While New Year's resolutions seldom survive the first week of January, it's still traditional, if not actually useful, to make a self assessment and at least attempt corrective action this time of year.
Being someone who's either already perfect, or hopelessly and laughably imperfectible (people who know me will be pleased to tell you which, sometimes in unpleasant language), I don't really do it myself in the beginning of January. A few days after the boreal winter solstice seems like kind of an arbitrary time to make life changes, and I figure that when it comes time for change, there's no time like the present, regardless of whether it's the first day of the year or the last.
But I have been wondering if NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has made any for this coming year. If not, I have some modest suggestions for him.
Number one: Stop asking people whose job it is to spend lots of money developing technology if we need more technology to reduce the cost of getting stuff into space. Or at least, don't be surprised at the answer, and please don't repeat it for public consumption. If you can't manage that, then at least get some balancing opinions from people who don't have a vested interest in technology development, but do have a deep desire (and good ideas about how) to actually reduce launch costs.
Number two: Abolish the NASA "Centers of Excellence."
This was a Dan Goldin innovation that was actually an implementation of the oldest trick in the socialist bureaucrats' book. The theory, you see, is that duplication of government functions is wasteful, and an example of inefficiency of government that can, and must, be stomped out. So if there were two, or three NASA centers doing similar things, they would all be consolidated at a single center, thus promoting more efficiency.
Of course, in the real world, duplication of services is called "competition," and it's what tends to improve performance, and reduce costs, often brutally and quickly, as anyone whose computer purchase of last week is now obsolete knows. It works in government as well as in private enterprise, and in its absence, we don't get efficiency--we get complacency in the knowledge that there's no one out there to show you up, so it doesn't really matter how well you do.
So-called "Centers of Excellence" got us things like the X-33 and X-34 fiascos, at great cost to the taxpayer. Restore competition to the agency.
And speaking of competition, here's resolution number four: hop on the Metro across the river to the five-sided building, and have a little heart-to-heart with Don Rumsfeld, or whoever's in charge of technology development and acquisition over there, and jointly toss out that ridiculous Clinton administration policy of NASA doing only reusable launchers and DoD doing only expendable ones.
I'll bet there are some innovative ideas at NASA about technologies that can reduce the costs of expendable vehicles, which will probably have at least niche roles for some time to come, even with cheap launch from the coming age of space transports. And goodness knows that the military needs fast-response low-cost access, which they're never going to get with launch-pad queens like the Titan.
Yes, yes, I know, you said last February that the policy needed review, but surely the review must be over by now. Maybe a de facto decision has been made to change the policy, but it would be nice to have it actually formally announced. There have probably been a lot of junior officers keeping interesting things in their desk drawers waiting to see which way the wind formally blows.
Number five: Think about prizes. Think about what really motivates people to accomplish goals, at minimum costs. Hint: it's not with contracts that pay the contractor's cost, plus a fixed profit.
Take a mission that the agency has been considering, but isn't necessarily critical (say, an asteroid sample return). Get an agency estimate of the cost. Then offer a prize of half of that amount to the first company to return the sample, and to make things interesting, a prize of a quarter of that amount to whoever places second. No prize for showing. It would get multiple players interested, it would cost less than the traditional way of doing it, and if no one wins, the taxpayer isn't out a dime, and it was a mission that likely wouldn't have gotten funded anyway.
As I said, think about it.
Number six: Issue a mandate to everyone in the agency that the word "shuttle" will be retired when the present shuttle is retired. Whatever replaces shuttle will not be "the next shuttle" or "shuttle II" (take a hint from Hollywood--sequels don't usually do that well), or "shuttle replacement" or "the launch vehicle previously known as shuttle." Purge the word from all memos, Congressional briefings, marketing brochures, industry solicitations, press office handouts to Popular Mechanics, and water-cooler chit-chat unless it refers to the current system.
If some in Houston or Hunstville take umbrage at the notion that you're implying that there was something just a little wrong with the shuttle, and that you want to start with a clean slate (which, of course, is in fact the reason that you're doing it), tell them to simply think of it like retiring the number of a star athlete when he himself retires.
Make it your personal crusade. If Dan Goldin could declare war on worms, you can certainly take up the cudgel for symbolism that actually means something.
Number last: Read Transterrestrial Musings every day, and the weekly columns in Fox News, and all of the past columns in the archives.
Thank you for the opportunity.
That is all. For now.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.