Friday, December 14, 2012

Removing the human

A recent report from the National Research Council asserts that a lack of national consensus on the priorities of NASA, has held the agency back. This is certainly true as this has resulted in both uncertainty in funding and reduced objectivity in the selection and design of programs. The problem faced by NASA is nothing new – the agency requires a top-down portfolio management process that maximizes societal utility, assuming that is the objective function to maximize.

Take the human spaceflight program for example. NASA has not been able to demonstrate the need and the value of such programs but traditionalists both inside and outside the agency always introduce these designs into the portfolio without any valuation criteria. The current objective of landing a human on an asteroid is bizarre and it points to picking design features to satisfy all participants – scientists, politicians and propeller heads. Dumb politicians want to send people to the Moon to mine and others to Mars to colonize. What is disappointing is that the level headed scientists and engineers at the agency will play along with these ideas just to capture the funding.

It is time NASA was held to a higher standard – that of market based economics. It has to show how value to society is maximized by the portfolio of programs it is pursuing. This valuation has to consider significant tail risks that exist for humanity from an asteroid collision as well as the huge benefits that can accrue from understanding physics more deeply. Sending a human to an asteroid with a pick-axe is unlikely to fit into such a portfolio.