Sunday, July 3, 2011

NASA fading?

I think this is over reaction and it is about time that "centralized" space exploration ceases.

"With the Shuttle Program Ending, Fears of Decline at NASA"


William J. Broad

July 3rd, 2011

The New York Times

As NASA prepares to launch its last space shuttle — ending 30 years in which large teams of creative scientists and engineers sent winged spaceships into orbit — it is facing what may be a bigger challenge: a brain drain that threatens to undermine safety as well as the agency’s future plans.

Space experts say the best and brightest often head for the doors when rocket lines get marked for extinction, dampening morale and creating hidden threats. They call it the “Team B” effect.

“The good guys see the end coming and leave,” said Albert D. Wheelon, a former aerospace executive and a Central Intelligence Agency official. “You’re left with the B students.”

NASA acknowledges the effect and its attendant dangers. It has taken hundreds of steps including retention bonuses for skilled employees, new perks like travel benefits, and more safety drills. Through cuts and attrition in recent years, the shuttle work force has declined to 7,000 workers from about 17,000.

“The downsizing has been well managed and has achieved an acceptable level of risk,” said Joseph W. Dyer, a retired Navy vice admiral and the chairman of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. After a slow start, “NASA and its industry partners did an genuinely excellent job” in planning for the shuttle’s retirement, he said. But he conceded, “There’s added risk anytime you downsize.”

Nobody is predicting problems for the coming flight of Atlantis, the 135th and last launching of the shuttle program. The event is scheduled for Friday, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, before an estimated one million spectators.

After that, there is little glory to look forward to. NASA has been forced to cancel the big missions that capture public attention and attract top talent, and frustrations have bubbled to the surface within the agency. Not only has the shuttle program been scrapped, but so has Constellation, which would have sent Americans back to the moon. Astronauts have been steadily leaving the agency.

At the direction of the Obama administration and Congress, NASA is instead developing a large new rocket to send deep into space. But no destination has been selected, and money is tight. NASA is also trying to nurture a commercial industry that will loft astronauts toward the stars, but the ventures — which involve partnerships with private-sector companies like SpaceX and Boeing — focus on hardware development, and so far have no declared goals beyond low orbits around the planet. The shuttles did that for decades, starting in 1981.

In an interview last week, Charles F. Bolden Jr., NASA’s administrator and a former astronaut, said he had no misgivings about the last flight and heaped praise on the agency’s work force.

“Do we have concerns about morale?” he asked. “Yes, we always do. Do we have concerns about the welfare of our workers? Yes, we always do.”

But Mr. Bolden, a retired general, said his workers were excited not only about the Atlantis mission but also about a range of new endeavors at both the space agency and its commercial partners.

“We’re trying to help our people stay in the aerospace industry, if not in NASA,” he said while denying any paralyzing loss of talent. “We’re capturing the brainpower.”

And he flatly rejected the idea that the agency had lost its way.

“We’re not adrift,” he said. “And the vision is not gone. And we have a plan. We have a very sound plan.”

History has offered some bleak lessons, with tons of wreckage testifying to the danger. Experts say the Team-B effect contributed to disasters in the mid-1980s and late 1990s that destroyed more than a dozen rockets, wiped out billions of dollars in satellites and threw the nation’s unpiloted space program into turmoil. The two catastrophes of the space shuttle program — in 1986 and 2003, which killed 14 astronauts — had more to do with design flaws and management failures than with depleted ranks of experts.

NASA officials say close examinations of past failures and problematic retirements have made the agency smarter. “We went out and looked at who has done this well — and who has not,” said Bryan D. O’Connor, NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance.

“There could be something we missed,” he added. “But I feel pretty confident about the last flight — it’s going to be just as safe as any we’ve ever had, if not more so, with just as good people.”

In January, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel reached a somewhat different conclusion in its annual report. It warned that “the lack of a defined mission can negatively affect work force morale” at NASA, and said that the agency’s own field centers portrayed the loss of big missions as having already “increased the potential for risk.”

Future ambitions might also suffer, the panel warned, since the lack of visionary goals can undermine “the ability to attract and maintain the necessary skill sets needed for this high-technology venture.”

In May, the dissatisfaction erupted at the Kennedy Space Center. Michael D. Leinbach, the launch director for Atlantis, went off-message with colleagues after conducting a safety drill for the upcoming flight.

“The end of the shuttle program is a tough thing to swallow, and we’re all victims of poor policy out of Washington,” he told his launch team, according to, a news site. “I’m embarrassed that we don’t have better guidance.”

He said the nation’s programs for putting astronauts into space “always had something to transition into” for a half century. “Now,” he added, “we don’t have anything.”

The room erupted in applause.

Mr. Bolden, the NASA administrator, was gracious about the episode. Asked about Mr. Leinbach, he offered nothing but praise.

And Mr. O’Connor, the NASA safety chief, said the agency had taken many steps to ensure that staff reductions did not leave the remaining Atlantis workers feeling overtaxed. For instance, he said, schedules have been stretched out to make sure that the corps of technical experts had sufficient time for troubleshooting.

“We don’t have the bench strength we once had,” Mr. O’Connor conceded. “We’ve got fewer people.”

Mr. Dyer, the chairman of Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said that the inquiries of his own team suggested that the shuttle work force remained dedicated to doing the best job possible.

But after years of investigating the darker moments of the shuttle program, he admitted to personal unease about its end.

“I’ll breathe more easily,” Mr. Dyer said, “after the last flight.”

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