Over the years, NASA has had a pretty tough go of it for a government agency. With changing budgets, presidents, and public interest, it has been extremely hard to get anything substantial done in an organization that primarily deals in expensive, long-range projects, especially when you have a legacy of accomplishment that keeps you under constant scrutiny. Now two lawmakers are proposing to scrap the whole kit and caboodle and fundamentally change how NASA operates. Its time for Extreme Makeover: NASA edition.
According to the Houston Chronicle, congressmen John Culberson of Houston and Frank Wolf of Virginia are authoring a bill that would take the politics out of NASA. The new bill would create a new management scheme that would make NASA administrator a 10-year appointment and give it a structure not unlike the FBI. The plan also takes the budget out of the hands of the White House, giving NASA more power to use funds at its own discretion. It’s the hope of Culberson and Wolf that this new structure would allow the agency to flourish without having to change its plans every time a new president got elected, and also give NASA the ability to stretch their budget over long-term contracts, which would drive down costs. Astronaut Mike Coats fully supports the idea:
We could be so much more efficient, and accomplish so much more with the budget we have. If we could plan out what we’re going to have in four or five years, it would be amazing what we could do with our team.
The plan may sound good on the surface but don’t expect it to become a reality. An unnamed space policy expert said that the likelihood of a President to sign away his control of NASA’s budget is next to nil. If this bill were to pass, not only would the president be out of the loop when it came to the budget, but they’d also cease to have bragging rights over any of NASA’s future accomplishments. And even though no president has ever given the space agency the money it needs, they all want to be the next JFK.
While I’m all for taking the politics out of NASA, there is a definite flaw to this plan. The Space Agency’s problems over the years haven’t just been about politics, they’ve been about space monopolies as well (something that the new commercial crew program is trying to remedy). The 10-year appointment for a director of NASA could just end up being another avenue for the good ol’ boy system of space contractors to flourish. If the President appointed a past board member of Boeing to be the director for a 10-year stretch, then you could pretty much count on seeing other promising ideas and companies pushed aside and Boeing being involved in every major space program during that decade.
So will we see a fundamental change in the way NASA works? It’s not likely, but it is nice to see lawmakers actively looking for a way to make the agency more productive and stable, for a change.