NASA insider: Some truth to Gingrich's barb
NASA is "standing in the way" of new opportunities, Newt Gingrich said Monday at a debate among GOP presidential candidates.
June 14th, 2011
08:13 PM ET

NASA insider: Some truth to Gingrich's barb

After Newt Gingrich's harsh comments about NASA during Monday's night's debate between GOP presidential hopefuls, you'd guess the outrage from the nation's legendary space agency would be deafening.

So far today, all we've heard from Houston and Washington are crickets.

For those who missed it, Gingrich accused NASA's bureaucracy of wasting hundreds of billions of dollars that it's spent since the 1969 moon landing. Without such waste, he said, "we would probably today have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles."

NASA is "standing in the way" of a "new cycle of opportunities" when it "ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector," said the former House speaker.

The government agency that fulfilled President Kennedy's Cold War challenge to send a man to the moon within a decade chose not to comment. "It is inappropriate for us to comment on election rhetoric," said today's one-line statement from the communications office.

Why so quiet? Some NASA officials suspect Gingrich may be letting us know that the emperor has no clothes.

Some insiders are wondering if NASA is operating with an outdated management paradigm better suited to the 1960s Apollo era rather than the 21st century.

Instead of a bounty of exploration riches, Gingrich said, NASA has produced "failure after failure."

The space shuttle, which will lift off a final time next month, was originally designed to fly 50 missions per year at $10 million per flight. That never happened. The International Space Station was first priced at $8 billion to design build and develop. That price tag eventually totaled more than $100 billion. NASA's list of expensive and less-than-successful programs includes the X-33, the Constellation, the X-38, the Ares I, and the Ares V, which were all canceled before they came to fruition.

The former House speaker didn't mention the shuttle's well-known successes, including countless research missions, fixing the Hubble Telescope and building the International Space Station.

"Most people know that there's a lot of truth to what Newt's been saying," said a NASA executive who asked not to be identified so he might speak more frankly. "But they're doing their best to compose the nation's space agenda in the face of all the constraints of operating within a government bureaucracy."

What Gingrich didn't say last night is that he agreed with NASA's 2011 budget - which was approved by President Obama.

The "Obama administration's budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans," Gingrich wrote in an editorial with former Rep. Robert Walker.

NASA has been fostering programs during the past few years aimed at using privately developed rockets and orbiting vehicles for U.S. space missions.

Space Exploration Technologies, aka Space X, has been contracted to use its Dragon orbiter - after it's fully developed - to resupply the space station. The stakes for NASA to reconfigure are high, said the NASA executive.

"NASA will either undergo a paradigm shift now to figure out how to work with the private sector - or it will probably collapse."

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Filed under: NASA • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Space
soundoff (343 Responses)
  1. Marialyn A

    Private Sector? No pure science will come from the private sector in space because it doesn't lead to mega dollars. Where is the private sector exploration of Antartica? Hmmm. NASA technology has driven this economy since 1960's and you can't see that this innovation is GREAT for the US. Go ahead and get in line to get your unemployment check. And yes, funding is everything and Congress controls the purse.

    June 15, 2011 at 6:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      "Private Sector? No pure science will come from the private sector in space because it doesn't lead to mega dollars. Where is the private sector exploration of Antartica?"

      It seems as though the government is prepared to dump mega dollars on space exploration. As far as I know there's not an Antarctic oriented agency poised to provide juicy contracts to the private sector to the tune of billions of dollars.

      June 15, 2011 at 6:39 am | Report abuse |
  2. Merlin

    So, how quickly we forget. NASA accepted President Kennedy's challenge and after some setbacks, accomplished the mission and moved on. How many secret military missions did NASA accomplish successfully in the 1980's for the Reagan administration? Can we calculate the advances in technology NASA contributed to humanity over the past 45 years? Did some waste occur? Probably. Did we benefit overall? Certainly. Was it prudent to cancel the Space Shuttle Program without a suitable replacement? Absolutely not. We're cutting costs in the wrong places, folks. With the loss of funds NASA is facing, we'll lose more domestic JOBS. Just so you know, the private sector isn't necessarily domestic oriented or bound to safe operating practices. (Better erect some safety nets over our homes...no telling what will fall out of the sky, now.) Our politicians are our worst enemy. They aren't good stewards of the money we pay in taxes at all.

    June 15, 2011 at 6:20 am | Report abuse |
    • JLS639

      But... there are replacements to the shuttle program. Most of what the shuttle did is being replaced with more conventional rockets.

      June 15, 2011 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  3. Alton

    Every Federal AND State agency wastes money. Almost EVERY household in the US wastes money. SO what else
    profound do Republican debaters have to offer ? They might try untangling the budget situation BUT instead it appears they are set to make it even worse. After eight years of Repub rule which literally ran America aground in 2008, the VERY SAME Republicans are lecturing us on how to get out of this fiscal mess. How ironic !!! The 1929 crash(also a Repub fiasco) took ten(10) years to get out of. Indeed, it took WW11 under FDR in 1941. In the past, these Democrats have done a fairly good job of cleaning up Repub messes. Looks like the 2008 Repub crash will take awhile also......longer than four(4) years anyway. Whats new about that ???? I believe we BETTER place addition faith in Obama- thats the best bet. Whats the better alternative- turning it back over to the Republicans- who even now are scheming over how to screw the economy up even more...........sheeeeesh.....will we EVER learn ????

    June 15, 2011 at 6:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. jwthiers

    The key comment from the insider is "But they're doing their best to compose the nation's space agenda in the face of all the constraints of operating within a government bureaucracy." IF bureaucrats would give NASA it budgeted money and then stay out of the spend it on x but not on y game NASA can do a good job.

    June 15, 2011 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
  5. J0nx

    I thought NASA was disbanded? Without the space shuttle then what exactly is their purpose? Professional paycheck collectors? Disband that organization already. They haven't been worth a $h1t since December 1972 anyway and it's obvious that manned space travel is not a priority for the people of this world. Never has been, never will be. One day as a hunk of rock the size of Everest or a massive solar flare is headed our way I am sure we will regret that decision but alas human history is chock full of regrets.

    June 15, 2011 at 6:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      A lot of the Shuttle support personel have already been laid off, or will soon be. The *manned flight* part of NASA is indeed truly being gutted. But that isn't the only part of NASA. There is still the robotic exploration of space, with the next Mars rover mission coming up. There are still the observation posts in orbit, such as Hubble.

      Plus there is still the aviation part of NASA (the first "A" in NASA is for 'air').

      June 15, 2011 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  6. lgny

    NASA's contribution to space science is incredible. Projects like the Hubble space telescope, the Martian rovers, crafts passing Jupiter and Saturn, ... have vastly expanded our knowledge of our solar system.

    NASA's man in space is largely a waste of money. It costs enormous funds to keep a human alive long enough to reach Mars and return. For that cost, we could send dozens of un-manned craft to each of the planets and collect far more information bout planetary physics than one human to Mars.

    Neither of these will be taken over by private enterprise in our lifetimes - regardless of what the Republicans might assert.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:00 am | Report abuse |
  7. Byrd

    NASA is mainly a smokescreen. The real R&D is done at Area 51. How many truthfully believe that the Space Shuttle is the peak of our technological achievement or abilities in terms of building spacecraft? It was a dinosaur before it ever flew its first mission, but the military doesn't want the world, particularly Americans, to know they have more advanced technology because it would upset the status quo. Withholding things like advanced technologies that might just make our world a better place is and should be a crime against humanity, but then that's nothing new for America.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:16 am | Report abuse |
  8. Gabor47

    It is still only "flexing muscles", more politics than science. Other than the computer technology, nothing changed since the 60's, the Apollo mission. The laws of physics are still the same, the amount of energy required to lift something off the Earth, into orbit is still the same, as well as the amount of energy required to carry something to the Moon. No new rocket-engine technology either. It took an over 100 meters long Saturn V rocket to get the tiny Apollo capsule (something like 4×3 meters) to the Moon and bring it back.

    It is going to take more than a decade to assemble the ISS, which is only in Earth orbit. Currently, after more than a decade, it can permanently accommodate 6 people, who are doing pretty much symbolic scientific activity, but spending most of their time fixing things which break down. And earth orbit is far more "easy" than the Moon, because to get to the Moon, the rocket must break Earth gravity "completely". The ISS is 189 miles from the surface of the planet Earth, the Moon is 238,000 miles. The Mars is 141,000,000 (approx) miles from the planet Earth.

    So, if it takes an over 100 meter long rocket to carry a useful load of 4×3 meters, what will it take to build a Moon base? What will it take to perpetually supply it with whatever is needed there? Finally, what are we looking for there?
    We brought back a few bags of rocks, that was the spectacular success of the Apollo project. Surely, at this point we can't even dream about any major mining or anything even similar to that. What else? Romantic as it may be, the Moon is a large piece of rock, and that's it. And by the way, so is the Mars which is hopelessly too far to think of any serious manned mission. So they landed a barely larger than a briefcase sized little "thing". Okay. Great. But the major trick will be to come back. For that, whatever lands there, will have to be launched back to Mars orbit first. How? The gravity of the Mars, while less than Earth, more than the Moon, significantly more. No such simple launch-back is possible (like from the Moon). But even that was only possible for a grand total of 2 people. How will we build a "Mars Cape Canaveral"? Which will be needed in order to go there and come back. But without the ability to go there and come back, to build something like that is impossible. Yet, in order to come back, FIRST, such thing will be needed. The classic case of "which will be needed first, the chicken or the egg".

    So, we hear these days about "the Mars in the 21st century", which is a brave and commendable desire, but I am afraid it is more chatter than a realistic possibility. Is it impossible? No, not if somebody INVENTS a totally new propulsion/rocket engine technology. Because the current technology, what we KNOW currently will not be enough for a reasonable Mars manned mission (or something like a lunar base). So, what would be the point to go back to the Moon?

    I seldom agree with president Obama, but I totally agree with his decision to cancel the "return to the Moon" project.

    ---------–

    Don't get me wrong. I am absolutely fascinated with the space technology and the missions, from the very beginning. Very few people still pays attention for example to the Space Shuttle launches and landings, but I try to watch those on TV live, any time when it is possible. I even bought a Space Shuttle simulator and one of my favorite pastime to learn as much about the Space Shuttle as possible. Because it is a fascinating technology. BUT.....I can also see the unfortunate limitations of the entire space research. It will take some very major invention just to get around our own solar system. It will take the discovery a NEW LAW OF PHYSICS to get outside of our solar system. Even the invention of a new technology wouldn't be enough for that, as long as the speed of light is accepted as the fastest possible speed matter can travel with. Even with the speed of light, the very nearest of the billions of stars (solar systems) would take 4.6 years, one way. The speed of light is 300,000 km/sec. The Apollo went with 11.2 km/sec to the Moon. Do the math.

    And the ultimate question still exists, even if somebody invents a new rocket engine technology: WHAT FOR? We already know with a very high certainty that there is no life on Mars. Okay, another big rock. So, what else, if not life? We could mine on Mars, the same story as with the Moon. Even that with either robots, or people in space suits, or under huge domes, because there is no breathable atmosphere on Mars. Any of those with the current technology would not be realistically possible.

    Summary: with the currently available technology mankind has achieved the maximum reasonable usefulness, and that is putting satellites in Earth orbit. TV, communication, internet, GPS, spying, observing Earth, etc. For anything more "in space" will require some new major inventions first.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:25 am | Report abuse |
  9. ajtexans

    NASA's current budget is 0.5% of the federal budget where it was 3% during the Apollo era, so it's not fair to compare what's going on now vs. what was accomplished then. Without a clear mission and vision expressed by the Administration, one that includes human exploration, NASA will falter. Obama has not given NASA a clear mission or vision. 'Developing new technologies' is code for make work and look busy. It's not commercialization when the govt funds your development cost. Landing on an asteroid? Please. Mars? Pipe dream. Lunar base is the missed opportunity here. A perfect test bed for future exploration right here in our back yard. And we're ignoring it because Buzz already left a few footprints there? Pssh.... please.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
  10. ajtexans

    And what has NASA done for you and private industry?

    http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/

    http://www.thespaceplace.com/nasa/spinoffs.html

    http://www.techbriefs.com/

    June 15, 2011 at 7:32 am | Report abuse |
  11. Josh

    Let us not forget all the money NASA was forced to waste by Congress.

    I mean, projects that were scrapped.

    If you go to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, many of the NASA spacecraft on display, are NOT mock-ups, models, or prototypes. They are (were?) fully operational spacecraft ready to fly in space. For example, that's the real Skylab 2, the real Voyager 3, and a real Lunar Module. All built with taxpayer's money, but when it came their time to fly, Congress withdrew that money.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
  12. Jim McDade

    If NASA has been a disappointment since the Apollo era, that disappointment is more the result of poor leadership from the White House and Congress than the actual managers and engineers of NASA. NASA was America at it's best when enjoyed a specific, galvanizing goal and deadline around which to organize and plan. The Apollo goal was "a man on the moon" and the deadline was the end of the 1960s. That goal created incredible pressure on a unique government/industry team. It was a shining example of wartime unity and a wartime sense of purpose, but the 400,000 person Apollo team wasn't dedicated to destroying a nation or killing people. Apollo was a peaceful campaign that was dedicated to earning global leadership in space through harnessing the energies of the managers, engineers, technicians that comprised the government/industry team that even included middle aged seamstresses who sewed the seams in the most expensive suits ever made the spacesuits.

    The Apollo team was ready to build on Apollo's success by executing well conceived plans that would have continued the outflow of Apollo discovery and innovation by turning the moon into a longer term resource for "mankind" by establishing research stations and facilities on the moon. In January 1968, President Richard Nixon moved into the White House and almost immediately set about dismantling the Apollo team and redirecting NASA to less ambitious goals that wasted the full potential that the space sector presented. It was a terrible mistake by Nixon and an all too willing Congress. We can only speculate about that lost potential now. What discoveries never came? What new NASA/industry developed technology that could have been applied to curing disease, easing pain, or clean energy never came?

    Back to the core issue, the problem isn't NASA. The problem has been myopic leadership from a political community full of goobers who can't grasp the full potential of having a robust space program.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      I agree with you, but really need to point out that President Richard Nixon, as we better know today, knew NASA's "dirty little secrete". Sending a man to the moon, and returning him back home again, was like (odds wise) winning the top prize in lottery. And NASA only lost the top prize in 1 of 7 games. Nixon knew that NASA was running on luck, more than engineering, and that NASA's luck would inevitably run out.

      Did you know that for the Apollo missions to the moon, that after a safe and successful blast off, a safe journey to the moon, a safe landing, a safe lunar blast off, and a safe rocket firing to get the CM heading back to Earth, the the Apollo's astronauts odds of surviving only rose at that point, to 50-50?

      June 15, 2011 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
  13. John

    NASA is spending far too much money on manned space flights. The Mars rovers have obtained an enormous amount of information with a tiny fraction of the cost and none of the danger of putting humans in space. Robots don't need food, water, oxygen, or toilets, and it's not necessary to bring them home again. We could send hundreds of robots to Mars at a fraction of the cost of one human.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |
  14. JLS639

    "The space shuttle, which will lift off a final time next month, was originally designed to fly 50 missions per year at $10 million per flight. That never happened."

    That was based on a different design, an unrealistically large fleet, an assumption that ground-based infrastructure would be greatly expanded (this overhead was not included in the cost) and that weather would not prevent launches. While it may sound like NASA deceived the public, they did not. All of the new economics were apparent long before the first shuttle was built. The program was green-lighted, anyway. The article, however, was deceptive about one shuttle history fact: the $10 million/price tag mission was back in the 1970's before the program was even funded.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
  15. Josh

    I still don't understand why we can't take all the knowledge we gained with flying the Shuttles over 30 years, and use that knowledge to build what I would call Shuttle 2.0 ? It means taking what you already got, and only have to design (fund) things which you know you can now do better.

    If you remember, one of the early problems with our Shuttles were the tiles falling off, in what was called a "zipper effect". The Soviets solved that problem with their Buran Shuttle, by making the tiles 5-sided instead of square; the result was kind-of like a soccer ball. Not all the brilliant, but the Soviets only had to focus all their engineering talents on just fixing the problems with our design. Why can't we now do the same for our own Shuttle 2.0?.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      Josh, not sure where you got yur info. From a discussion with the shuttle tile engineers last summer, Buran had a lot of tiles fall off their first flight due to the zipper effect. The shuttle has not had that problem because they are installed diagonally to the flow and the Buran oriented them perpendicular to the flow. I am am sure that the Buran problem was solved but it only ended up flying once. One of the biggest problems with the shuttle is that there cases where there is not way to save the astronauts if there is a failure. Apollo had a launch abort method and that was where NASA was heading with its latest vehicle until the rug was pulled out. But they were trying to use shuttle parts (SRBs) as part of the design to keep some heritage.

      June 15, 2011 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      Josh, not sure where you got yur info. From a discussion with the shuttle tile engineers last summer, Buran had a lot of tiles fall off their first flight due to the zipper effect. The shuttle has not had that problem because they are installed diagonally to the flow and the Buran oriented them perpendicular to the flow. I am am sure that the Buran problem was solved but it only ended up flying once. One of the biggest problems with the shuttle is that there are cases where there is no way to save the astronauts if there is a failure during launch. Apollo had a launch abort method and that was where NASA was heading with its latest vehicle until the rug was pulled out. But they were trying to use shuttle parts (SRBs) as part of the design to keep some heritage.

      June 15, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
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