Continuing To Take Sides

I admire Neil Armstrong greatly. He’s a great man, and a great engineer. I was privileged to see him a few years ago at a rare public appearance — a commencement address, which was appropriately humble, and focused on not himself but on the graduates, as a good commencement address should be.

That said, I don’t necessarily take anything he says about modern space policy seriously. This is because a) he and I don’t necessarily share the same goals for our policy and b) it’s not at all obvious that he’s been closely following what’s going on with the agency. After his flight, almost four decades ago, he became almost a recluse, returning to Ohio to teach engineering, and offering little in the way of interviews. In any event, he decided (unwisely, in my opinion) to weigh in on the current NASA transition controversy:

Your article indicated that President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team “faces a tough early choice between extending the life of the aging space shuttle and accelerating its replacement.”

I certainly hope that isn’t accurate, in that the transition team should play no part in such decisions. While these men and women are experienced and enthusiastic space program veterans, they are neither aerospace engineers nor former program managers and cannot be sufficiently knowledgeable to make choices in the technical arena.

The transition team does have the responsibility to collect information to assist President-elect Obama in understanding the issues and decisions he will be facing. The making of decisions of such import, however, is the responsibility of the president and should be guided by the best advice from the most able and skilled experts on the subject.

I think that Professor Armstrong has the wrong take on this. No, the transition team won’t, and shouldn’t make such a decision (if for no other reason than it lacks the statutory or constitutional power to do so — its membership has no official government role, nor is it compensated). However, as he notes, they are collecting information to assist the incoming president in making such a decision, and that includes gathering “the best advice from the most able and skilled experts on the subject.” I’m curious as to why he thinks that they are not doing so. Does he think that this team will go through one exercise now, to no useful purpose, and then the president will later take the time to repeat it, this time “gathering the best advice” as opposed to whatever it is he thinks that they are currently doing? Clearly, they are gathering information, integrating it, and preparing a set of recommendations for the new president. As they should be.

But the next part shows that he has not been closely following what’s going on with NASA lately:

He should have no difficulty receiving high-quality information from NASA. Engineers are painfully honest and insist on presenting any assumptions used in their decision process. Therefore a conclusion can only be challenged when an erroneous assumption can be identified. Because this approach is somewhat unfamiliar in business and politics, its importance is often overlooked.

This is a nice, ivory-tower view of engineering and engineers, and I have no doubt that this is exactly what Professor Armstrong would do were he asked. But it is not what NASA has been doing. We have yet to see a full accounting of the sixty-day study that resulted in ESAS (including assumptions), so apparently NASA management either aren’t engineers, or they are not conforming with the good professor’s idealized notion of how they should behave.

A great deal of thought and analysis has gone into NASA’s program to return to space exploration as the principal focus of the agency. The breadth of NASA’s creative thinking was limited by the funding constraints, and compromises had to be made. Even so, the agency has fashioned a challenging but credible program to return to the moon and go on toward Mars.

How does he know this? Seriously?

Does he have access to the reports and analyses that have been denied to the rest of us? How does he know that the “compromises made” were a result of funding constraints, as opposed to political ones, and personal prejudices (or worse, conflicts of interest among the principals involved)? Is he just assuming that it’s the case, because he doesn’t want to believe otherwise about the agency that allowed him to be the first man to walk on the moon four decades ago?

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