The Orlando Sentinel reported yesterday that discussions were occurring in Washington over the future of current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who has reputedly had a complicated relationship with the post-Shuttle policy realignments taking place in the Agency. I have no way of knowing to what extent these discussions are occurring seriously, or if stories like this are just a political maneuver by people who would prefer to see someone else in his position, but I would like to briefly explore some of the issues confronting the Agency and what tasks and challenges will be put before whoever is running it over the next four years.
First, a bit of deep background is in order that most people may not know. NASA was established in 1958 with no specific mandate to expand human civilization into space, colonize other worlds, or in fact go anywhere at all, but was rather designed with the nebulous mission of discovering peaceful uses for space in general. Cold War politics filled in the blanks, so without any real long-term objectives in mind, the United States was committed to achieving a series of "stunts" for the sake of prestige, and the science and technical advances that came as a result would be tangential benefits.
Both the US and Soviet Union were doing pretty much the same thing - the USSR launched the first satellite because Russian rocket designer Sergei Korolev convinced the Kremlin that as long as they were testing missiles, they might as well do a stunt launch of a peaceful payload to demonstrate Soviet technical prowess. The Kremlin didn't think much of it, but went along with it as kind of an afterthought - a neat little PR event showing how far ahead of the West they were getting under the Communist system. When it succeeded and Sputnik I was launched, they were shocked and delighted by the profound inferiority complex that suddenly appeared in American media, and thus both countries were put on a path toward serious pursuit of space.
Unfortunately, the spirit of Sputnik I would define the entire Space Race - a series of increasingly difficult stunts achieved through the arbitrary mobilization of national resources, with little or no self-sustaining economic foundation able to grow around it. The machines that first took Man into space, into orbit, and then to the Moon did so because they were forced to via the brute-force application of 100,000-strong engineering teams, bleeding-edge technologies piled one top of the other, and ridden into the wild black yonder by people who didn't blink at a 1-in-5 chance of blowing up. In other words, it was a house of cards that could stand only because an army of the most brilliant people on Earth stared unblinkingly for ten years with unlimited funding and unyielding national commitment.
But once the task was done, it was all practically useless: Infrastructure built out of wholecloth through a decade of seat-of-the-pants engineering, death-defying stunts, and compensating for technological shortcomings through torrents of money is not soil out of which anything of value can immediately grow on its own. The Russians, no longer trying to actually go anywhere anymore, just started putting up stations in orbit for the sake of research, and we did likewise, with the Space Shuttle being large enough that it could essentially serve the same purpose. But it was all still completely aimless, only without even the benefit of a specific stunt-based objective.
Rather than trying to achieve anything, the entire basis of both space programs became simply to exist - to keep the infrastructure running, to keep the engineers employed, to maintain the pretense that governments who had long ago deteriorated into helpless agents of conservative economic forces were still looking ahead to something more optimistic and imaginative than oil fields and SUVs. But the Original Sin of NASA was still unfolding - there was no recognition of any deeper or overaching mission than to simply continue existing. We launched the Space Shuttle to replace Apollo, even though it was never designed to go anywhere, and because it never went anywhere, we decided to build a space station so it would have somewhere to go even though the station was never designed to enable going anywhere further. Do you see the essential madness of the space program as it's been for generations?
Because we didn't want to keep spending the money needed to go to the Moon with the Apollo infrastructure, rather than investing in getting to the Moon more efficiently, instead we built a spacecraft that couldn't go anywhere just to keep the industrial base humming. And when we ran out of things for that spacecraft to do by itself, we had it build a space station for it to go to. And what was this station designed to do? Build deep space craft for launch to the Moon or points more distant? No. Test artificial spin gravity for long-duration missions? Nope. Expand the in-space population and become a general center of human activity in Earth orbit? Of course not. Its one and only function was a place for these spacecraft to go to and then leave, and if science happens to occur there, well that's good too.
But when Columbia was destroyed, the house of cards started to fall. What was obvious to engineers in the '80s started becoming clear to ordinary people only in the '00s: The Space Shuttle was a peacock - a flashy, impractical thing created only to look cool while being ten times more expensive than a normal rocket and considerably more dangerous. They started wondering what the hell it had all been about, given that its finest hour and most glorious accomplishment over two decades of service had been to repair a broken telescope. What followed under the Bush White House was an epic farce that had almost no confidence in the space community - a cargo cult program called Constellation, where NASA was supposedly going to just copy Apollo with Shuttle infrastructure at several times the cost and with zero likelihood of Congress providing the necessary additional funding.
Constellation basically consisted of George W. Bush hamming his way through a speech reading a bunch of words he likely didn't understand, promising billions of dollars to keep the Shuttle infrastructure humming the same way Shuttle itself had been articulated to avoid completely losing the Apollo infrastructure. The terms "cynical" and "status quo" don't even begin to cover it, because as far as I can see there was no evidence the principal political actors behind Constellation had any remote intention of ever actually achieving it, and instead were just interested in stringing along the Shuttle budgets for as long as possible. Once again, NASA was being told to exist just to exist, and do nothing so the money could keep flowing to the right politically-connected districts.
Something different appeared on the horizon in the form of a little-known program called COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services), which was a relatively small piece of funding offered as an afterthought so the Bush White House could claim they were in favor of private enterprise - basically, entrepreneurial launch companies would get contracts to develop systems for delivering cargo to the International Space Station on a fixed-price basis. In truth, they only offered this money because they never thought they would have to pay it - cargo would continue to be sent up by major aerospace contractors forever, at whatever prices the revolving door of lobbyist-bureaucrats agreed to, and in the meantime there would be some photo ops with some lame little companies that would never amount to anything. They didn't count on Elon Musk and his revolutionary company SpaceX.
So when Musk started successfully launching rockets to orbit at a fraction the cost of his competitors, the usual suspects started getting nervous - Republican Congressmen went on the record belittling them as basically garage tinkerers who it would be ludicrous to trust with precious NASA cargo, and started angling to exclude them from contracts in favor of big prime contractors like Boeing who had offered nothing but paper studies and computer illustrations. SpaceX, unlike NASA, had and continues to have an infinite-horizon program: Their objective is what NASA's should be, but hasn't been due to politics - the general expansion of humankind into space via the radical reduction of orbital launch costs and pursuit of solar system colonization.
Most of the public falsely believes the above sentence is the mission of NASA, but it isn't - Congress would never permit that to be the official purpose of the Agency, and many even of starry-eyed folks who have been with it for decades have only recently come to see that objective as something more credible than an adolescent fantasy. As of today, in NASA there is no concrete plan to put humans back on the Moon, land on Mars, or colonize anything, anywhere. None, zero, zilch. Nor has there ever been. It has always just been a "maybe, someday" thing while they hunker down and focus on the details of the funded missions scheduled right now.
But in the vacuum of leadership that's existed for generations, an entire community grew around dedication to human expansion into space, and that community has shaped the attitudes of the commercial space sector being led by SpaceX. Those people, who have no compunction about saying that this is their goal, have been waging a philosophical insurgency into NASA for the past few years, and their power has only grown with every new milestone SpaceX meets. These people don't think the purpose of NASA is just to exist, either performing stunts for public amusement or just going around in circles to justify pork - its purpose is to create the fertile ground for a general explosion of humanity on to a wider stage than has ever existed in our species' history; to make impossible endeavors possible; impractical ones practical; expensive endeavors economical, and dangerous ones more approachable. Its purpose is to be the first, delicate tendrils of human civilization into the far darkness that will be followed by mighty thrusts outward.
However, the young turks have not yet won, and are still waging something of an insurgent campaign in NASA despite the strength of SpaceX. The prime contractors are still very powerful, as is much of the bureaucracy, and the old ways still have their own program going on - they're trying to build a super-heavy lift pork-barrel rocket called the Space Launch System and a space capsule called Orion. These are repackaged vestiges of Constellation that avoided being cancelled, and yet still require a considerable influx of new funding there is no reason to believe will be provided by Congress. And yet it continues, like so much else, on its own political inertia since it has the backing of key Senators.
In theory, it sounds similar to what they should be doing: Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will be contracted out to companies like SpaceX who will do it at lower cost and greater safety while NASA uses SLS and Orion to explore the Moon, Mars, and Near-Earth Asteroids. But in practice, the reality is that SpaceX is delivering a factor of 10 bang-for-the-buck in its development of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 / Falcon Heavy rockets while the SLS doesn't even exist yet and Orion is having major manufacturing problems. Falcon 9 has flown successfully four times, Elon Musk has said Falcon Heavy may be test launched in 2013, and Dragon has been into orbit and rendezvoused with the ISS twice - and been successfully recovered from the ocean twice. Now, Dragon isn't a deep space craft - it would have to be upgraded for that - but it seems pretty damn clear that SpaceX is far closer to providing a deep space exploration capability for NASA than NASA is to providing one for itself.
Nonetheless, there are forces in NASA who really don't like the growing power and influence of SpaceX, and see it as some kind of Leviathan arising out of the ocean to devour the Agency. That view is as silly and wrongheaded as the resistance that arose to its participation in the LEO cargo and crew contracting process - SpaceX is nothing more than an enabler, and what I think the fear is is that NASA will lose stature even if its capabilities are vastly increased by the services being offered. The real, human purpose of NASA from the beginning has been finding what's out there, not just finding out how to get there, but so much of its infrastructure is built around getting there that it's perceived of as a threat that someone potentially better at the "how" has shown up. Many in NASA recognize the profound opportunity this presents to finally get down to the business the Agency was intended to be about - the science, the discovery, the intrepid pushing back of human boundaries, and not about dictating how to do it through overpaid, technologically conservative prime contractors.
Now, getting back to Charlie Bolden, there has been some perception that he is not as big a cheerleader of the New Way than a lot of space activists, and may be clinging to SLS/Orion and the constituencies behind it a bit more than is justified. I don't really know anything about that, but it has contributed to the speculation about his future in the second Obama term, since the administration has been strongly pushing the New Way from the beginning. It was this administration that ended Constellation and has advocated the "Flexible Path" exploration concept whereby we develop the ability to go anywhere, and then once we have it, go everywhere rather than trying to tailor technologies to destinations when we don't really know what we're doing before we're out there. NASA is subject to political winds and budgets, so no statement about it is ever entirely concrete, but I've been a lot more encouraged by the Flexible Path than any of the hollow rhetoric that attended Constellation, and I know evolved SpaceX technology is a lot more likely to get us there than SLS/Orion.
That said, this does not mean that Bolden will be leaving, even if his priorities do skew toward the establishmentarian viewpoint. Replacing him would depend on having someone better for the job in mind who has a stronger emphasis on the new way, and there is no guarantee any such person is available or that the administration sees it as justified to pursue new leadership. However, it will be very fascinating in coming years to watch as SpaceX and NASA evolve side-by-side, intertwining, and the complicated relationships and synergies that will occur because of it.