Politics & Rocket Design at NASA

Mark Whittington has an excellent piece, The Politics of Space Rocket Design at NASA, reporting on NASA’s chief technologist Robert Braun’s comment that NASA, not Congress, would design the next U.S. launcher.

    Robert Braun, the chief technologist for NASA, took note of some of the requirements for the Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Vehicle in the recently passed NASA authorization bill, and had a brave and true thing to say.

    According to the Orlando Sentinel, Braun said, “NASA engineers — not Congress — must determine the design of America’s next big spaceship to take humans beyond the moon.”

    Congress has already had unhappy experience with the Obama-era NASA doing everything it could to throttle the Constellation program, using legal and political jujitsu, even though Congress had mandated that Constellation continue. So it is somewhat understandable that the oversight committees want to keep a tight rein on things.

    Politics? You betcha. But the space agency crossed that Rubicon a long time ago.

Braun’s comments will not be a hit with Congress, according to some of the posts by a poster over at NASA Spaceflight,

    I can assure you such comments are not viewed positively by those in the Congress who believe they have sent a clear message that the FY 2011 “plan” regarding follow-on launch vehicles and human spaceflight direction beyond LEO was, and now certifiably is, DOA. Remember Bobby Braun was brought in to oversee the HUGE redirection of formerly Constellation program funds in advanced r and d; the directionless “honey-pots” of open-ended research that were a major point of criticism for many in the Congress when the FY 2011 Budget Request was released. The majority of those funds were redirected–in both House and Senate bills–back to vehicle development. So he’s precisely the person NOT to ask about NASA’s intent or approach to development of launch vehicles under the terms soon to be established as the law of the land. He’s correct in saying that engineers, and not politicians, will design the follow-on vehicles. But engineers have to obey not only the laws of physics, but the law of the land, as well, if they are working on government-funded programs.

    My point was simply that the Chief Technologist is not the person with the direct organizational responsibility for the design of a new NASA launch vehicle, and therefore not the best person to comment on how that process might be expected to proceed. Period. That’s just a statement of fact. Does that mean he cannot or should not be a contributor to that design effort? Of course not. To my knowledge he hasn’t been involved directly in the preliminary design trade studies, but all of that’s been going on in the absence of specific, authorized vehicle development activities, so is not the actual vehicle design activity that would commence within the Exploration Missions Systems Directorate when that is initiated.

AmericaSpace Note: Updated to reflect that Robert Braun is NASA’s, not Marshall’s, Chief Technologist. We apologize for any misunderstanding this may have caused.

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