Ben's Website

Serious musings

Letter in Support of NASA & Commercial Crew

A Letter to Senators Kohl and Johnson in support of robust funding of NASA's Commercial Crew program.

As your committee marks-up NASA's 2013 budget I hope you will consider my thoughts on the future of NASA and government-funded research and development in general.  I'm from Wausau, earned my undergraduate degree from UW-Madison in Engineering Mechanics-Astronautics, and am now a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at UW.

Both of you are in a position to recall, hopefully favorably, the national excitement surrounding the Apollo program while witnessing a defining moment of our history.  The program was a proxy for national defense, and once it was clear that the USSR was nowhere close to our capabilities the program was drastically pared back with little succession planning.  Apollo was a weapon of the Cold War and, after accomplishing its purpose, funding priorities shifted away from space.  NASA has continued at essentially the same level of congressional support since then, leading to an inefficient space program whose lead over other nations is dwindling.

However the effect of the Apollo program was not limited to our winning of the Cold War, and it is now being argued that its effect on the Cold War was not its greatest benefit to our country.  Rather, Apollo was a visibly daring endeavour and its accomplishment inspired multiple generations to pursue technically-demanding careers while instilling in them a can-do attitude that they have carried throughout their careers.  The Apollo program bears some responsibility for the revolutions in computing and communication that have recently defined our country and our economy.  I don't know the exact degree of influence Apollo has had on our country, but since you are entrusted with shaping our future of our country you should be interested in the answer.

What I can say, as an engineer, a past President of the UW section of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a member of the National Space Society is that we cannot know what we will learn from tackling the challenging problems implicit in doing anything new.  The hard questions often have profound answers; we cannot lead the world from our armchairs.

If you allow that the Apollo program increased our national prestige and enshrined us symbolically, and literally, as the technologic and economic leaders of the past 60 years, a good question is how can we recapture some of that (we still lead, but our plaque has lost some of its luster).  A better question is how can we create an environment that fosters future advances and continued leadership.  Both of these questions are easy to pose but are difficult to answer in a concrete, actionable way.  Instead, I like to ask: what kind of people are responsible for Apollo's achievements, what motivated them, and do they exist today.  If the latter is true, where are they and why do many claim that America is on the way out?  If we can lead, if we can do better, why don't we?

The median age of the Apollo launch controllers was 26; I'll be 25 in May.  I've worked at NASA Kennedy Space Center and have friends working a Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center.  I enjoyed my work and my friends derive great satisfaction from working directly for the space program, making whatever contribution they can.  What NASA does not have are droves of young engineers, scientists, technicians, and managers.[1]  NASA is cool, but true excitement is elicited only by companies that are developing systems which have the potential to launch these droves of young workers into space and return them safely.[2]  SpaceX is preeminent among them, but I follow, with bated breath, developments from Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin, and Boeing.

It is essential to fund NASA's Commercial Crew program.  The simple reason is that the engineers at companies that are developing new spaceflight systems are in pursuit of something greater than shareholder profits, theirs is the dream of expanding the frontier.  This dream is grounded in reality: my peers and I have at least twenty years where we will be physically capable of enduring spaceflight, performing complex tasks, and dealing with intense situations, and in these commercial companies we have the opportunity to create the systems that will sustainably transport us into the future.

After watching the significant amount of work put into the Constellation Program, I have little faith that Congress' current fashion, the Space Launch System, will meet its development and fiscal targets.[1]  It may fare better than Constellation, but NASA cannot afford another system where NASA is the sole designer, producer, operator, and customer with anything resembling its current budget.  The Shuttle program has many accomplishments, but it significantly limited the agency's programmatic flexibility and shares the blame, with past Congresses, for our current payments to Russia and expected seven year human spaceflight gap.  In comparison, Commercial Crew is a steal.

Becoming an astronaut, that is one who works at the frontier of human experience and at the height of our technical capability while directly shaping our future beyond Earth, is my ultimate aspiration.  Though my education and experiences have grounded my expectations of becoming an astronaut, it is still possible and is something I continue to seek.  Irregardless of my present likelihood in that regard, that desire has made me into a competent engineer.  My graduate research is in medical robotics and it is quite possible that my career will continue along this path.  If so, then my future achievements are due in part to NASA's existence and its advancing of the space frontier.

It is therefore also essential to fund NASA and our other agencies that support American R&D.  In the national context, seeing NASA, commercial space companies, and other entities pursue challenging problems motivates future generations of our technical workforce.  Once motivated, there is no personal or societal loss if there are too few opportunities, as their training and inclination towards solving challenging problems will ensure that they remain active contributors to our nation, but we must be visibly attempting the future.

In summary, in funding the NASA you fund the dreams of tomorrow, and by fully funding the Commercial Crew program you encourage the realistic expectation that those dreams can become reality.

Thank you for your time, I would enjoy answering any questions you may have about me personally or how the aerospace industry affects Wisconsin students.

Ben Conrad

1 - This inability to create a vibrant, do-anything culture is due to NASA's inability to add significant numbers of new employees, its obligations to the civil servants, and its earned perception as an often lethargic, bureaucratic entity (in comparison to a new, sexy, lithe, commercial company).  I watched as the successor to the shuttle, Ares I-X, was developed, assembled, and launched on its first test flight.  Constellation was developed to the point that we had test hardware, but shifts in administration and Congresses scuttled it.  Now we won't have another, government-designed and government-built rocket until 2017 at the earliest.  I advocate in support of Commercial Crew, and the Administrations request in this regard because Commercial Crew is the fastest, most sustainable investment the Congress can make.  For unlike Constellation (and Shuttle) once awarded future Congresses and administrations can only build on top of what the companies have already constructed.  In so doing, the customer is separated from the builder; the builder only gets paid if the customer likes the product, but the customer carries no veto over the builder.  Moreover, if our country wishes to stop wasting money, we would do well to give NASA some funding stability beyond the three-year horizon.

2 - NASA is capable of great things and could reattain the culture of accomplishment it had during the Apollo program.  But without a significant restructuring to its funding and accompanied modifications to the civil servant workforce to make it more competitive with commercial companies, NASA will be increasingly consumed by paper studies and budget projections of systems that never get built, tested, or flown.