President Bush's announcement of a new U.S. space exploration initiative and the efforts to rectify safety concerns and return the shuttle to flight have put NASA in the spotlight this year both in the media and in Congress. An April hearing of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space examined how other countries' space programs compare to that of the U.S., while a report released in March assesses NASA's organizational culture and recommends a plan of action to improve it.
SENATE SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND SPACE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARING:
"We are in a global competition for the future," announced Senate STS Subcommittee Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS), a competition in which space will be "a key element." Witnesses at the April 27 hearing described the programs of other space-faring nations. During the discussion, James Oberg of Soaring Hawk Productions, Inc. warned that the U.S. is "never going to dominate entirely" in space again.
According to John Logsdon of the George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, Japan has sent, or plans to send, unmanned exploratory spacecraft to many of the planets, the Moon, and an Earth-crossing asteroid. It has hopes of being a key player in an international lunar base, but spacecraft and launch failures have sidetracked its space program recently. India's space program, he said, has been largely focused on technical development and economic growth, but India is now showing interest in solar system exploration, with intentions to send its first unmanned mission to the Moon in 2007. Europe, said Logsdon, is "a very active player already" in solar system exploration, and is studying the possibility of a manned mission to Mars in the 2030-2040 time frame. Marcia Smith of the Congressional Research Service noted that Russia has operated seven successful space stations, and even though its space budget was decimated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is still interested in "the types of objectives laid out in President Bush's vision." So far, she said, the President's message to other countries has been that they are invited to help achieve exploration objectives set out by the U.S. The Chinese hope to have a probe in lunar orbit by 2007, reported Oberg. Their intent, he said, is to learn from the mistakes that other countries have made, and to use their space program to demonstrate the credibility of their technology to the rest of the world. He estimated that China was about 12 years from its first manned space flight, and suggested that the Chinese would be looking for a goal that other countries are not considering, such as perhaps a trip to a near-Earth asteroid.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) questioned why the U.S. initiative included returning to the Moon before heading to Mars. Oberg said the International Space Station program has "taught us that we're not smart enough yet" to build a spacecraft that does not need resupply; things broke down faster than expected and required more spare parts than planned for. Both Smith and Logsdon referred to potential resources on the Moon that could be used for further missions. Smith added that while the U.S. is a party to four U.N. treaties regulating space activities, it is not a party to a fifth treaty regulating use of the Moon and its resources.
Smith also emphasized the fact that President Bush's space exploration proposal would, for the first time, make U.S. access to the space station dependent on the Russians during the 2010-2014 period, after the shuttle is retired but before a U.S.-built Crew Exploration Vehicle is expected to be ready. "This is a profound change" in the U.S. approach to international cooperation, she stated, and would depend on our future relationship with Russia. Oberg pointed to the value of having dual U.S. and Russian access to the station: "Each was there when the other wasn't." "I just don't pick up enthusiasm in Congress for continuing the shuttle much longer," Brownback said, even though the expected lack of a U.S. human transport capability between 2010 and 2014 was one of senators' major concerns at an April 1 hearing he chaired (see FYI #54).
Smith estimated that Russia spends approximately $500 million annually on its space program, India spends about $450 million, China about $2 billion, and Europe spends $4.5 billion for civilian space programs and approximately the same amount for military space programs. (NASA's budget request for FY 2005 is $16.2 billion) Sven Grahn of the Swedish Space Corporation explained how countries with small space budgets could now, with advances in software and electronics, mount unmanned missions using off-the-shelf, interchangeable components. Smith said that all major space-faring nations have outreach to other partners; "it usually boils down to money," she said.
Commenting that "I don't see anybody much saying we shouldn't continue with manned exploration," Brownback indicated that he was interested in working on an authorization bill incorporating President Bush's exploration proposal.
PLAN FOR ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE CHANGE AT NASA:
Earlier this year, NASA received the results of an evaluation of the agency' s overall safety climate and culture. The March 15 report, produced by Behavioral Science Technology, Inc. and entitled, "Assessment and Plan for Organizational Culture Change at NASA," is available on the NASA web site at www.nasa.gov/pdf/57382main_culture_web.pdf .
The assessment found that while "there are many positive aspects to the NASA culture," there are also "some important needs for improvement. The present NASA culture does not yet fully reflect the Agency's espoused core values of Safety, People, Excellence, and Integrity." For the assessment, NASA employees were asked to complete a survey rating the agency in the following categories: Procedural Justice; Leader-Member Exchange; Management Credibility; Perceived Organizational Support; Teamwork; Workgroup Relations; Safety Climate; Upward Communication; and Approaching Others. According to the report, "The two scales where NASA scores lowest are Perceived Organizational Support...and Upward Communication." From additional questions, the report determined that "There is a clear perception that budget constraints compromise engineering and mission safety." The report found "a strong sense of dedication and commitment to the Agency's work" among employees, but also "frustration about a number of things," including the relationship between headquarters and the centers; competition among the centers; impediments to speaking up; variability in leadership and management skill levels; NASA's treatment of its contractors; and confusion about the purposes of a number of new safety, management, financial and return to flight initiatives.
In order to address the deficiencies found, the report lays out an "approach to cultural transformation" that includes such recommendations as leadership and management performance analysis, coaching and workshops; behavioral observation and feedback processes; team effectiveness training; and competency-based systems of performance management, hiring and promotion.