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NASA Businesses Space

NASA May Outsource 219

Posted by kdawson
from the let-a-thousand-rockets-bloom dept.
The Wall Street Journal is running a piece about the growing momentum behind the idea of NASA outsourcing to private companies everything from transporting astronauts to ferrying cargo into orbit. Quoting: "Proposals gaining momentum in Washington call for contractors to build and run competing systems under commercial contracts, according to federal officials, aerospace-industry officials and others familiar with the discussions. While the Obama administration is still mulling options and hasn't made any final decisions, such a move would represent a major policy shift away from decades of government-run rocket and astronaut-transportation programs such as the current space-shuttle fleet. ... In the face of severe federal budget constraints and a burgeoning commercial-space industry eager to play a larger role in exploring the solar system and perhaps beyond, ...a consensus for the new approach seems to be building inside the White House as well as [NASA]. ... Under this scenario, a new breed of contractors would take over many of NASA's current responsibilities, freeing the agency to pursue longer-term, more ambitious goals such as new rocket-propulsion technology and manned missions to Mars. ...[T]hese contractors would take the lead in servicing the International Space Station from the shuttle's planned retirement around 2011 through at least the end of that decade."
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NASA May Outsource

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  • by TheDarkMaster (1292526) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:03PM (#29165371)
    On my country, outsourcing is the same as disaster. You pay the same for a poor service.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:04PM (#29165385) Journal
    That's only because your country isn't as good at outsourcing as America, land of the free, is.

    Here, we pay more for a poorer service!
  • by cowtamer (311087) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:06PM (#29165399) Journal

    NASA already hires contractors for doing a lot of the technical work right now. If I am not mistaken, large portions of the Space Shuttle and the ISS were manufactured by Boeing, just to give one example...

  • by 0123456 (636235) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:11PM (#29165427)

    How is this different? It eliminates 10,000+ government-funded jobs in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, etc.

    Ares was always more about keeping people employed than building a useful spacecraft; commercial launch companies won't employ 10,000 people just to stack a rocket and roll it out to the launch pad.

  • Ugggh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bluesman (104513) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:13PM (#29165443) Homepage

    If there's one thing worse than the government doing something, it's the government giving someone a de-facto monopoly to do it in the form of a government contract.

    Contracting is the new graft. Witnessing this from the DoD side of the house, the same thing happens over and over. High level military officer retires, joins or starts a contracting company, and convinces everyone the contractor can do what the government is already doing for much cheaper. Politicians decide to use contractors, costs escalate, and there is no alternative because the formerly home-grown expertise is gone, since all the government experts are now working for the contractor making double for the same job.

  • horrible idea (Score:3, Insightful)

    by brennz (715237) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:17PM (#29165469)

    Most contractors merely charge the govt $150 - 250 an hour for the same people the govt uses already, while at the same time, carrying little risk. Compare this to a GS-14 at less than a $100 an hour, inclusive of all costs.

    You'll see a move to contract types* ** like cost plus, or cost plus fixed fee, where the government pays out the nose for cost overruns on the part of contractors. Fixed price contracts will only be made with massively inflated rates in order to protect contracting firms from risk.

    This leads to massive poaching of govt personnel to the private sector, and vastly inflated rates to the govt.

    The privatization of the US government is an abject failure. A-76*** is an abomination, because it does not consider the long term efficiency by private vs public sector.

    * http://www.dtc.dla.mil/dsbusiness/Info/contracts1.htm [dla.mil]
    ** http://www.dau.mil/pubs/misc/toolkit.asp [dau.mil]
    *** http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/Circulars_a076_a76_incl_tech_correction/ [whitehouse.gov]

  • by imunfair (877689) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:19PM (#29165481) Homepage

    If I was an astronaut I would prefer not to have it outsourced, purely from a logical perspective. Being in space is all about perfection and control, and NASA can build from that vision. Private companies always come from the profit aspect above all else, which at some point may end up causing a part to be less perfect than it could be. In space that just isn't a question mark you really want to have.

    NASA yearly spending, according to Wikipedia is in the 15-18 billion range currently. US Military budget is 515-651 billion, in comparison. So NASA is 2.7% of the military budget size, which kind of makes you wonder why we're worrying about cutting spending on NASA and not other far bigger numbers.

  • by sagman (465807) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:21PM (#29165497)

    "Best of breed", no doubt.

    Private industry has done so well in the US: telcos, airlines, utilities, "contractors" in Iraq, not to mention the entire financial sector. Deregulation and privatization in the US has shown that private industry has difficulty regulating itself or indeed acting in a responsible manner. Oversight with accountability is absolutely essential to success.

    Hate to be so negative but I don't see anything good in this whatsoever. There are some things that are too important to be left to private industry. Building is one thing, running a program is quite another.

    I'm about as free-market and capitalist as you can get, but there is a time and a place for government regulation.

  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:22PM (#29165507) Homepage Journal

    NASA is not a business. Therefore, absolutely none of the buzzword bingo applies here.

    Actually, the current state of the US economy indicates that buzzword bingo doesn't apply in any useful way to running a business, either, but that's a whole 'nother argument.

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:22PM (#29165513) Journal
    Look, when you are doing the SAME REPETITIVE ITEM, then a free fair competitive marketplace makes sense to handle it. The problem comes when it is NOT fair, nor competitive. For example, the feds outsourcing a number of items to private workers in America was not the problem. The problems came when companies shifted the work to places like China and India who have only one-way trade, have no real requirements about pollution, and most of all, have their money fixed against ours. OTH, if trade barriers are dropped and money allowed to float freely, then economies adjust. If NASA does this right, they will focus on advanced tech rather than doing the mundane. They will also work with our local companies to get them thinking of different solutions to the same problem.
  • by brennz (715237) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @03:44PM (#29165661)
    From the US taxpayer, to Lockheed, Northrop or Boeing.

    Look at these inflated labor rates! [northropgrumman.com]
  • by Nyeerrmm (940927) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @04:02PM (#29165817)

    The difference is the method of procurement. Under current methods of operations, the goverenment comes up with a design, says "Here's what we want, who wants to build it for us?". Then the big guys (Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop-Grumman, USA, etc.) make arguments about who can do it the cheapest and fastest, and the one that makes the best argument gets the contract (and all the others get to be subcontractors and get a piece of the pie). These are termed 'cost-plus' contracts because NASA is actually funding the development directly, and taking on the responsibility to pay however much it ends up costing, even if its more than the original bid.

    When they're talking about "outsourcing" and "using commercial options," what they mean is that they want to use whatever is commercially available, if it exists. The COTS and CCDev programs are designed to encourage this kind of market for the big HSF programs (JPL/Ames-style probes have been using straightforward EELV contracts for quite a while). The market is still not mature for human-capable launch vehicles (Atlas and Delta aren't man-rated), so its still in NASA's interest to actively foster the development of vehicles - but they're doing it with fixed amounts of money and relying on fixed milestones, resembling the way the eventual market would work.

    I doubt we'll ever get away from cost-plus contracts completely. They make sense for single-use items and specialized development: things like probes and rovers and moon landers. However, just about everything needs to get to orbit, and there aren't that many different kinds of requirements for it: whether or not its pressurized, man-rated, and how much mass it can carry. For this reason many people believe that NASA should no longer be designing launch vehicles to do rather routine things like getting to LEO, and instead focus on truly expanding the frontier, doing new things.

    The reason this faces resistance is that NASA has a habit of sacrificing the good for the sake of the perfect (along with the concerns about risk in doing new things and losing jobs in congressmen's districts). The space-pen/pencil story may be apocryphal, but it is emblematic of the problem*. In this case, you could argue that an EELV-based solution wouldn't be as good as a working Ares I, but EELVs are going to be cheaper and faster to man-rate, and with the limited budget they shouldn't waste money re-inventing the wheel.

    *Interestingly, its actually a great example of the COTS contract type, where a private company saw a problem, came up with a solution, and sold it to NASA (and the Russians) after developing it. They made money off of it and NASA got it much cheaper than it could have developing it on its own, probably.

  • by jamstar7 (694492) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @04:03PM (#29165827)
    They call it 'derating'. Build it WAY past specs to make SURE it works over any conditions you can think of (and any conditions your team can think of; get bizzare here...), then it'll outlast your original design requirements.

    NASA is famous for that, which is what makes them look so good with the unmanned probes.
  • by sethstorm (512897) * on Sunday August 23, 2009 @04:06PM (#29165853) Homepage

    Except that their performance record isn't littered with as many disasters as offshored/outsourced work.

  • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @04:14PM (#29165925)
    No, NASA is basically a PR agency. Yes, some things are good for science, but look at all the risky human missions, the ISS which had a few good experiments but is basically a black hole for funds, the joint USSR/USA missions which were purely political, etc. Along with the usual political crap of keeping overpaid, useless people in order to tell congress that they created new jobs and they should get more money. Private businesses are more apt to do things that always -work- to get a profit, as in, not make the waste which was the Space Shuttle which aside from being a death trap, really couldn't do that much beyond taking satellites up and docking with space stations and spending more on that rather than with the cheaper and safer capsules.

    I think the current status quo is best, only outsource if something better already exists.

    If you look at private space industries, from having to learn just about -everything- from scratch, with a limited budget (back in the "space race" congress would give anything for space flight) with limited knowledge (NASA inherited all the missile documentation that the DoD had, something that even today a private company can't get) and having to make a profit. NASA doesn't really do that much anymore, its become a PR agency and nothing more. Private companies are much more apt to get things done reliably.

  • Re:What irony (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jack9 (11421) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @04:49PM (#29166193)

    Huh? How do you get the privatization of NASA out of this? And why would that serve as a basis to find them stupid or insane?

  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @05:11PM (#29166341) Journal

    Are you saying that NASA's core competency is not space operations, or space systems development?

    I'd say their core competencies are scientific research, technology development, beyond-LEO exploration (mostly unmanned, so far) and in-space construction. Well, and delivering jobs to key congressional districts.

    It certainly isn't launch vehicle development, considering that NASA (well, mostly NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, which has particularly incompetent management) has had many launch vehicle projects go massively overbudget/fail (e.g. X-33, X-34, SLI, OSP) without a single success in the past 30 years or so.

  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @05:13PM (#29166355) Journal

    This almost sounds like science fiction in which the evil doctrine of capitalism is let lose to contaminate the universe.

    If the "evil doctrine of capitalism" is what's needed for human civilization to "contaminate the universe," then please, bring it on. Faster.

  • They Never Learn - (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 23, 2009 @05:34PM (#29166499)

    Because this worked so well for the military, right?

    Whenever the government starts making contracts with big companies to do its job, it becomes a useless middleman. Pretty soon our government is just going to be a collections agency, collecting money to pay for the crap it says we bought, most of which will never be delivered, just like how it is with our oh-so-honorable defense contractors now. If we contract out all of our spaceflight and R&D to private companies, why would we even keep NASA? To take credit for it? No, to allocate money. Don't think a lot of it won't be shaved off in transit either, also just like with those lying pigs in the defense industry. The cheapest and most effective way to get more bang for our dollar by far is to give the money directly to whoever is going to be doing the work. Installing competent leadership, applying adequate oversight, and giving real and useful missions to NASA will help transform them from a dusty and forgotten badge of honor we earned in the Space Race to an agency we can actually benefit from again. That means building modern launch infrastructure. (And if that means providing launch pads for commercial third parties, so be it. They get to pay NASA to use them.) That means taking a hint and designing new launch vehicles, something that was supposed to be done years ago. That means deploying useful satellites to space, like modern weather monitoring platforms and telescopes to monitor NEOs and solar weather phenomena. That means finding effective ways to halt the space-trash problem, which threatens future orbital activity for everyone. The Moon can wait and so can Mars. We have problems here on and around Earth that NASA can help us solve while increasing the breadth and depth of our knowledge of space travel, which we could then one day use for some of the loftier missions proposed. Using the money to pay for inflated, outsourced mission related services, and to fatten the patent war-chests of private contractors we have no oversight of is America asking once again to get ripped off, and if we whore out NASA to the same slavering dogs that already pilfer from the Department of Defense left and right, we must be the most gullible country on Earth.

    I've never been fond of the argument that the government doesn't actually do or provide anything, but I'll be damned if ours isn't trying to play the part.

  • by vux984 (928602) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @06:05PM (#29166739)

    please look the complete failure of what NASA is, and realize too, that your Health Care package would probably do the same.

    The existing health care system is a complete failure too. The question shouldn't be whether national health care would do a 'great' job. The question should be whether it will do a better job than the system we have now. Based on what goes on in other countries, the answer is a simple "yes". Better health care for more people at a lower GDP cost. Yeah, there are -some- people who will be -marginally- worse off. Yeah, I'm sure it will be rife with problems and inefficiency.

    To use a car analogy: The car we're in right now is rusting out, bad on gas, and emitting toxic fumes. Refusing to consider changing to a different car because its bad on gas is idiotic.

    If you don't like Obama's health plan fine, what's your better idea? (Hint: the status quo isn't better.) And while your working miracles, after you've done that, how are you going to sell it to congress and the american people?

  • by Macrat (638047) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @06:11PM (#29166791)

    The profit motive also encourages them to A: ship product B: on time C: on budget D: that meets the customer's needs. NASA seems to have trouble with all four of those.

    Yeah, all companies ship everything on time, under budget, without defects and a product that the customer actually wants.

  • by Kenneth Stephen (1950) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @06:43PM (#29167081) Journal

    I think that would be a valid argument for any well developed business area. I don't think space falls into that category yet, even though the future looks promising. Yes, it would be a problem if, say for example, a TV manufacturer charges the government 10 times more for its product than business would pay for comparable products. But in the rarefield area of space technology, there isn't a good competitive landscape. In certain cases there isn't any candidate who can even bid, because what the government wants, may be pushing the bounds of current technology (military technology for example). In such situations, tightening the screws on your contractor may not be the right approach: if you want a super-kill-bill-gizmo #3, and nobody today can build it because the science or the technology hasn't been developed yet, cost plus is the right kind of contract.

    The kind of outsourcing being proposed is in the more mundane (is there anything mundane about space?) areas of space technology, where there are more businesses participating. I don't think that the contractor cost overruns should be tolerated there, because there are more choices of vendors for the government.

  • by Blakey Rat (99501) on Sunday August 23, 2009 @08:17PM (#29167651)

    Ok, they find the asteroid... and then what? I hate to break this to you, but Armageddeon was a work of fiction. (Shocking, I know.) We don't have anything that can land on an asteroid and do anything about it-- and we probably wouldn't have time to build one after we detected the sucker.

  • by segedunum (883035) on Monday August 24, 2009 @06:01AM (#29170937)

    Sounds like your guys made the right decision.

    Except it isn't. History has taught us that when you privatise previously public organisations then you end up with something even worse - a private company acting like a public sector organisation, generally with a monopoly milking away a cash cow. It's happened to BT and various other privatised organisations and it has hurt private enterprise because that monopoly at exchanges and elsewhere is still felt. It's far better to carefully look at how an industry can be privatised rather than a given organisation. There's also an argument for the public sector taking control of the core infrastructure of a country and giving it a clear remit so that a strong private sector can hang off it. The US and Britain are never in a million years going to have train travel or broadband like France or Japan and we'll always be left wondering why rural areas are left out in poverty when it comes to things like healthcare and a decent postal service.

    I cannot believe that lazy bastard politicians still keep preaching Milton Friedman as some sort of answer. Public sector organisations aren't bad because they're not in the private sector, it's because they are just badly run organisations with no clear aims. Ill-thought out privatisations (mostly to raise cash) have done a great deal of harm to the UK's public and private sectors because it makes that even worse.

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