Monthly Archives: December 2010

Christmas Conversations

Last week, while walking around in the toy department of Target, my youngest (she is 3) was asked by some polite adult stranger if Santa was coming to visit this Christmas. Cayla replied, “No…He can’t…He isn’t real.” The silence and the look I received from that stranger were far from polite. Of course this is not the first instance of a cold, hostile silence involving Christmas.

It was a warm December morning in December of 2002 and I was working at Kennedy over the holiday break. As had been the case the previous three years, there was some scheduled milestone for one of the Space Shuttle Orbiters in the processing facility and I volunteered to work. Christina and Matthew were only 3 years old and 22 months respectively and I needed the money to pay down my student loans and begin to save. A coworker (and friend of 5 years) of mine had asked how our Christmas holiday was and if Santa had visited. Not thinking anything of it, I replied honestly “No – we aren’t teaching our kids to believe in Santa.” Her disposition soured and she exclaimed that she could not believe I would deprive my children of the wonderful experience of believing in Santa. That friend was no longer friendly and she rarely spoke to me after that. I was naïve to the emotional attachment to Christmas and Santa among adults.

Much has transpired since then. But every year we are inundated with news of how the special tradition of Christmas is under attack. Many Christians have now joined in the annual debate over the intentional removal of holiness from Christmas. “Don’t let them take the Christ out of Christmas” they shout or blog. Intellectually, however, no one argues the real origin of the winter holiday and very few Christians actually believe it is the season of the birth of Messiah. Yet, the public debate and rallying cry of many social conservatives is criticism for America to uphold the traditional Christian holiday. What is the nature of the fear? From where does this panic originate?

Bill O’Reilly has begun his usual rant that there is an all out war to eliminate Christmas. But he never articulates the nature of the threat, nor does he elaborate on the meaning and importance of Christmas. So why do many believe that the government can kill Christmas? Perhaps Mr. O’Reilly needs to be reminded that Christmas is special if people (rightly or wrongly) continue to make it so and the government really has no power over that choice. Thus, the source of the fear is identified – that our federal government may extinguish the status of Christmas as a federal holiday. To which I ask – so what if it did?

A more important question would be – Why are we fighting so hard to hold on to a mirage? Ask yourself – why is there so much attention and emotion surrounding Christmas? Don’t misunderstand; every year at this time, we rejoice and enjoy the family time, the end of the year reflection, the changing of the seasons, and the gift giving. Make no mistake – we sing Christmas Carols and we rejoice in the birth of our Savior. But we could do these things in September just as well. If the federal government decided it was no longer a federally observed holiday, would it really change anything?

The Christmas season and all of its symbols are merely tradition. Some of them are borrowed from Judeo-Christian heritage and inserted into a decided secular celebration. But it is not Holy. Holiness is defined and assigned by God alone. Nowhere is it written the date of Christ’s birth and nowhere are we instructed to remember and celebrate it. So as we enter this year-end festive season, perhaps we can dial down the secularist assaults and protectionism rhetoric and merely observe or ignore the Christmas season. It does not bother me that we have a federally observed holiday, nor would it bother me if it were eliminated. True Holy Days and their observance are a personal, family and community concern – not a national one. Being honest about what is (and what isn’t) makes the what is all that more special. Were we to focus on faith and facts, we would find the true Holy-days more fulfilling. Were we to revere reality and reason we would rejoice in our Redemption. Will you?

The NASA Budget Myth – Open Letter to the 112th Congress

In the realm of science, facts are intended to supplant myths; truth, at the end of the day, is the goal. The scientific method is intended to show us how to deliberate, observe, and thus increase our understanding of natural laws.

But inside the beltway, political myths are rarely challenged by facts – even the ones that should be easily dismissed. The predominant myth regarding NASA is that it is a priority among both Democrats and Republicans, and its budget has simply been an unfortunate target during fiscally difficult times. To add insult to injury, in budgetary and legislative action, NASA and the aerospace community have been treated as a hobby rather than an economic driver and the only tangible investment our government has made technologically.

An examination of the federal government’s budget and NASA’s portion is in order. The numbers are staggering, and betray Washington DC’s neglect of arguably the only valuable agency of the government outside of defense. (Click HERE for Braynstorm’s Budget Analysis)The facts reveal a bipartisan reluctance in the White House and Congress to match rhetoric with action. There has never been a more urgent time to expose this concern, given Washington’s claim to make space, and NASA in particular, a priority.

In 1991, the first Augustine Commission recommended a budget increase for NASA and recommended the completion of the design and construction of the Space Station (then Freedom). It also recommended construction of a Heavy Lift Vehicle. That year, the federal budget was $1.3 trillion; NASA’s budget was $13.8 billion. NASA’s relatively paltry portion of the budget had to suffice for funding science, a fleet of three vehicles, construction of a fourth (Endeavor replacing Challenger) and the design and construction of the space station. The apparent conclusion, running the numbers, is that the commission’s recommendations weren’t taken seriously.

The real disparity becomes obvious when one looks at the Republican takeover of both Houses of Congress in 1994. From 1994 to 2000, the Republican-controlled Congress actually increased the federal budget by 22 percent. While 21 agencies and budget lines saw double-digit increases, NASA’s budget was hit with a reduction of $13.4 billion, or 2 percent, over 6 years.

The biggest winners during the same time frame were the Department of Commerce, whose budget increased by 167 percent, the Department of Justice, which grew by more than 80 percent, and Social Security, which saw a 26 percent increase. Military spending was kept to a 5 percent increase over the 6-year period.

Only the Departments of Energy and Labor saw significant reductions in their budgets ($3 billion and $6 billion respectively), but in both cases, there is a logical explanation: the economy of the 1990’s was bolstered by Reagan’s pro-growth policies of the 1980’s, and the need for government funding of unemployment benefits was reduced. The Department of Energy, originally created to end our dependence on foreign oil resources, wouldn’t have needed full funding but for the fact that nuclear energy deregulation was stalled between the White House and Congress.

In short, NASA and Defense were the only two areas of the budget which saw practically no increase in funding during the Republican Congresses of the 1990’s, even as their tasks were increased. Every other government agency saw a substantial increase in its budget with little justification for the increases.

NASA’s budget remained flat during the first term of President Bush, while it continued to be given more tasks to do. It was asked to complete the space station, return the space shuttles to flight after the accident of 2003, and begin development and construction of a replacement rocket to the Low Earth Orbit and a new Heavy Lift Rocket to support moon and Mars missions. However, President Bush and Congress never gave NASA the necessary funds to perform these missions. From 2000 to 2008, the Republican White House, with mostly Republican Congresses, increased the federal budget from $1.78 trillion to $3.0 trillion, with the largest beneficiaries being the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, NASA’s budget remained barely changed at $15 billion. It was not until the Democrats gained control of Congress in 2008 that NASA’s budget was increased to $17.8 billion.

Enter President Obama. In 2009 and 2010, we saw record growth in the federal budget. In just two years, the federal budget was increased by $750 billion, with 25 of the major budget line items receiving a double digit percentage increase. Leading the pack were Labor, Commerce, Energy, Education, Agriculture, and Social Security. The only major line item in the budget that received less than a 10 percent increase was…you guessed it – NASA. At 7 percent, NASA was the smallest increase given to any agency, and it was given a mere $1.3 billion more to do what every expert said would require at least $3 billion to do.

To add insult to injury, the budget was increased to $19 billion for 2011, but the mission and the work were canceled. Even worse was the claim by the White House that NASA should consider itself fortunate that it saw an increase for 2011. Hunh? It was, after all, the only agency with a real mission. Somehow they should be happy that their budget didn’t get cut?

Enter the election of 2010. The Republicans have won the House and they aim to reduce spending. While this is an admirable goal, NASA has been neglected by both parties. If America is to remain the global leader in technology, it must remain a space power. If, out of principle, we wish to remove the government role and defund NASA, then by all means, let’s do it. Doing so, though, involves removing the barriers that are in place so that American companies can compete in the global marketplace.

If, out of principle, NASA is a strategic defense asset of the United States and it cannot allow privatization to happen due to military threats, then so be it. Increase the budget of NASA and make it the priority of the nation and the budget. As the only agency of the federal government that has the capacity to create real technology jobs, its prominence on the global stage needs to be expanded. America must restore our leadership in science education and open up real new markets for 21st-century capitalism.

NASA should be the single most important agency in 2011 and 2012. It has the capacity to reduce the demand on social safety net programs and could single-handedly eliminate the deficit.

The key to balancing the budget is reducing taxes, reducing spending on social programs, investing in the areas that actually create production, and expanding those products to the ever-growing marketplace. To the members of the 112th congress – you have the opportunity to make real history. Do not let this opportunity pass you by.

American Rebirth

(Originally posted on October 25, 2010)

America has come a long way from its birth. From its early days with revolutionary ideas of self governance, to its maturation through internal conflict caused by true introspection of core philosophy, American ingenuity was never more abundant than during the era between the War Between the States and World War I. The printing press and telegraph began shrinking the world and connecting ever more men and women all over the globe. The advent of electric communications technology and mass media in the early 20th century held great promise for continued prosperity in America. Werner Von Braun dreamed of permanent human presence in space and expansion of the human race to Mars and beyond. Many of his ideas were within reach before the turn of the next century. But as NPR reported this week, many of the dreams of the 20th century have gone unrealized.

The story states that they “imagined the skies in 2010 alive with orbiting factories and experimental laboratories ‘floating around in space, producing new pharmaceuticals, alloys and other substances, taking full advantage of the absence of gravity.’ They also believed that satellites “would generate power from solar rays to be used by earthlings.”

In three words, the first is, what, followed by why not?

The article immediately injects “the Challenger exploded in 1986, knocking space exploration — and exploitation — on its heels” as a major cause of America’s stalled leadership in space. While I agree, without exception, that the first bold space flight accident in US History was a major setback, it was our collective and government reaction to it that has retarded any future development and prosperity of space commerce. Repeatedly, government funded analyses from within NASA, academia, government funded prime contractors, and privately funded firms conclude that reliable access to space to place and construct large infrastructure and facilities is the next necessary step to the full commercial exploitation of space. However, the US government – via congressional action and budgetary cycles – became fearful of another space accident. The culture of NASA and its contractors shifted away from educated risk taking to risk aversion.

As an overprotective mother may decide that riding a bike following a bad accident involving brain surgery might be too risky, Congress directed and funded NASA to take baby steps. Even as Space Flight matured, the human capital remained intellectually grounded – disallowed from exploring their dreams. Congress ignored the overwhelming recommendations to increase and expand capacity for space access via government expense. Meanwhile, Congressional inaction on restrictive and outdated regulations has prevented many of the potential commercial developments in space – which could have led to international private investment, research, and commerce in space. The effect is that a technological infrastructure driven by dreams has been reduced to producing windmills and electric matchbox cars – technology that is wholly uninspiring and insufficient to meet the demands of human prosperity.

Since the Challenger accident, the technology has developed, the markets have radically changed, and space continues to be an underexploited resource for human prosperity. While the debate over space policy seemed to conclude this fall, it appeared that there was a compromise regarding government and private sectors roles in space. However, none of them addressed the poor regulatory controls remaining in place by the Department of Commerce, Defense, Transportation or the FAA or FCC from before the advent of Sputnik. Much of the regulation was set in place in a cold war era of high military technological advances.

But this is much bigger than commercial space. It is much more significant than the words Constellation or Shuttle. This is about who we are as Americans and how we peacefully engage in commerce with other societies around this globe. This is about how we as Americans lead a global, private, peaceful, innovative explosion in technologies and capabilities through mentoring of and partnering with other countries.

The single greatest complaint about America is that while we have been so blessed with richness, we have failed to teach our neighbors how they too can be blessed. Our representatives have failed to understand the changing world and how firm commitments to principles would have helped properly guide ourselves and lead the world to freedom through commerce.

Our leaders have long embraced a paradigm that envisions a fixed or shrinking resource which must be protected rather than better managed for greater growth. They envision a world where an increasing population is a threat to our existence and must be controlled through central planning – where educated and powerful elites decide how to categorize and value life – an ancient paradigm based on the simple cliché “might makes right”. But the American (and Christian) paradigm is one of work, fruits, and abundance. We are called to work, produce, and, through connection with nature as a creation of God, we are called to prosper and be free. That is the foundation of our nation.

If there is one sure thing history has taught us, it is that life will not be controlled. The human spirit merely tolerates tyranny, and even then only temporarily. It resists and rejects long term attempts to force, manipulate or coerce. Human life and its prosperity require brutal honesty and accountability. America was a leap forward in a philosophical creation of an ideal government of imperfect men – to hold them accountable to the laws of nature.

As China completes its second lunar mission, Brazil seeks to solve its communication desires, and India seeks to expand its space access, our own American based commercial ventures are left stymied. Is America currently in the midst of its own perfect storm? Will life demand freedom from economic tyranny? Is there sufficient political will to demand the proper solutions, or will America resort to mob protests over social program modifications? And if the will is sufficient, will this crop of elected officials truly represent their constituents and promote policies which align with those principles? Will they arrive in Washington DC to do the work of the people and seek to remove barriers to human innovation and American ingenuity? I pray this storm has arrived.

Make no mistake – humanity will prosper and freedom will win. The question is whether or not America will lead it, watch it, or be trampled underfoot. This is a free choice we get to make and it is yours on November 2, 2010.

The Republican Pledge is Merely a Political Hedge

(Originally Posted on October 4, 2010)

After four years of being in the minority party in both houses, the Republican Party leadership has had plenty of time to regroup and restore their mission and purpose. They should have spent those four years soul searching and restoring their roots – personally reconnecting to their core beliefs. It is obvious with this “pledge” that all they did was perform and dissect polls in order to understand what policies the people want to be enacted. Once again – they prove they are out of touch with us. We the people are not policy wonks. We do not want more legislation to control the legislators. We simply want honest men and women of conviction to stand for our principles and perform their duties admirably as promised.

The Republican leadership has misdiagnosed the illness. They seek to treat the symptoms; the patients seek a cure. The cause of our pain is not the incorrect understanding of the issues or the path of the government. The cause of the problem IS our government. Our government has overindulged using our tax dollars like a poorly disciplined diabetic on candy. In order to gain more taxes, to establish more power, and to buy more votes, they have expanded the size and scope of the federal government. This is no different than the doctor giving the diabetic candy in order to charge him for more insulin.

The Republican Pledge is hardly worth mentioning in any detail, as it merely outlines four symptoms which require remedy – namely the economy, congressional poor stewardship, social welfare program expansion (Healthcare), and weakened national security. However, it does nothing to diagnose or treat the causes of those symptoms.

The fundamental problem with the Republican Pledge is that it is bad politics and bad strategy. Going into an historic election season, the party leadership seems content to play the old plays. They are missing the significance of this election and they are underestimating the electorate. They’re like the team that wants to sell tickets to the games, and their marketing plan is to explain how they will run on first down – hardly the making of a good sales pitch. If the Republican party wants to energize its base AND so called “independents” (which strongly lean conservative), then they would be well advised to propose, promote, and convince the voting blocks that they have a vision, mission, and personnel to accomplish it. The pledge is a weak playbook with no overarching principles or purpose.

If I may be so bold, perhaps I could suggest such a mission and vision. It requires that we have faith in Americans that they are ready for real change and that they understand their country, its history, and our way back to prominence. It requires that they ignore the “media” which seeks to convince Americans that most Americans are liberal leaning. It requires that we believe in what we say we believe in, and we believe that the most convincing arguments are based in facts and well reasoned analysis.

We must not forget the vision of our Founders. Individuals left free from tyranny and control of centralized government will govern themselves properly and pursue prosperity. We must seek to restore those freedoms. We must not just halt the social welfare program growth and federal government expansion; we must roll it back. We must seek to amend the Constitution to correct mistakes that have been made since its ratification in 1789, as well as fix the errors of omission made by our Founders. We must restore the branches and levels of government to their proper roles and put in place governing language to make forsaking their roles much more difficult for future generations.

A Constitutional Convention should be called by the people in every state. It should be done by ballot measure at the state level, with subsequent application to the federal government. The Republican Party would then have a mandate for action in the next congress. In this convention, the following should be the focus:

Taxation: A complete overhaul of taxation should be considered to eliminate the income tax at the federal level. The 16th amendment should be repealed. In place of the income tax, should be the Fairtax.

Roles: In balancing the power between Washington and the states, we should:

  • Repeal the 17th amendment to restore the states’ voices in federal matters.
  • Eliminate the Office of Management and Budget and restore the authority of the House to initiate and pass all appropriation legislation.
  • Reduce and eliminate many of the executive “powers” that have been instituted unconstitutionally. This includes resetting and eliminating all executive orders.
  • Require that all US military action be used only upon a declaration of war issued by congress. The president does not have authority to send US troops to police the world.
  • Restore the Electoral College as intended by district and eliminate the winner take all for states’ electoral votes.
  • Restore one man – one vote as intended in the Constitution.
  • Eliminate the Federal Reserve and return the authority of coining currency to the US Congress. The currency of a country belongs to its people – not a private central bank.

Culture of Corruption: Establish term limits for both House and Senate.

Immigration: Establish a requirement for citizenship to own American property.

Social Welfare: Eliminate (phase out) current social welfare programs and prevent any future programs at the federal level.

The aforementioned list is not comprehensive, but it addresses many of the mistakes and abuses that have divided many Americans from their government. Only a proper restoration of principles and roles will prevent America from falling into further economic decline. The people are ready. Will the Republican Party lead it, get out of the way, or be a blockade? Time will tell.

The Defining Point in American Space History is Now

On the front page of the Thursday edition of the Huntsville Times, a “crunch time for NASA” was declared. The article clearly describes the dubious position that NASA and its contractors are in as we find ourselves upon the end of the fiscal year without an approved congressional budget. While the Democrats currently control the House, Senate, and White House, they are inept at producing any vision and their lack of leadership has caused a crisis that was completely avoidable. However, what is even more disheartening is that the proponents of Constellation and several Republicans in the House refuse to admit the program’s political failure and are holding NASA and the space industry hostage to fight a battle that can no longer be won. If this continues, the effect will be the decimation of very people and capability that the leaders claim to be seeking to protect.

Perhaps a brief lesson of human space flight history is in order.

The glory days of Apollo were indeed awe-inspiring, but it was not without long-term cost. Ever since the explosion of the budget to support design, development, and production of spacecraft and propulsion systems, NASA has perpetually developed new capabilities and then discarded those capabilities in order to fund even more development.

The shuttle and space station were great ideas and amazing accomplishments, but in the final analysis, the former is being discarded and the latter will be forced to merely survive without sufficient access to fully utilize it. After requiring 13 years to complete its construction, its sustainability is already in question – while the shuttle isn’t even retired yet.

Exchanging the shuttle and station for another round of Apollo revealed the largest problem with the culture of NASA. One the one hand, Apollo style management could not be sustained. Holding 5% of the federal budget (as was done during the 1960’s) is untenable and in a free market economy, taxpayers should not be asked to pay for the costs of an entire industry – setting aside the debate concerning the economic spinoffs from the space industry. On the other hand, developing the space shuttle and space station into a politically viable plan and timeline was proven too difficult. In the process, the workforce and America was left uninspired by 30 years of effort. Therefore, the former administration actually sought to restore Apollo – based on the stated purpose of restoring NASA and giving its dedicated workforce a goal and a “space program worthy of America”. Returning to an Apollo mentality turned out to be an emotional decision rather than a political, philosophical, or even economic one. This is made ever clearer with today’s events.

Where is here? We sit on the edge of essential retirement of the greatest fleet of space vehicles the world has ever known. They have been neglected and the evolution in design of reusable spacecraft was never seriously attempted and thus never realized. We have a space station that will not have major payload access capability without a meaningful heavy lift – but more importantly, we have a station which needs down-mass capability (a way to get heavy broken components back to earth for repair) and no vehicle on the horizon even in development to perform the task. We have a dead moon program whose proponents refuse to declare dead. We have a workforce and an industry on the verge of collapse. We have “commercial” space crowd selling to the public sector its needs for public funding (thus attempting to redefine what commercial means). We have a presidential administration who clearly failed to understand the technical and political complexities of the American space program.

How did we get here?

President Obama, for whatever reason, decided that the Constellation vision was not appropriate for this country. As a result, on Feb 1, 2010 he announced that we would have a bold new vision for NASA. Many inside and outside of NASA understood the technical and political challenges with Constellation and conceded that a change was necessary. But when compelled to reveal this bold new vision to the workforce, no details emerged. At first, it was assumed that this was a poor job of marketing and communication.

After several months went by, it was clear that no plan would be forthcoming. The House of Representatives remained in opposition to the White House “plan” and a stalemate ensued. To ensure that Constellation could not be revived, the White House invoked a (never-before-used-in-NASA) clause which exists in all government contracts to force all work on Constellation to stop before the end of the year. NASA and its management went to work as good soldiers do, and sought to protect their people, their contractors, and their assets as quickly as they could.

Surviving the nearly fatal blow of the Anti-Deficiency Act in June 2010, NASA and its contractors fell back and regrouped. They held their breath, trying to perform their jobs, all the while hoping someone would step out to end the stalemate and bring sanity to the public discourse. The unexpected hero did emerge. Senators Nelson and Hutchison provided the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. Not to be outdone, the House of Representatives followed suit. However, the Senate Bill provided funding for Heavy Lift, gave the president what he asked for in sciences, and provided some (but not all) of the funding for commercial space companies to develop services. The House Bill was a watered down and slower scheduled version of Constellation which could not produce a vehicle before 2017 even by the most optimistic assessments. The House Bill significantly cut any money to develop commercial providers.

Once digested, the merits of the Senate Bill were clearly understood. It would provide a real vehicle and a government space craft to be designed and produced beginning FY 2011. It funded significant upgrades to launch facilities to increase capacity. It also funded some of the money to commercial providers. It was a compromise which passed in August in the form of unanimous consent – no official vote needed. NASA centers and contractors collectively exhaled as it appeared as though reasonable men and their ideas had prevailed. It was understood that big government rockets and programs were no longer the paradigm to be followed. It was understood that while commercial companies continued to mature, NASA would at least make the next evolutionary step of a heavy lift vehicle and would maintain the current infrastructure to do so. The Senate passed the bill before they left session in August. The House would only need to approve it upon their return in September and the numbers would be added to the inevitable Continuing Resolution.

Instead, several proponents of Constellation continued the campaign to revive their beloved program. The effects of this action is that the Continuing Resolution is likely to have neither the House Bill nor Senate Bill language and the workforce across all NASA centers and contractors will effectively be reduced to bare skeletons. The skills, talents, facilities and hardware that the proponents of Constellation so proudly declare that they wish to save are at most in jeopardy now without any agreement on language in the Continuing Resolution. When the space community – NASA, contractors, Senate and White House, and even commercial providers – were all in agreement, politically powerful men seem unwilling to admit defeat. There is nothing more disappointing than grown men who worry more about their personal political victories over their opponents than they worry about proper service and stewardship to their constituents and the citizens at large.

So what is next? That depends on you. There is a better philosophical approach to space access. It is necessary to privatize. It is necessary to remove the political cycle from the space industry. It is a difficult industry and requires long-term vision and long-term planning for execution. It cannot be subject to annual and semi-annual change based on changes in political offices. Only the private sector and investment can perform this function properly. However, the majority of the current capabilities and workforce exist on funding from the taxpayer. It is necessary for political viability to keep employment in congressional districts stable. What is needed is stability in the current environment while opening the doors and removing regulatory restrictions on industries in order to create a market place of free enterprise in space. The Senate Bill language is the right compromise. It maintains proper stewardship of the taxpayer assets and opens the doors for private industry to drive space access based on market demands. If we choose to remove the funding for commercial companies, that would be an acceptable philosophical position. Commercial should not require public funds to succeed, but the government should also work to get out of their way. IF we took these actions, we would see American private enterprise and entrepreneurship revived and we would maintain our leadership in space. If we don’t take these actions, then all the predictions regarding other countries surpassing our leadership in space WILL come true. We do not need a BIG government moon program to be American, we need a privatized space industry which enables free citizens to innovate and prosper from an explosive growth in an industry ready to grow. If the market wants the moon – then they will take it.

Call your congressmen and senators now and demand that they solve this problem and put their personal and political interests aside and do what is good for America –at least this once. Please.