Government Reform

The GAO's Transition Wishlist

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The Government Accountability Office has released its list of "urgent policy concerns…[that] are critical and time sensitive and require prioritized federal action." The list, presumably in descending order of importance is as follows: 

  •  
    • oversight of financial institutions and markets,
    • U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan,
    • protecting the homeland,
    • undisciplined defense spending,
    • improving the U.S. image abroad,
    • finalizing plans for the 2010 Census,
    • caring for service members,
    • preparing for public health emergencies,
    • revamping oversight of food safety,
    • restructuring the approach to surface transportation,
    • retirement of the Space Shuttle,
    • ensuring an effective transition to digital TV, and
    • rebuilding military readiness.

More information here.

I can follow the GAO, which is absolutely one of the most useful resources for journalists and small-government devotees of all professions, through first four. But then I think they start getting a bit lost in the weeds (and not simply because caring for service members and rebuilding military readiness should probably be folded into numbers two through four into a single bullet point about totally revamping about half of all discretionary government spending). I just don't see how the retirement of the Space Shuttle makes it onto the list. Can't we just ignore it until it goes away?

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  1. and how does digital TV make it in above ilitary readiness?

  2. I’m reading that as the GAO wants the incoming administration to be sure that the Space Shuttle doesn’t become an intertial zombie.

  3. Dammit! They left “air cover for Bay of Pigs” off the list — again!

  4. I can’t believe my “bread, beer, and circuses” bill failed again.

  5. U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan,
    protecting the homeland

    Well, at least SOMEBODY admits that these are not one and the same

  6. and how does digital TV make it in above military readiness?

    Right. I’m already sick of this one. Anyone who watches enough TV to worry about has seen dozens of ads explaining the situation. TV newscasts have done multiple features on the subject, including “tests” to see if your TV is affected. Anyone listening already has all the necessary information.

    Most of us, those on cable or dish, won’t be affected. I suspect most of those who are affected will wait until January to purchase or have donated what they won’t need until February.

    Anyone who isn’t listening and who is affected will lose maybe two days of TV while they catch up with the rest of the world.

    How is this on anyone’s problem list?

    And PS, this is another problem the government caused in the first place.

  7. You’d think our astronomical national debt and unfunded liabilities would rate a mention…

  8. You’d think our astronomical national debt and unfunded liabilities would rate a mention…

    To quote Carl to Lenny: “shuuuuuut uuuuuuuuuup!”

  9. Nothing in Medicare/Medicaid? Epic fail.

  10. While the Space Shuttle seems a little out of place on the list, I can see it being worth a mention here.

    For all its ailments, issues, and the corruption of the cottage industry that maintains it, the Space Shuttle is the only manned space vehicle not operated by a totalitarian regime (well, the least totalitarian regime!).

    Physical access to the universe beyond our atmosphere is in the strategic interest of the United States (even if you are a libertarian) if for no other reason than we would want a physical say on what others want to fly over our heads. Budget-wise, its actual impact on society today and so forth, the shuttle is a hill of beans by any measure. But for what it gives this country in terms of a baseline physical capability, and a say in what goes on up there, it is a vital if flawed capability at this time. A botched retirement of that vehicle with no private replacement (the Orion scheme is dead in the water I believe) would leave the world dependent essentially on the Russians for manned space access into the foreseeable future. Such a development has strategic implications when it comes to who has a say, and a flag planted, on the ultimate high ground.

  11. “I just don’t see how the retirement of the Space Shuttle makes it onto the list. Can’t we just ignore it until it goes away?”

    You don’t know how government works, do you? With all the regulations out there about how things must be maintained, managed, and yes, even disposed of, it can be extremely costly to just “ignore” something. In most cases, it’s cheaper in the long run to properly retire it or replace it.

  12. You’d think our astronomical national debt and unfunded liabilities would rate a mention…

    Well, it did. And in explicit detail. Only this report(pdf) came out in August of 2007. And the comptroller general at the time got tired of screaming at congress to do something and he resigned.

    It’s a scary report to say the least. Take a look at page 15, for example, which says things like:

    GAO’s simulations show that balancing the budget in 2040 could require actions as large as
    ?Cutting total federal spending by 60 percent or
    ?Raising federal taxes to two times today’s level
    ?Faster Economic Growth Can Help, but It Cannot Solve the Problem
    ?Closing the current long-term fiscal gap based on reasonable assumptions would require real average annual economic growth in the double-digit range every year for the next 75 years.
    ?During the 1990s, the economy grew at an average 3.2 percent per year.
    ?As a result, we cannot simply grow our way out of this problem. Tough choices will be required.

    Who’s going to make those tough choices, eh? My guess is they’ll just kick the can down the road for the next guy.

  13. Well, it did. And in explicit detail. Only this report(pdf) came out in August of 2007. And the comptroller general at the time got tired of screaming at congress to do something and he resigned.

    Yep, I remember that. I was just curious why it wasn’t referenced in this one. I wasn’t aware that the comptroller general resigned. It’s a shame; talk about “speaking truth to power.”

  14. The Space Shuttle was planning to retire next year, but its 401k got decimated and it really wants to avoid having to move in with its kids.

  15. What a miserable dead end the space shuttle turned out to be.

  16. joe, if we had allowed private companies to compete to build their own returnable vehicles all along, things would have been different.

  17. The only spending that needs ‘disciplining’ is defense?

    Showing no bias there.

  18. The only spending that needs ‘disciplining’ is defense?

    Showing no bias there.

    Why did Clyde (or whoever it was) rob banks?

    It’s where the money is.

  19. All right, Mr. Obama, my pants are down, and I’m bent over with my hands and head touching the table. I think you’ll find everything in order back there.

  20. Gee, I wonder why dealing with the massive unfunded liabilities for social security and medicare isn’t on the top of the list?

  21. You know who’s going to being hit the hardest by the transition to digital TV? The poor and minorities. Screwed again.

  22. The Space Shuttle makes the list because it’s a big damned problem. It is scheduled for retirement in 2010, and under current law that can’t be extended without recertifying the thing – which would cost billions of dollars. The new manned lifter is not scheduled to fly for 3-5 years after the last Shuttle flight, which leaves the U.S. at the mercy of the Russians to get astronauts to and from orbit. That has implications for geopolitics if the Russians use their monopoly on manned spacelift to muscle the U.S.

    And you just can’t keep the shuttle around ‘just in case’. Maintaining the shuttles in flightworthy conditions costs a fortune, and very shortly after 2010 the Shuttle launch facilities have to be converted over for use by the new Ares rockets. You’ve also got tens of thousands of workers in several politically-important states who will be out of work if the transition away from Shuttle isn’t done right.

    Overall, it’s a big problem.

  23. Why don’t we just put the shuttle on craigslist?
    Free- come get it!

  24. Odd- I don’t see “picking up the tab for UAW legacy costs” on the GAO list.

  25. The Shuttle/Orion gap is going to kill NASA I think. The SpaceX Company (ironically on a NASA dev-grant) is right now developing a lifter/capsule combo that can do all baseline Ares/Orion LEO missions and current costs for its development all the way to operations is projected at ~$500 million.

    Ares/Orion I am sure has already consumed billions of dollars with no flying hardware in sight for at least eighteen months. It’s been delayed several times and will cost ~30% more than anticipated originally, at last count. In a nutshell, its a government program.

    What NASA always got away with on this though was essentially claiming that rocket science and so forth is really, really hard (hey, it’s ROCKET science!) and therefore really, really expensive and time-consuming. If you have to ask about the costs, its because you’re a simpleton and, well, not a ROCKET scientist!

    If this SpaceX thing keeps its schedule and budget etc. (so far its kept its schedule and under-budget) than NASA will finally be compared with a different bunch of rocket scientists, and the implied excuse is gone. So is NASA in the manned spaceflight business at that point. They’re cooked.

    So, the next few years will be interesting in the space business to say the least. But I am not comfortable with such a capability gap existing at this time when our power world-wide is under siege and/or on the wane. Especially given how critical the space biz has become to the dissemination of information, GPS, and sensor suite currently deployed by the DoD.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents on the Space Brick (i.e. shuttle).

  26. Especially given how critical the space biz has become to the dissemination of information, GPS, and sensor suite currently deployed by the DoD.

    None of which require either ISS or a manned presence at all. So I don’t see the requirement you seem to for having a domestic manned lift capability.

  27. MikeP:

    Frankly, I don’t see the need for a manned space lifter in the context of those things either. The ISS is a joke (although it looks cool when I see it from the ground!), like some double-wide trailer house in space. All it needs is an orbiting Chevy Camaro on cinder-blocks to complete the motif.

    But just two weeks ago on the Shenzhou manned mission the Chinese “taikonauts” released a very compact, undeclared satellite from the primary spacecraft that then maneuvered around a bit before they apparently lost control of the nano-sat and I am guessing it currently is space-junk now. They released it while with ~50nm of the ISS. No doubt what the Chinese were testing was a compact, autonomous satellite-killer. Chinese operations in space have been downright creepy over the past two years, what with target practice on their own satellites and then little-discussed developments such as that nano-sat.

    The shuttle is the only vehicle in the world that can lift (by the sake of its rather excellent rocket-stack) KH-series spy-sats to all orbital inclinations that would be desirable for such operations. DSP-program satellites and the like are all big, bad satellites that need a serious lifter to get them up there – especially to GTO. The only other vehicle with a capability approaching that at all is the D-IV Heavy, which currently has a success rate of 50% over two launches. Not really the basket I want to put all my eggs in for those kinds of missions.

    By that same criteria, the Shuttle launch stack gives us a capability for one-off launches of things we build here on the ground that are three to four times the mass of anything else anyone else in the world could launch right now. No other heavy-lifter is on the horizon from any country in the world bar the Ares SuperPig 1 or whatever they’re calling it. I don’t know what that big widget we need to launch might be, but two years ago I didn’t see AIG folding and another trillion in the hole either. The unknown is why some ability to operate that class of vehicle is what justifies it from that perspective. Not the unknown of space and all that jazz, but the unknown of human affairs and their developments.

  28. What’s Ariane 5, chopped liver?

  29. MikeP:

    Ariane 5 can put ~15000kg into LEO. Shuttle can place ~30000kg into LEO (useable payload not counting the orbiter). Ariane 5 doesn’t have the payload fairing dimensions or power to put a KH-series into its proper orbit. Ironically, back when they were cooking up the shuttle in the 70’s the vehicle was scaled and sized to accommodate big spy-sats like that and put them in polar orbits.

    The Hubble Space Telescope is basically a KH with a different sensor suite and optical configuration pointed up not down. No other vehicle in the world bar the Shuttle could lift the HTS to its orbit.

  30. I think your payload masses are a bit off. Shuttle does 25,000 kg to LEO, and the newest Ariane V can do 21,000 — equal to the KH-launching Titan IV.

    But you’re right on the payload dimensions. It looks like the KH is a snug fit inside Shuttle, but is 4 meters too long for Ariane. I would think that would be fixable if you put up the money.

  31. Latest and greatest Ariane V can lob 21000kg theoretically into a good orbit inclination. But the Ariane has an advantage in that it launches from French Guyana. They get to free-load an extra 220m/s a second just from the orientation of the launch site when launching due-east. Also, that 21000kg number is the ideal into probably some really low orbit, like 200km or so. KH’s work at ~650km plus in altitude if I remember right, and they operate in polar orbits so they go over every point of the earth at some point in their orbit schedule. Combine that altitude number with no free delta-V due to the need for polar insertion, and you can reliably chop ~20-25% off that 21000kg figure.

    Also, changing the payload fairing on a vehicle like that changes the center of gravity as it operates and its mass “evolves” as it consumes fuel and stages, ditto for the center of pressure and when peak pressure (delta-Q) occur in the launch program. It would be a whole new dev program to integrate a new payload fairing on that vehicle.

    The Shuttle’s junk don’t get me wrong, but the rocket its bolted too is actually impressive hardware that gives us a heavy-lift capability no other country in the world can approach right now.

    Think about it, that rocket isn’t just launching twenty-five tons into space, its launching twenty-five tons and what in size and weight is a Boeing 737 airliner (the orbiter) as well! A very impressive rocket booster from a technical perspective.

  32. So what so you think would be the cheapest course before Ares V shows up?

    1. Continuing shuttle.

    2. Developing Shuttle-C, costing the development but saving the orbiter support costs.

    3. Resurrecting Titan IV.

    4. Trusting Delta IV.

  33. MikeP

    That’s a good question. Frankly, I’d ditch Ares altogether and go with a Shuttle-C derivative. The derivative would be to ditch the pseudo-shuttle-canister type thing Shuttle-C uses and just throw some expendable RS-68’s on the main tank in lieu of SSME’s. Efficiency goes down a bit, but at the end of the day you end up with a heavy-lifter that can lob 80 tonnes or so into low-earth-orbit.

    Alluding to the center-of-gravity problems about new payload canisters and such I mentioned about the Ariane V, advantage with the shuttle launch stack as-is is it’s already designed for CG variation (empty shuttle vs. fully loaded shuttle). You’d need a payload shroud that approximates the center of pressure, and then you can bolt whatever payload you want on it under the shroud and call it a day. If you want to throw a manned capsule (damn big capsule at that) on that stack so be it.

    But outside of maintaining that base-line capability the government should basically get out of the space business. Universities in the USA are sitting right now on probably a trillion bucks in their trusts at least, even after the recent market swoon. If they want fancy-lad orbiting observatories and missions to planets etc. so their alumni can get post-docs they can and will pay for it because the demand is there in society I think (especially tax-free!). The government being involved just inserts Senator Middleman in that process and totally fucks the whole thing up as far as value for the dollar anyways. But we should as a nation be able to maintain a significant baseline capability for getting something into the space above us and that tweaked n’ cheap Shuttle-C I mentioned above would be the way to do it.

  34. Sounds a lot like DIRECT.

  35. The gadget I’ve got in my head is similar to the DIRECT setup, but I still don’t much care for DIRECT. It’s just another Space Cadet project to bring back a semblance of Ye Olde Glory days of the Saturn V, which is a common meme in the space-nut category of our society. What I’m thinking is basically the shuttle as it is minus the orbiter and with expendable motors and still attaching the payload ventrally.

    That’s it. No special moon architecture, no re-invented Saturn V motors (J-2X), no new launch towers for such a tall vehicle, etc. And no new series of “Apollo 2.0” space capsules and the vast industrial complex to support those capsules for their three or four missions a year.

    Heck, that stripped down shuttle I’m thinking about would be a useful vehicle pretty much for the military alone as far as legitimate government interest. NASA itself would go back to being NACA if anything, and the big organization looking for a reason to exist that is the NASA we know would be gone. Tough deal, but as someone with a libertarian bent and looking at the sea of red ink the GAO talks about its gonna happen anyways. We down-size NASA and keep the heavy-lift capability intact as cheap as possible, or Uncle Sam in financially desperate straights has to axe the whole thing – the capability of the shuttle and whatever was to replace it – in the next ten years at most.

    There will be no Orion/Ares, there will be no DIRECT. There could be a SpaceX ride in a few years, or some private outfit we haven’t heard of yet is going to be the winner of a vast business no one sees coming (think Cisco circa 1988). That is possible, but NASA’s days of glory are behind it, sadly. But in the interim we need that skeleton capacity as a nation to launch big stuff as a “hedge to keep our edge” in the high frontier ’til then.

  36. GAO is essentially a tool of the Congress, responding to demonads of Congresspersons who want to “investigate” something that they then want to hold up as a terrible waste of public money.resources. They are a bunch of accountants who know very little about the agencies they “investigate”, but they are very good at putting together reports that sound good and halp support both Congresspersons and headline-writers in the media, which is why they are beloved of journalists.

    They are NOT unbiased, but worse, they are generally incompetent at understanding why the Federal bureaucracies behave the way they do, which is usually because their masters write stupid, inconsistent laws based on GAO reports.

  37. What a miserable dead end the space shuttle turned out to be.

    I remember thinking as a kid how that sucker could fly to a new star.

    Discovering that it only skimmed around the planet was a huge disappointment.

  38. When can we stop calling it the ‘homeland’?

  39. Heck, that stripped down shuttle I’m thinking about would be a useful vehicle pretty much for the military alone as far as legitimate government interest.

    Indeed, that is why its interesting.

    I didn’t catch that the payload would still be ventrally mounted. I figured that once you put the RS-68’s on the ET, you’d want the payload inline for thrust structure reasons. But then I of course wondered about the facilities modes to handle the taller stack.

    With a ventrally mounted payload, wouldn’t putting the engines under the fairing be cheaper and require less CG remodeling?

  40. MikeP:

    Probably keep the aft truss and plumbing currently employed by the shuttle ET and mount the engines in a pod in-line with the hypothetical payload fairing a’la Shuttle. (there is a vehicle even more like what I am thinking than Shuttle-C, look up “Shuttle-Z.”

    As a future development should the interest be there, you could even have a long-range pork-barrel kind of R&D project to make that engine pod something you recover after orbital insertion. Essentially the engines would be integrated into their own low-rent capsule that is then recovered on earth for re-furb and re-use.

    The Solid Rocket Boosters are something else you could upgrade over time barring the politics. The only reason mult-segment SRB’s are used is because the winning (politically rigged) bidder for that contract is Thiokol and they build the SRB’s in Utah. Obviously, you can’t ship something that big in one piece from Utah all the way to Florida, so that’s why the boosters are segmented – so you can take them apart and put them back together later on. That also is why the SRB’s are as wide as they are, they are as wide as possible as rail transport will allow. The politics of who gets what contract is why those SRB’s are what they are, and flawed as they are in concept (Thiokol did a great job making something work when there was a much easier way). As a cherry on the cake for that political support by the way, Senator Jake Garn of Utah got a space-ride I think in 1985 on STS-Discovery. Ahh, politics…this would be one of the Senator Middlemen I alluded to earlier.

    Fact is you can build mongo-sized SRB’s right at the Cape. Aerojet did it in the early ’60’s and built absolutely huge single-pour SRB’s. Using that tech again, you could seriously upgrade the lift capacity of that vehicle, and completely eliminate the infamous O-ring construction of the current SRB design. Cheaper too what with not having to test, take apart, ship, re-build, and test again every SRB every time you use it, between Utah and Florida.

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