Soon I’ll begin a new chapter in my career as a writer for NASA. With the agency’s future about to be upended by the options presented by Norm Augustine’s review panel, its ability to reshape the public’s perception of its roles and missions has become more than a parlor game for pundits. It will in large measure be the frame through which the American people will assess the importance and relevance of NASA and whether or not it should receive anything close to renewed emphasis and federal funding, money that Norm Augustine’s group suggests is essential if the U.S. civil space program is to have any chance to achieve any of the menu of exploration goals presented before President Barack Obama.
There then, from my vantage point, here are some ideas on how NASA can get its post-Augustine groove back.
One message, many messengers
One key area is for NASA communicators and speechwriters to make certain that both Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver speak with one voice on the central goal that Obama chooses. A public campaign must be structured that sends both leaders fanning out across the country, to NASA field centers and other venues, to explain the choice the President makes, how it will (or won’t) refocus the NASA mission, and what new opportunities for national achievement awaits. Their media campaigns must not overlap but be complimentary.
Good-Bye Ares 1: Don’t admit mistakes
It would seem no matter what path Obama selects from the Augustine "menu", the Ares 1 Crew Launch Vehicle is likely to be canceled and replaced by either a commercial launch solution or an EELV. To preserve the credibility of NASA’s launch vehicle design abilities, Bolden should cast the termination decision in terms of a changing national environment. The world has changed, and the more prudent path to Shuttle replacement lies with another choice. He should not admit any mistakes in Ares design or development. Emphasize the impact of a newly empowered entrepreneurial space community to fill the spaceflight gap, and ways NASA can mentor and partner with these new firms. Perhaps making the lunar Orion compatible with many commercial boosters? Development of a new engine by Marshall’s design shop? Turn this setback into good news.
No better time for fresh blood
Fate has handed Bolden the ability to advance the careers of many younger managers now cutting their teeth on Shuttle and station. To change the leadership of NASA’s refocused human spaceflight program will require new faces, not just rearranging the current management team. These should be presented to the public in a comprehensive, not piecemeal way. Rolling them out in dribs and drabs would seem more destabilizing than doing it in blocks.
Reshaping the field centers
It might also be a good time to reconsider the specific roles of each of the 10 NASA field centers and their technology development portfolios. Depending on how much of the Constellation architecture survives, Bolden must overlay onto these new roles with a more permanent technology focus. It would give the centers stability and allow them to better weather the storm of change that is coming.
Commercial Space de jour
Now would be the time for an historic and all-encompassing embrace of the commercial community by NASA. If LEO crew and cargo access is to be turned over to the commercial launch community, NASA must carefully craft a transitional role that preserves safety and flight opportunity while ushering in commercial style practices-the very type of cost-effective processes that NASA has resisted in the past. This could be a true transformation-if the bureaucracy gets the message reinforced by top leaders.
Making Space Exploration relevant again
NASA must give new emphasis to its role in the life of the average American family. The agency should point out all of the ways NASA technologies are in daily use, ways that space technology improves our world, and make sure these types of spinoffs (there, I’ve used that word) are always mentioned when new space capabilities are announced. It’s not just about astronauts but about first-responders, doctors, nurses, and many others we encounter every day. If you want the public to support the "new" NASA, make sure they know what they will get from NASA programs.
Outreach with teeth
It is time for NASA to seek and sustain a whole new approach to outreach. This means going beyond the traditional space-support groups to seek coalitions with groups like the AMA, National Geographic Society, the environmental movement and others. There are plenty of ways NASA programs filter through the interests of these other activities.
Time for a real War Room
Among the most critical constituencies that must understand these changes are the legislators on Capitol Hill. It is time for NASA to develop a true war room for the "campaign". What should it contain?
· A master timeline of the transition to the new space policy
· A list of every member of Congress and key staffers
· Another list of every special request made to NASA, from launch tours to astronaut visits to desktop models, Hubble pictures or posters, by whom and when.
· Telephone numbers and addresses for calls every member of Congress individually, or in-person visits by a NASA staff person.
· Contact data for financial supporters of key members of Congress, to be contacted (via proxy NOT directly) for sustained support.
· More contact data for outreach-NGOs, space and science groups, academics, business leaders (Chambers of Commerce, Optimist Clubs, etc.) and the like.
When NASA staffers raise their right hand and swear an oath as federal employees, the need for continued U.S. space leadership becomes a calling of sorts for each and every one-and it becomes personal.
This is an energy that can be harnessed and directed, especially in times of turbulence. In such a time, it can be seen as a form of public service. This is what American Airlines Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger calls " a higher duty". A NASA in crisis can stand to use a bit of this attitude-from its workers and from all who are part of that larger space family.
But all of us will need to work together, in ways we have not done before, to assemble a coalition that will help birth the age of commercial space, as well as this new age for NASA and its leaders. It’s a calling worthy of each of us-and may well be the ultimate space goal of our generation.
That goal is not the Moon, or Mars or NEO intercepts alone. But instead, it is helping us see ourselves in the reflected light of the worlds we explore.
Per aspera, Ad Astra.