money is actually given to which programs.  Since there is not enough money to go around, there will be a furious fight over scarce resources at the appropriations committees – nothing new there.

Happy New Year!  Today is the first day of the new US Government Fiscal Year 2011.  Much of the government does not have a real budget but is being funded by a Continuing Resolution – in other words, keep doing what you were told to do in FY 2010 at the same spending level you were given in 2010.  Sometime after the election, probably after January, Congress will get around to approving an appropriations bill for FY 2011 for NASA.  Not all the programs that have been authorized will get the money they expect.  Some few lucky programs will get a pittance more; most will have to make do with reductions from the estimates the authorizers made.  Estimates which were generally inadequate in the first place.

So the fight continues.  As I said in the title, it ain’t over . . . .

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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19 Responses to Until the Fat Lady Sings

  1. Rand Simberg says:

    Yup. I said as much when the bill first passed the Senate. NASA is being set up to fail once again.

  2. Wayne – you put, in easy to understand terms, one of the big problems I see with NASA and government budgets in general. As a sr. level finance professional (in private industry) I would love to work for NASA, but I don’t seem to have the “proper qualifications”, meaning “government finance and accounting” experience.

    In the private, for profit industry you either manage to the budget given or you fight for the budget you need. There are only so many times that you can have major budget overruns and still keep your job.

    So, maybe NASA needs people from the private industry to help prepare, execute, and continually improve the budget process, instead of those that gained experience in a broken system. NASA needs innovation on all fronts, not just technical, but back-office too.

    I am not saying the finance folks, leaders, or program managers are bad at what they do. I’m just saying sometimes you need to add something or someone new from the outside to keep ideas flowing and fresh.

    All of that being said, as a taxpayer and major NASA supporter, I want to see NASA employees and the agency succeed. This means realistic budgets, challenging goals, exciting ideas, and the very best people and minds we can get.

    Regards,

    Aaron

  3. ryan says:

    Aaron,

    With respect, I think you missed the point… it’s Congress that needs your expertise more than NASA

    • Ryan,

      That’s a fair comment. I may have missed Wayne’s point on the role of Congress. But, NASA has skin in the game too. They need to provide realistic budget requests and say we need “x” dollars to complete the goal or the goal will not be completed. If Congress says you have $1 billion for a project and NASA knows it’s going to take $2 billion, then they need to say in can’t be done.

      Maybe (and that’s a huge maybe) Congress will start funding NASA at a realistic level if NASA get’s better at predicting and managing they budgets.

      I realize my first post sounds a little like a soapbox rant, which was not my intention. I would really like to see NASA funded at a level keeps us innovating, exploring, and pushing the boundaries of space, science, and technology.

  4. Ronald Smith says:

    The question therefore is how do we as citizens of the United States push our elected officials to appropriate enough funds to match the authorization act? Right now NASA is going to be running on a CR issued for the entire government until as least December 8. This gives enough time for us to push back and ask to fund the FY 11 to the needed levels. If Senator Nelson can get the authorization bill through, he definitely would have a big say and incentive to get adequate funding. Perhaps I should call my congressman ( Glenn Nye from Virginia) and try to get an idea of what to expect.

  5. Brian Hathaway says:

    Wayne-

    I am happy that Congress has finally decided to provide some direction to NASA regarding a path going forward. I only hope the administration will be unwavering in supporting the appropriation to follow the authorization. My sense of this bill is that it followed a groundswell of popular disappointment among several different stakeholder groups following the nebulous direction the Obama administration first provided.

    I think the same stakeholders must remain vigilant regarding the upcoming appropriation bill and contact their Senators and Representatives urging passage of the appropriate funding. However, it really comes back to leadership from the top. I still remember JFK’s speech in 1961 that put us on a path to the moon, which was later supported by LBJ until Vietnam consumed his focus. We need to get back to that level of support again. Only then can we do really great things.

    Regards,

    Brian Hathaway
    Tampa, Florida

  6. Brandon says:

    So, Mr. Hale: How would you fix the problem? Change the appropriation process in Congress? Change the Congressmen/women? Change NASA’s mission?

    I’m genuinely curious – I think almost everyone agrees it’s a problem, but does anyone really agree on a solution?

    • Lucky says:

      I have the same question as Brandon. What can we do to help? I recently watched an excellent talk by Michael Griffin that he gave to the Mars Society earlier this year, where he explained that constituents should write letters, not faxes or emails, to their representatives. But what should those letters contain that will help move the ball forward?

    • It’s not just NASA:

      DOD (Remember soldiers without body armor?)
      DOT (How many bridges near your house have concrete falling off them? I drive over a bridge half covered in steel sheets every day, officially the worst bridge in the state)
      DOA (How many times have we heard about lax/non existent agriculture inspections)

      The list goes on and on. Americans wants something for nothing, and the representatives want to get reelected.

  7. P. Savio says:

    Augustine must be rubbing his hands because in another 5 years he will head up another expert space panel and come up with another scaled back plan that will be “even more flexible” than the last. Ironic that the US officially cancels it Moon program on almost the same day China launches its next Lunar probe. Chinese footprints on the Moon by 2025.

    • ferrisvalyn says:

      No, that’ll be the Greason committee. They had that discussion during one of the meetings.

      As for China putting humans on the moon by 2025 – My bet is if anyone does, it’ll be more than one country.

    • Ronald Smith says:

      Garver, after recently reading the HEFT about NEO’s, has mentioned the moon one again as a destination. So the moon definitely has not been canceled, just the polar base proposed under Constellation.

  8. ferrisvalyn says:

    Wayne – I agree with you, in that within the authorization bill, not nearly enough money was provided. And with the situation in the House being as you described, perhaps its time to revisit a question I asked earlier – if NASA isn’t going to get more money (whether it deserves it or not), then lets figure out what we can actually do with that money, rather than keep trying to get more money, and proposing programs that cost more than we can afford

  9. Greg says:

    If my boss asks me to do a 3 month job in a week, I inform my boss that I need more time or more help. Is it not the job of the NASA Administrator to determine what actually can be accomplished with the appropriated funds (And not just march toward an unrealistic goal)?

    • waynehale says:

      Nope, that is not the NASA Administrator’s job. The NASA Administrator’s job is to do whatever the President tells him (or her) to do. The Administrator must defend the President’s plan as if it were his own, admitting no flaws no matter how bad the plan may be. You are sadly uneducated in the way that Washington works, but hardly alone since most people think that our government works logically or like the world outside the DC beltways does. Loyalty to the President is highly valued by the White House no matter which party holds office. Meanwhile, everybody below the senior (political, appointed) leadership does what they are told and even though there are some furious fights behind closed doors, people either shut up and go along in public or resign and look for a new job. That is how it works.

  10. P. Savio says:

    At the end of this presentation it seems you had the feeling money was already a problem back in 2005 and Chris Kraft knew it was a problem. I like your diplomatic answer however.

  11. lukeandrew says:

    Wayne, I also appreciate your common-sense style and historical approach to blogging. I also appreciated your words of wisdom in Promontory, not long ago.

    This week, after the fifth round of layoffs, I find myself along with thousands of others that used to work in the space industry and are looking for new opportunities in this new, uncertain environment. Many, possibly most, of those you spoke to are no longer at ATK, thanks in part to the shift in national space priorities.

    Please keep blogging in your spare time, at least until the book comes out.

  12. Gene Mikulka says:

    Didn’t Albert Einstein define insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? Sadly, here we go again. Agree, this budget is woefully underfunded and tasks NASA to do many things without the resources required. It seems like we are trying to build a piloted exploration system that will be all things to possible missions.

    Sadly, thanks to this budget, we’ll be going around in circles for now 50 years (1970′s-2020) before we make any moves out of the gravity well. I know we can do better. We just have to have someone in the executive office with the intestinal fortitude, the desire to make the investment, and the diplomatic savvy to deal with the Congress and the American Public to see the vision through.

    Thanks, as always, for your observations!

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