"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, September 12, 2009

If I was NASA, and Dad was Congress...

Here's a bit of useless trivia: how many fax pages does it take for NASA to place a small supply order?

Thanks to my day job at a scientific supply company, I have seen and hefted the answer. It recently took 16 pages for NASA's Glenn Research Center to fax a modest supply order. Put another way, had the items NASA requested from my company been available in a grocery store, the agency could have put them in a handheld basket and checked out using the express lane.

Why so many pages for a small order? The actual order comprised only three pages. The remaining 13 were so-called Terms and Conditions (read: legal mumbo jumbo). It got me wondering. What would childhood have been like if I had to petition my dad each week to maintain my allowance (let alone get an increase)? Here’s how that order might appear rolling off a fax machine.

Page 1: Request for funds to purchase a Transformer.
Page 2: Itemized list: Item 1—Transformer; Item 2—Batteries; Item 3—Milk shake on the way home from toy store.
Page 3-4: Instructions regarding storage, maintenance and use of Transformer.
Page 5: Approved methods for "green" disposal of toy/battery packaging; also, a summary of active ingredients in milk shake.
Page 6-9: Verification of OSHA standards at all factories where Transformer components are made, assembled and packaged.
Page 10-12: Detailed explanation of why I couldn’t opt for a homemade toy.
Page 13-16: Legal indemnifications should a barefoot parent step on said Transformer while visiting my bedroom.

Yup, 16 pages sounds about right.

Now, I say this with complete sincerity. The company I work for loves getting NASA's business. Customers like NASA tend to be reliable. It takes them a heap of trouble to get their funding, and another heap of trouble to obtain permission to spend it. By the time I pulled the NASA engineer’s order off the fax machine, she was an eager buyer with money in the bank.

Unlike cynical fools who say NASA should be done away with, I didn't look at that 16 page fax and say, "NASA is a waste of money." I did imagine the hapless employee on the other end of the fax line feeding page after page through, doubtless caring as little about the fine print as I did. I assume NASA's best and brightest are equally annoyed by all the red tape. They tolerate it in the name of making a living, and living a dream.

The cumbersome forces that keep NASA on a short leash are not all internal. These days, nothing of any fiscal size or consequence exists without accompanying reams of legal protection. What is worse, the Congress that gives NASA its allowance is strung out on alternating years of running for office and attempting to make good on promises made to corporate donors.

Into this often self-defeating mix, enter the Obama administration. Earlier this year, they appointed a commission to study the future of human space flight. This group, known as the Augustine Committee, includes past astronauts, academic scientists, and leading corporate aerospace figures. In short, it includes people who know what the hell they are talking about. After carefully scrutinizing NASA for months, the committee concluded the agency is on an unsustainable path. To be clear, the committee didn’t say NASA is unsustainable. They said NASA's ambitious goals in relation to their current budget are unsustainable.

I read the summary of the Augustine Committee. Notwithstanding various bleak statements, it infected me with a well-grounded optimism for a meaningful future of human spaceflight. Go figure. The Augustine Committee's refreshingly frank appraisal includes no less than four practical pathways for NASA to press forward with missions beyond Low Earth Orbit. In principle, all that stands in our way is a continued tolerance of the status quo.

A last thought should anyone at NASA happen to read this: thank you for your recent order! I love the new Hubble images you helped make possible. Keep up the awesome work!

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