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NASA May Outsource

kdawson posted more than 3 years ago | from the let-a-thousand-rockets-bloom dept.

NASA 219

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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219 comments

They took our jobs! (2, Funny)

ZiakII (829432) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165361)

They took our jobs!

Re:They took our jobs! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165389)

>> They took our jobs!
No, they are just being paid with your tax dollars by the government you voted for.

Re:They took our jobs! (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165701)

der derker duuur!

Is really a bad, bad idea... (2, Insightful)

TheDarkMaster (1292526) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165371)

On my country, outsourcing is the same as disaster. You pay the same for a poor service.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (5, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165385)

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!

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165467)

me so h0rny, me so h0rny

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (2, Interesting)

moosesocks (264553) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166025)

My favorite example of privatization gone horribly, horribly wrong is the UK Post Office.

After a year or two of operating under private ownership, the new owners decided there was no way that the Post Office could possibly operate profitably in rural markets, sold off all of its assets in these areas, closed up shop, and pocketed the money from the sales.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

modmans2ndcoming (929661) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166273)

Good thing it would take a constitutional amendment to privatise the US postal service. That is one of the fed's core responsabilities.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

El Torico (732160) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166363)

"Fed Ex And UPS Are Doing Just Fine, It's The Post Office That's Always Having Problems" - President Barak Obama, August 11, 2009.

Sounds like your guys made the right decision.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29166497)

can't even spell the name of the President

-1

FAIL

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

El Torico (732160) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166589)

I capitalized the "A" in "And" too. You missed that, asshole.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

moosesocks (264553) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166695)

"Fed Ex And UPS Are Doing Just Fine, It's The Post Office That's Always Having Problems" - President Barak Obama, August 11, 2009.

Sounds like your guys made the right decision.

Care to link to a reliable source for that quote?

All Google turns up are a few obscure right-wing blogs, which makes it sort of difficult to believe or trust. Even Fox News doesn't seem to have picked up on it.

That said, the USPS has generally done "just fine." The service typically operates with a modest profit, receives no subsidies, and the mail gets delivered on time at an extremely low cost to the consumer.

It's also worth mentioning that in the UK, the Post Office is a separate entity from the Royal Mail (which handles the actual delivery).* UK Post Offices serve as a public front-end to several other public services and businesses in addition to the mail. The Royal Mail still operates under the auspices of the government.

*It's actually a lot more complicated than that. I honestly don't completely understand it myself. My understanding is "less like the USPS, and more like Amtrak"

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (3, Informative)

UncleTogie (1004853) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166799)

Care to link to a reliable source for that quote?

Sure, how about a video where he said just that during a townhall meeting concerning healthcare? Link here. [youtube.com]

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

Macrat (638047) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166755)

That's only because your country isn't as good at outsourcing as America, land of the free, is.

Apparently you have never had to rely on outsourced IT services.

Imagine having to call the support desk to restart the servers mid launch.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165411)

You pay the same for a poor service.

Would be difficult to provide a worse 'service' than NASA does; they're looking at taking longer to put a spam-can on top of a shuttle SRB than they did to go from early unmanned satellites to walking on the moon.

However, I do wonder whether the idea of 'outsourcing to competing systems' is at all viable: how many companies are going to spend billions of dollars developing a manned launcher which NASA will fly three times a year? The only way I could see it working is if NASA built the spam-can and designed it to be compatible with multiple launchers (e.g. Delta, Atlas, Falcon etc) so they could easily switch from one to the other for each launch.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (2)

TheDarkMaster (1292526) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165451)

Well, for example: Forget hardware like the Spirit Mars Rover (build to last few months, but still working after two years) if you outsorce the manufacture.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (2, Informative)

el_tedward (1612093) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165489)

I think the main reason for this was because they didn't fully understand how Martian weather would affect the rover. They thought the solar panels would just get covered in dust after a certain period, but it turned out that the dust just ended up getting blown off.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165537)

Well, for example: Forget hardware like the Spirit Mars Rover (build to last few months, but still working after two years) if you outsorce the manufacture.

We're not talking about the unmanned side of NASA, which actually does provide decent value for money; this is the manned side, which is spending a hundred billion dollars putting up a space station which will have to be deorbited shortly after it's completed.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165565)

Built to almost certainly last a few months. That involves quite a lot of overbuilding, and it makes perfect sense when you consider the difficulty involved in getting it to location.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (2, Insightful)

jamstar7 (694492) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

I hope that you are kidding (4, Interesting)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165571)

You should know better. Much of America's space hardware is built in various locations. For example, MGS was from l-mart in Denver. Likewise, there are plenty of companies that are fully capable of building the rover. With that said, NASA's new missions will be to continue building rovers for mars and other planets UNTIL it becomes methodical. Then it would be handed off to private to do. Though think about this. If USA can fire up multiple companies here that are space and lunar bound, we will get an infrastructure that can move to other worlds. That is what we need. NASA will take us there. They will be at the leading edge on all of it. BUT, to allow companies to take over what should be mundane only makes sense.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (4, Informative)

vlm (69642) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165677)

Well, for example: Forget hardware like the Spirit Mars Rover (build to last few months, but still working after two years) if you outsorce the manufacture.

Too late, spirit was an outsourced project. Oddly enough, the wikipedia page for Spirit/MER-A has no manufacturing details. But the main MER project page is believed accurate:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Exploration_Rover [wikipedia.org]

Nasa outsourced the whole project to JPL to manage and generally run. The Wikipedia page details whom JPL subcontracted to for various parts... for example, the aeroshell exterior capsule thingy was outsourced to Lockheed. IBM-Federal made the radiation hardened CPU chip, but their division got sold around and was part of Lockheed at one point.

Anyway, the whole point is that no spacecraft that I'm aware of, at least for the past 40 years, have any components made by NASA... NASA does not "do" anything, other than distribute budget to various contractors.

Those are the facts. As for opinion, I believe there are no personnel accepting paychecks from nasa that have ever touched a soldering iron, screwdriver, welding torch, or milling machine...

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (2, Insightful)

sethstorm (512897) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165853)

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

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166117)

The only way I could see it working is if NASA built the spam-can and designed it to be compatible with multiple launchers (e.g. Delta, Atlas, Falcon etc) so they could easily switch from one to the other for each launch.

Yes, I'm fairly certain that's the way they're planning on doing it: purchasing the services of a commercial capsule like the SpaceX Dragon [wikipedia.org] , Orion Lite [space.com] , Excalibur Almaz [excaliburalmaz.com] which can be launched on the currently-existing commercial rockets you mentioned. This minimizes development costs, insures that you're using a rocket which has been well-tested with unmanned launches, and lets you easily switch to a different launcher if one of them has problems.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

modmans2ndcoming (929661) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166283)

hmmm..... maybe if the sapce program was funded like it was back in those days they coudl move the time table up.

Anti-government fools never think about what lack of resources does.

Outsourcing is NOT the problem (2, Insightful)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165513)

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.

Outsourcing IS the problem when dishonestly done (1)

sethstorm (512897) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165885)

Explain why there is a need to play dirty pool and lobby to get the work to those Third World countries.

If it was clean and honest, it'd be welcomed beyond the 'true believer' economists and folks like NASSCOM. It wouldn't need law firms to find loopholes in regulations.

Re:Outsourcing IS the problem when dishonestly don (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166279)

Explain why there is a need to play dirty pool and lobby to get the work to those Third World countries.

What the hell are you talking about? Nobody's talking about outsourcing spaceflight to third world countries.

Re:Is really a bad, bad idea... (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166091)

On my country, outsourcing is the same as disaster. You pay the same for a poor service.

NASA has "outsourced" the launches of all its scientific probes since the 1990s or so, and that's worked rather well. The launch costs are maybe an order of magnitude less than the Space Shuttle, with a comparable track record.

How is this different than now? (4, Insightful)

cowtamer (311087) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165399)

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...

Re:How is this different than now? (4, Insightful)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:How is this different than now? (1)

brennz (715237) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165487)

It is different because instead of paying around $100 an hour for a GS-14, the govt will be paying $150-$250 an hour for the same individuals, via a giant contractor ( Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed ). In addition, the govt will have to budget for the overhead cost of the acquisition and acquisition management.

Re:How is this different than now? (2, Interesting)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165527)

It is different because instead of paying around $100 an hour for a GS-14, the govt will be paying $150-$250 an hour for the same individuals, via a giant contractor ( Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed ).

Uh, no. They'd be paying for someone to launch their cargo into orbit, rather than employing people directly to do so... there's a huge difference between buying launch services like any other customer and hiring thousands of contractors to launch your own rocket on a cost-plus contract.

Anyone can buy a Delta launch and the rates are well known; if Boeing start trying to charge NASA ten times as much as they charge any other customer, even the US government might realise they're being screwed.

Re:How is this different than now? (2, Interesting)

brennz (715237) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165605)

The last sentence of your post demonstrated a misconception.

When the govt turns to contractors and issues an RFP, the govt rarely does a complete halt and tries to go in-house when contractors pitch inflated costs. Instead, the govt might try to scale back the services during the negotiation phase of the acquisition, and pay more, for less service.

Re:How is this different than now? (2, Interesting)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165679)

If the government can't figure out when they're being screwed, then that's a problem with government, not with business; if the government is willing to pay ten times as much as any other customer, why would any sane business not charge that?

Re:How is this different than now? (5, Insightful)

Nyeerrmm (940927) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:How is this different than now? (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166301)

Thank you for writing this. It's the best comment I've seen under this entire story.

Re:How is this different than now? (2, Interesting)

WheelDweller (108946) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166483)

You are not wrong, sir. Part of the problem with space is that while American has the tech (though others are quickly catching up) they also have the bureaucracy. And not the good kind that gets things organized- the bad kind that requires an 18 year delay to permit the sales of Coke in India. (THAT kind.)

I'm just so happy that the settlers didn't decided it was too big to get across the USA back in the 1800s- that a government agency was needed. If it were, we'd be up to about Ohio, just about now.

It's time to do with NASA, what needs to be done with ALL federal power: snip it to a standards-authority. Take all that mindless, money-burning power of a congressman and divert it to only a job for setting standards, not impeding progress.

Obama just happens to be the president presiding; the congress is where the real issues are, and like *every* directly-controlled agency of the Congress, NASA suffers from bloat and waste to insane quantities.

Can anyone name a single, federally-run activity that *isn't* a dismal failure?

What have they been doing until now? (0, Troll)

BadAnalogyGuy (945258) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165415)

Anyone involved in actually running a business knows that you should focus on your core competencies and strategic intellectual properties. Using competent 3rd party vendors is always either cheaper or faster than developing in house, so I'm a little worried to hear that NASA wasn't doing this from the outset.

Engineers are smart people, but sometimes they haven't got a bit of sense. Business acumen doesn't come at the pointy end of a slide rule, it comes from understanding how to strategically use existing resources to maximize output. If that sounded like gobbledygook to you, congratulations, you don't have what it takes to climb the corporate ladder.

NASA needs to stop doing all the work themselves and start working with companies who can deliver cheaper and better solutions in shorter time frames. JPL, SLAC, Skunkworks, and all the rest are great to have as specialists, but gruntwork should definitely be handled externally.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165471)

"{Business acumen doesn't come at the pointy end of a slide rule, it comes from understanding how to strategically use existing resources to maximize output." That didn't work so well for the Challenger crew.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (5, Insightful)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165507)

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.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166203)

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

Ok, so then I'll restate it without using the buzzword lingo. With the Ares I, NASA has been trying (badly) to design their own rocket to get to low earth orbit (LEO), instead of using rockets which either already exist or are under development (e.g. Atlas V, Delta IV, SpaceX Falcon 9), with cost projections currently set to be about an order of magnitude more expensive than all of those other rockets combined. Instead of wasting all this money to try to compete against LEO providers and build an in-house rocket, NASA should just buy the lower-cost services from them, so NASA can focus their resources on beyond-LEO exploration and research. NASA actually cancelled most of their technology development programs when Ares I started going massively overbudget, and it'd be nice if NASA could bring some of those back.

Outsourcing (1)

symbolset (646467) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165529)

Outsourcing does give a larger chunk of the budget to external commercial interests. Who will then choose to operate in the states of malleable Senators and Congressmen, and fund a healthy lobbyist budget.

With the operations distributed in enough key states, we'll find a legislature ready to drown NASA in billions. Some of those billions might actually get spent building stuff.

Disgusting, but if it works it works.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (1)

brennz (715237) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165555)

I understand your "gobbledygook", but I question your understanding of NASA.

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

Do tell what NASA's core competencies are then.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (2, Funny)

Animats (122034) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165689)

Do tell what NASA's core competencies are then.

Public relations, of course. NASA has a huge PR operation, with visitor centers, educational outreach, and other image-enhancement activities.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (2, Insightful)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166341)

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.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (1)

Planesdragon (210349) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165799)

Using competent 3rd party vendors is always either cheaper or faster than developing in house, so I'm a little worried to hear that NASA wasn't doing this from the outset.

Nice weasel word there, btw. "Competent." What happens when the contractor bungles it? They're not "competent."

COTS, sure. But if you have to hire someone to build you something custom... then you probably want to just hire them directly, instead of funneling money to someone whose only job is to skim money between you and the person doing your work.

outsource only that which is either (1) not customized to you at all, or (2) entirely optional to your business. For instance, outsource webhosting, and hire somenoe for training and tool creation.. but don't outsource the running of your website if you want any benefit from it at all.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166239)

COTS, sure. But if you have to hire someone to build you something custom... then you probably want to just hire them directly, instead of funneling money to someone whose only job is to skim money between you and the person doing your work.

outsource only that which is either (1) not customized to you at all, or (2) entirely optional to your business.

Well yes, (1) is pretty much the point -- that NASA buy commercial launch services just like the DOD and commercial satellite companies do.

Re:What have they been doing until now? (1)

hey! (33014) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166507)

Er...

I think the problem isn't "doing all the work themselves", which they never did. They ran *programs* themselves. No, the problem is choosing programs that the country is willing to support realistically, not programs that recapture the glory days when the country was willing to support more.

Maybe this is the time to incubate private programs for things like launch capabilities, but if it does so it will be a remarkable case of altruism by the American people. Didn't we just have an article about high tech companies "detaching" from the US (e.g. moving know how out to cheaper countries). We'd be paying for somebody else to control access to space.

Maybe it's about time (2, Interesting)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165417)

SpaceX is moving forward, without asking the government for money. http://www.spacex.com/ [spacex.com]

Re:Maybe it's about time (1)

nawitus (1621237) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165549)

No, SpaceX has received / will receive lots of money from NASA. However, I do think it's the best choice for private transport to space. And a cheap one!

and if these companies made profit? (5, Interesting)

societyofrobots (1396043) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165429)

Would it still save money if the companies rose prices to make a profit?

With NASA, its science oriented. With business, its profit oriented.

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

Re:and if these companies made profit? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165557)

With NASA, its science oriented.

I thought it was political oriented: getting jobs in as many states as possible so that you can get votes from those state's Congressional delegations, sending work to the contractors with the most political pull, doing BS missions that have virtually no scientific value (Space Station), keeping what's basically 1970s era technology flying even though are much cheaper and more efficient ways of doing the same thing(shuttle), etc...

To head off the "look at all the technologies that spawned from the program!" posts, I'd like to point out that the handful of technologies that were spawned would have been created anyway (cordless power tools, for one) and it is not a valid justification for any program. A program should exist for its own merits - not for side effects.

Science is more than enough of a justification for the program.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (0, Troll)

couchslug (175151) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165663)

"With NASA, its science oriented. With business, its profit oriented."

If that were the case, NASA would have dropped the manned mission tourism/entertainment effort and made vastly more efficient use of their funds by fielding many unmanned systems. The resources used to transport and protect delicate human space tourists do nothing to expand our knowledge of space. We need robots on the earth, under its oceans, and in space because most human activity is "dull, dirty, and dangerous". Accelerated development of robots will help us learn about and exploit space. The glacially slow development cycle required to build manned space systems at our current GENERAL state of technology is a burden we can drop. Let commercial outfits do it for profit if it is so important, and use government resources to send machines instead of men.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (1)

Kral_Blbec (1201285) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166375)

Sorry you got modded troll, cause I largely agree.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (1)

Tyler Eaves (344284) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165803)

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.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (1)

cyber-vandal (148830) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166583)

So do many many private companies. I live in the land of the Private Finance Initiative and there have been so many private companies fucking up government contracts it's not funny.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (2, Insightful)

Macrat (638047) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (1)

b4upoo (166390) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165871)

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

Re:and if these companies made profit? (4, Insightful)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166355)

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.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (1)

nawitus (1621237) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165907)

NASA is not that science oriented. Just look at how much they've wasted money on the failed Shuttle project.

Re:and if these companies made profit? (1, Insightful)

Darkness404 (1287218) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Ugggh (5, Insightful)

Bluesman (104513) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165443)

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.

Contracting is basically wealth transfer (4, Insightful)

brennz (715237) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165661)

From the US taxpayer, to Lockheed, Northrop or Boeing.

Look at these inflated labor rates! [northropgrumman.com]

Re:Ugggh (2, Interesting)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165883)

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.

You're missing the point. The whole reason they're doing this is so they have multiple competing vendors for services, instead of just a single monopolistic contractor.

Re:Ugggh (1)

lennier (44736) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166703)

"The whole reason they're doing this is so they have multiple competing vendors for services, instead of just a single monopolistic contractor."

Yikes - I thought the US military had pervasive dual-sourcing policies already, but maybe NASA not so much. At least as of 1998, it seems like much of the Shuttle was single-sourced. Probably still is?

http://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY98/executive_summaries/ig-98-030es.htm [nasa.gov]

Re:Ugggh (1)

Macrat (638047) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166813)

You're missing the point. The whole reason they're doing this is so they have multiple competing vendors for services, instead of just a single monopolistic contractor.

Only if that vendor provides jobs to the voters of the senator on the "steering" committee.

Good, BUT (4, Interesting)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165461)

  1. Keep it competitive. That means that we need at least 2 companies the provide a service. Ideally, it will be at least 3.
  2. National Security MUST come first. That means that at least 1 of each categories MUST be American. That does not mean that ALL of the win must go to Americans. There is a lot to like about the idea of having our partners provide part of the system.
  3. Keep it fair. If the nation has trade barriers and/or has their fixed against ours and/or has the gov subsidizing the bid, then it should not be allowed in. That would mean that China and India are absolutely out of any part of this. OTH, Brazil might be (not sure of their status).
  4. Anything developed for NASA and making use of NASA/US proprietary tech needs to STILL be limited to friendly countries.

Go NASA go. Once the infrastructure is in place for LEO/GEO/Lunar, then it should be possible to focus on NASA's true purpose; pushing the tech and science of space.

Re:Good, BUT (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166505)

National Security MUST come first. That means that at least 1 of each categories MUST be American. That does not mean that ALL of the win must go to Americans. There is a lot to like about the idea of having our partners provide part of the system.
Keep it fair. If the nation has trade barriers and/or has their fixed against ours and/or has the gov subsidizing the bid, then it should not be allowed in. That would mean that China and India are absolutely out of any part of this. OTH, Brazil might be (not sure of their status).

By the way, I'm fairly certain that the current proposals only mean "outsourcing" in the sense of outsourcing to private US companies, rather than companies based elsewhere. In fact, much of the reason for doing this is to prevent a reliance on Russia. During the Augustine Committee meetings I think there were some questions directed to Europe's EADS about potential manned launches on the Ariane V, but I believe these would be too far off in the future to be of immediate relevance.

With NASA's current commercial COTS and CCDev programs only US companies have expressed an interest, which I suspect is because only US companies are eligible.

horrible idea (2, Insightful)

brennz (715237) | more than 3 years ago | (#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]

Re:horrible idea (2, Informative)

Dolphinzilla (199489) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165945)

you are absolutely spot on - federal employees make less than their contractor counterparts - and your numbers are about right - but this is one of the reasons it is a screwed up system - do you think the best and brightest go work for NASA or the better paying jobs with their subcontractors ?

Re:horrible idea (1)

brennz (715237) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166467)

Contractors may make more than their civil service counterparts, about 5 - 20% by my observations.

However, the government is paying generally 100% more per labor hour.

I think the best and brighest go to the research institutes, the FFRDCs (JPL), and other think-tank like organizations. These organizations are generally non-profits, or non-profit like, as opposed to a for-profit contractor (Northrop / Boeing / Lockheed ).

Re:horrible idea (3, Informative)

El Torico (732160) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166237)

One important difference - the contractors actually work while the GS-14s (and other grades) spend their time arguing with each other, taking breaks and long lunches, and changing their minds every five minutes.

I'd rather work directly for a military officer in some godforsaken FOB in Durkadurkastan than a civilian GS in a safe, comfortable office in CONUS.

Actually, the big move right now is to fixed price contracts. The Government found out that most of their COTR's are incapable of managing contracts.

If I was an astronaut... (2, Insightful)

imunfair (877689) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165481)

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.

Re:If I was an astronaut... (1)

imunfair (877689) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165629)

Also, what the article is talking about is fairly irrelevant to most NASA work - NASA is about exploring and pushing the boundaries of what we can do currently. Commercial companies won't be offering to run spaceships to mars - they'll be offering to launch satellites and common things like that which happen much more frequently. Maybe putting space station parts into orbit could be done by a commercial company, but they're probably never going to be doing solar system exploration contracted by NASA.

Think about it in these terms - the things these companies are doing now are what NASA was inventing and perfecting back around 1960 - almost 50 years ago. NASA is just talking about outsourcing the grunt work that they figured out how to do decades ago.

Re:If I was an astronaut... (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166217)

Commercial companies won't be offering to run spaceships to mars - they'll be offering to launch satellites and common things like that which happen much more frequently.

Plenty of commercial companies would be happy to offer flights to Mars if the US government was to pay them to do so; after all, the spaceships which flew to the Moon were all built by commercial companies.

And they'd probably find cheaper methods of doing it than NASA would, if they weren't offered open-ended cost-plus contracts.

Re:If I was an astronaut... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165737)

Exactly, that pisses me off more than anything. They'd rather spend money on being able to blow up people into smaller pieces than advance human knowledge.

Re:If I was an astronaut... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29166351)

and to stop others from blowing you up into smaller pieces. Are you really so naive as to think that disarming yourself is the best defense?

Re:If I was an astronaut... (1, Flamebait)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166249)

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.

When buying a plane ticket, do you similarly insist that it be on a government-built plane?

Re:If I was an astronaut... (1)

imunfair (877689) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166435)

Since when were the construction tolerances of commercial airliners and spacecraft anywhere near comparable? If you wanted some credibility you could have gone for some of the high end military planes that have to survive extremely fast speeds and/or high altitudes, but that would have destroyed most of the argument for outsourcing since they are astronomically more expensive than a commercial aircraft. Even then it still wouldn't be a completely equal comparison considering the stresses a spacecraft goes through vs. a fighter jet.

"New breed of contractors"? (2, Insightful)

sagman (465807) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:"New breed of contractors"? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165541)

You forgot to mention the US auto industry. What will we do when the space contractors go bankrupt?

Money wasted in Iraq (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165561)

Imagine if all the money wasted in Iraq was spent on space related projects!!

Money tunnel (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29165573)

We call it a tunnel in my country - somebody is just going to cash on increased cost of work from abundant money supply of government. Have seen it repeated all the time during the transformation of our economy from a socialist one to capitalist. Funny the same principles are now employed in the West. I guess we were used to test and perfect it and the response of public was measured and found harmless. Good luck - you have no idea where are you going!

Job #1 should be tracking asteroids (2, Interesting)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165793)

Which apparently is not being done very well:
http://www.space.com/news/090812-nasa-asteroid-funding.html [space.com]

Exploration is cool and all, but keeping the planet alive should really come first.

Just from a species survival standpoint, it will be a LONG time before we have a self-sustaining base off-earth.

If we aren't tracking asteroids on a full sphere, then we are leaving ourselves open to extinction.

Just sayin. Oh, and before you mod me off-topic, I'll add that asteroid tracking should not be outsourced because its too easy to fake and say "yeah, we checked our quadrant. pay me."

Re:Job #1 should be tracking asteroids (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165957)

Just from a species survival standpoint, it will be a LONG time before we have a self-sustaining base off-earth.

And it will happen way before we see an extinction-level impact threat; even a city-buster only happens maybe once a century, and then they hit the sea 75% of the time and low-population areas most of the rest.

There is no reasonable cost-benefit analysis where spending vast billions of dollars looking for asteroids which might hit us makes any sense.

Re:Job #1 should be tracking asteroids (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166403)

There is no reasonable cost-benefit analysis where spending vast billions of dollars looking for asteroids which might hit us makes any sense.

Actually, according to NASA estimates it would take less than a billion dollars spread over 10-15 years to perform the necessary tracking, which I believe is well worth it.

great idea (1)

Dolphinzilla (199489) | more than 3 years ago | (#29165905)

maybe we can finally get rid of the Johnson Space Center one of the ultimate examples of pork...

What irony (0, Offtopic)

amightywind (691887) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166021)

Obama is a madman. He wants to nationalize heathcare and privatize NASA, to the utter ruinment of both. How's that change workin' for ya?

Re:What irony (2, Insightful)

Jack9 (11421) | more than 3 years ago | (#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?

A warning (1)

Vermyndax (126974) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166069)

Didn't "Ground Control" warn us against this?

Why this is important: Monopolies vs. competition (0, Redundant)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166077)

A lot of people here seem to be missing the point with comments along the lines of "oh noes, outsourcing!" so I figure I should explain things in a way more grokkable to slashdotters. NASA's standard way of doing things is to have a single monopolistic supplier paid with a cost-plus contract, while the newer way involves having multiple companies competing for fixed-price contracts.

Under the cost-plus monopolistic way of doing things, a single company is chosen as sole supplier -- I'm sure slashdotters can appreciate why having a single monopolistic provider can be a problem. The "cost-plus" part means that the contractor is paid a multiple of whatever their development and production expenses are. That works well if you're in a "money is no object" scenario, but it means that the contractor has basically no incentive to be efficient or even finish work in a timely fashion, since they make just as much profit on development as on the final product (imagine if the software development projects you've worked on were like this). Of course, I'm sure the engineers work just as hard in any case, but it makes a big difference in how management is structured and how much bureaucracy gets in the way of engineers doing what needs to be done, as there's also substantially more paperwork in this scenario. NASA typically has an oversight role to make sure there isn't too much cost-plus waste going on, although this has gotten particularly bad with the Ares I since NASA decided to act as its own prime contractor, resulting in basically no oversight whatsoever (just look at all the Ares I problems which have been shoved under the rug and festered to see why this has been bad).

The new way of doing things, which NASA's been trying successfully with their COTS program, is to have multiple companies competing for fixed-priced contracts. The companies give initial estimates of cost during the initial contract phases, and if their estimates are poor they either eat the cost or stop getting paid. Payments are only made when specific milestones are accomplished and deliveries are made (e.g. pay a certain amount for delivering a particular amount of mass to orbit), so there's a big incentive to be as competitive as possible. Since you're not tied to a single company, NASA can just dump one company and switch to a competitor if somebody's underperforming, as they did when they switched from Rocketplane-Kistler to Orbital. Although some of these competitors are newcomers like SpaceX, there's also many well-established launch companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Orbital. Fixed-price competitive contracts is kind of an unusual way of business for many of the well-established companies, but they'll just have to either adapt or perish.

Finally, since there's multiple competing providers, companies (or teams within a company, so not all their eggs are in one basket) can try coming up with novel ways of delivering payloads to orbit. Since NASA isn't tying its entire fate to a single provider, individual providers have the flexibility to try to innovate and see if there's more cost-effective ways to launch payloads to orbit than the status quo. Once new launch methods have proven themselves in launching unmanned cargo, then they can transition to launching people.

Re:Why this is important: Monopolies vs. competiti (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166517)

I'd really appreciate it if people would explain why they think my comment is apparently "redundant" instead of just modding it down as such...

Proper Government Role (1)

ricklg (162560) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166837)

Space operations haven't been a real money maker for private companies yet. Yes, a few make some launches on their own, but the vast majority of launches are done with Government support and equipment.

NASA (Government) should be developing the technology (this part is expensive) so private industry can offer services. It is probably non-realistic to expect a private company to expend a billion or so dollars for an unproven (and possibly non-viable) technology.

Private industry can improve on what NASA develops and offer services. The outsourcing of services is reasonable. The development of the basic capability is not, at least until there is some hope of profit for the private company. The stockholders will not stand for pie-in-the-sky projects that may or may not be profitable 10 years from now.

As bad as the Government bureaucracy is in long range planning I'm afraid no one else will even try because the threat of failure is too great. Unfortunately the Government can't even do this right...sigh.

Maybe the Dem's Should Follow Nasa's Lead... (1)

hofmny (1517499) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166197)

This move by NASA is just another great example that government run health care would be a bad idea. NASA finally realized its history of supporting communism/socialism doomed man kinds' dream's of walking on other worlds and instead opts for the fix everything will of the free market! Obama, please look the complete failure of what NASA is, and realize too, that your Health Care package would probably do the same.

Re:Maybe the Dem's Should Follow Nasa's Lead... (1, Insightful)

vux984 (928602) | more than 3 years ago | (#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?

How is this a good idea? (1)

Kral_Blbec (1201285) | more than 3 years ago | (#29166323)

How is a government organization paying a for-profit company to do what that organization was set up to do in the first place to do a good idea? There are somethings that should/could be better off contracted out to private companies. There are more that shouldn't be. Most government contractors are just milking the system for all it's worth. How much did the change.gov website get contracted for?

More taxpayer money to fund jobs in India & Ch (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29166491)

Yup, and if our money goes to a private company who do you think those private companies turn around and give the taxpayer funded jobs to? That's right they will go for the cheapest exhange rates in the world.

They Never Learn - (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Impressionable youngsters (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#29166809)

You impressionable youngsters are always going into the space cargo ferrying business. I don't blame you. After all, the holovids are full of stories of out-of-luck war veterans turning billionaires overnight after delivering a cargo of vaccines to the Vega sector. What you don't know is how much you will shit your pants while trying to outrun a Dralthi fighter in your jerry-rigged garbage scows that you have sunk your life savings into. Take it from me. Find a nice farm planet somewhere in the Sol Sector and milk cows for a living.

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