It seems almost stupid that it’s nearly 2013 and we’re still unable to communicate with our emergency services in any way other than picking up the phone and calling them. We can certainly imagine situations where you’d want to be able to send a quick text message to local police. The US is a bit behind here—British mobile phone users have had access to EmergencySMS since 2009.
For years, we’ve been covering the slow ascent of text-to-911. But now, the Federal Communications Commission says that the nation’s Big Four mobile carriers have agreed to “accelerate” text-to-911 capabilities for debut in 2013, with a nationwide deployment by May 15, 2014.
“Building on text-to-911 deployments and trials that are already underway, this agreement will accelerate progress and ensure that over 90 percent of the nation’s wireless consumers, including millions of consumers with hearing or speech disabilities, will be able to access emergency services by sending a text message to 911, where local 911 call centers (known as a Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs) are also prepared to receive the texts,” the FCC said in a statement Thursday.
The agency added that Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and ATT would add a “bounce back” feature across their networks by June 30, 2013, which would text back an auto-response if the carriers have not yet implemented a full text-to-911 capability.
In 2011, NASA commissioned the National Research Council to put together a report to serve as a “comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.” That report, released yesterday, reads as a damning litany of what’s wrong with one of the United States government’s crown jewels. NASA, for all its accomplishments over the past fifty years, is a sinking ship.
Altogether, the report lists four primary areas that should be NASA’s focus: manned spaceflight, Earth and space science, aeronautics, and technology development. The lack of focus in the manned space program is obvious to even casual observers, but the report also highlights serious issues in both funding and direction across the board at NASA, affecting the other focus areas as well.
The report brings up the recent Mars Science Laboratory program as a benchmark achievement, while at the same time pointing out that many other Earth and space science missions previously targeted as priorities are being set aside due to funding problems. The withdrawal from the ExoMars partnership with the European Space Agency clouds the agency’s robotic future, even as Curiosity rolls triumphantly around on the surface of Mars, happily zapping things and making discoveries.
The reasons for the shortcomings are discussed at length, but they all can be characterized as failures in leadership. The report paints the picture of an agency crippled by the whims of politicians holding the purse strings:
Numerous times the agency initiated new programs with the expectation that budgets would increase to support them (a basic requirement for optimizing any development program’s budget), only to have no increases emerge. Taken in aggregate, this situation has been wasteful and inefficient. Even leaving aside the funding requirements for large procurements, it is tempting to assume that if NASA officials knew to expect a flat budget they could plan better, but in several recent cases they were told (even required) to expect funding that never ultimately emerged.
On one hand, NASA’s funding remains relatively stable. “The funding for NASA’s total budget has been remarkably level in constant-year dollars for more than a decade,” notes the report. On the other hand, continual shifts in agency direction have negated much of the benefit of that funding:
However, there has been some instability at the programmatic level and the out-year projections in the President’s budget are unreliable, which makes it difficult for program managers to plan activities that require multi-year planning. Put another way, although the budget may have been level over time, NASA experienced substantial program instability over the same period.
This “program instability” causes problems when NASA is working with international partners. In a number of cases, these partners have been sold on NASA’s involvement in a mission, only to have shifting priorities and budgets cause the US to back out. These international partnerships also cause friction between leadership and reality. It’s the traditional position that the US will “partner” with other countries in space by taking a leadership role over most or all aspects of the given mission. However, the report argues this can no longer be the case:
Many US leaders also assume that the United States will take the lead in such projects. However, American leadership in international space cooperation requires meeting several conditions. First, the United States has to have a program that other countries want to participate in, and this is not always the case. Second, the United States has to be willing to give substantial responsibility to its partners. In the past, the approach of the United States to international partnership has too often been perceived as being based on a program conceived, planned, and directed by NASA. Third, other nations must be able to see something to gain—in other words, a reason to partner with the United States. Finally, the United States has to demonstrate its reliability and attractiveness as an international partner.
The last part is particularly noteworthy. The idea that the United States and NASA must prove that it’s worth partnering with in a space venture seems a curious notion at first—no government agency’s successes are as storied as NASA’s—but the agency today lacks even the ability to send astronauts into space on its own. “Although gaps in US human spaceflight capability have existed in the past, several other factors, in combination, make this a unique period for NASA,” the report states.
These “other factors” are capped by a total lack of consensus on the next steps of how to get astronauts into space—the spacecraft and launch vehicles to replace the retired space shuttle are still in flux and not securely funded. A space agency that can’t even put its own astronauts in space, the report chides, is one that has a lot to prove to international partners. NASA is no longer the prettiest girl at the dance.
Again, the lack of a consistent vision has been a problem. The manned program is specifically called out as a paragon of confusion. “Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars,” notes the report, “there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program, which is arguably the centerpiece of NASA’s spectrum of mission areas.”
The goal of a manned landing on an asteroid by 2025 is met with the written equivalent of a head-shake and an eye-roll: “The committee has seen little evidence that a current stated goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program—namely, to visit an asteroid by 2025—has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community.”
The asteroid mission, originally recommended by the 2009 Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee (also known as the “Augustine Commission” after its chairman, aerospace veteran Norman Augustine) as almost a throwaway mission to keep the manned program marking time while waiting for a more substantial goal, is considered by no one to be a serious option. “This goal has been studied extensively by NASA and received rhetorical support from numerous US presidents…but it has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage.” Lip service is the order of the day for the manned program.
In fact, the Augustine Commission laid out several potential manned space flight goals, including affordable methods of maximizing the existing and planned Project Constellation hardware; the commission’s conclusions and recommendations were almost totally ignored by agency leadership and government policymakers.
The report doesn’t go so far as to recommend what NASA should be doing with its time and money—that was already taken care of, in great detail, by the Augustine Commission in 2009. However, the report does lay out four options for how the United States might address the sad state of its space program.
The first option is to “[i]nstitute an aggressive restructuring program to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs to improve efficiency.” This would result in an outright reduction in the number of contractors and civil servants working at or for NASA, and the shuttering of some facilities. Although there would be immediate cost savings, this could leave the agency unable to perform some meaningful work; layoffs at the scale required could drive personnel not included in the layoffs to leave.
Option two is to “[e]ngage in and commit for the long-term to more cost-sharing partnerships with other US government agencies, private sector industries, and international partners.” Ramping up international partnerships sounds good, but it comes with its own challenges. Manned or unmanned programs that cross international boundaries bring tremendous complexity (though the most successful partnership, the International Space Station, shows that the complexities aren’t insurmountable). Further, the report notes that this option might actually incur higher costs, as international partners might require long-term financial commitments on the part of NASA to ensure the notoriously fickle US Congress wouldn’t be able to unilaterally cancel a program.
Option three is the simplest (and simultaneously the most complex): increase NASA’s funding so that it can actually do what it’s been tasked to do. The Augustine Commission reached this conclusion, too, noting that an immediate $3 billion increase in NASA’s funding, coupled with a sensible per-year increase to track inflation, would be sufficient to pay for the entire manned space flight program in perpetuity. The various unmanned programs would benefit from this increase as well. Unfortunately, even though $3 billion is an almost vanishingly small sum in government terms, the political challenges of increasing NASA’s funding in today’s budget climate are likely insurmountable.
Option four is the corollary to option 3: “[r]educe considerably the size and scope of elements of NASA’s current program portfolio to better fit the current and anticipated budget profile.” The report cites this as the “least attractive” of all the options, as the reduction would have to be dramatic in scope and would likely mean shelving one whole area of focus from NASA, which would send ripples through the other three.
It’s difficult to predict which option, if any, decision-makers will choose to go with. If the past is any indication, this report will be met with the same level of deafening silence as met the Augustine Commission. Something, however, must change. NASA is an agency of the United States government; it is a ship without a motor, steered by the winds, and it cannot change direction on its own.
“Although the committee carefully analyzed NASA’s current strategic plan, as well as previous ones, it ultimately concluded that the strategic planning process is affected more by what happens outside the agency than by any process inside NASA,” the report flatly states. “The lack of a national consensus on what NASA should do constrains NASA’s ability to plan and to operate.”
In the end, this statement puts the blame on us. NASA’s distributed presence across the US means that even in the worst of times, it remains on life support. Woe to the Congressperson who cancels NASA funds if that Congressperson resides in a NASA-heavy state like Alabama, California, Florida, or Texas. But NASA cannot be treated as simply a politically expedient jobs program. While it may fall to the country’s leadership to inspire and suggest a direction, the public’s lack of interest in a compelling vision is just as responsible for NASA’s state. It’s difficult to turn one’s eyes to the heavens when there are so many problems on the ground to stare at.
This is not a universal problem among space-faring nations—China in particular hungers for the prestige a successful space program brings to a nation. But it would be difficult to frame a “space race” with China in the same terms with which the government framed the competition with the Soviets. Communism isn’t the world-devouring monster it appeared to be fifty years ago, and even a series of Chinese flags planted on the Moon to complement the six copies of Old Glory currently up there might not be enough to spark support for a renewed NASA. For the United States to salvage its preeminence in space exploration, manned or unmanned, the public must hold its leaders accountable for supplying the agency with direction, and that seems less likely to happen now than at any point in NASA’s history.