Tag Archives: budget

Civics 101

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“No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law” – Article I Section 9 of the Constitution of the United States

 

Sometimes it is good to remember some basics of government operation.  This may be a good time for review. 

 

NASA is a federal executive agency; the President is the head of the executive branch of the government.  But direction does not come from the President alone; it must be approved and funded by the legislative branch, Congress.  Neither the executive nor the legislative branches can do something that is against the Constitution; the Judicial branch of the government determines that boundary. 

 

NASA is currently operating under the “authorization” act of 2008 and the “appropriation” act of 2010.  Authorization acts spell out what the agency should be doing; appropriations acts provide the money.  Generally, NASA, like most federal agencies, is authorized to do more than there is money appropriated to do it with.

 

The current fiscal year is 2010; it started on October 1, 2009 and will end September 30, 2010.  Fiscal Year 2011 starts October 1, 2010.  The President of the United States sent his budget proposal for FY 2011 to the Congress on February 1, 2010 and that budget is under consideration by Congress at this time.

 

In a usual year, this would put the NASA financial/business office folks on track to be developing the 2012 budget request at this time.  From shortly after the President’s budget request is announced until Memorial Day, each Federal executive agency pulls together their wish list/budget proposal for the fiscal year after next.  So at the same time that each agency is operating under the current fiscal year appropriation and Congress considers the budget proposal for next fiscal year, work is started on the budget for the year after next.  Three different fiscal years are in play at one time. 

 

Every federal executive agency provides their budget request to the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s Executive Budget Office around the end of May.  Then the OMB puts together the entire puzzle: the entire federal budget plan for the second fiscal year in the future.  This is while the Congress is wrestling with modification or approval of the budget for the next fiscal year.  Both OMB and Congress have to deal with the big picture issues:  income from taxes, total government outlays, the deficit, etc.

 

Congress is supposed to pass a budget before the start of the new fiscal year, no later than September 30.  They do not always meet that deadline, but will pass a “continuing resolution” which allows the federal government to continue in operation.  These “continuing resolutions” generally allow spending at the level of the previous year (but not always) and generally have limited time affectivity – a few days to a couple of months (but not always).  Some years, Congress never completely passes a budget and portions of the federal government operate for a full year (or more) under continuing resolution.

 

Whether in a real appropriation bill or a continuing resolution, Congress sets the rules.  In every appropriations act there is a breakdown of how the money is to be spent.  No federal agency (NASA in our case) can ignore that breakdown, it is literally federal law.  Uninformed outsiders that recommend NASA executives move money from one account to another are actually recommending violation of federal law.  This is clearly not an option.  If any federal agency desires to move money from one account or program or project to another, that agency must go hat in hand to the appropriations committees of Congress to request an “op plan change”.  Sometimes Congress agrees and sometimes they don’t. 

 

So during the summer and fall, as Congress considers the budget request for the next fiscal year, OMB works on the budget request for the following year.  Generally about Thanksgiving the OMB provides a “passback” to each federal agency.  In essence they say ‘We know what you asked for; here is what you are going to get’.  From the end of November until the President’s budget request is formally presented to Congress (about Feb. 1) there is a period of time when agencies can try to negotiate with the OMB.  Details that perhaps didn’t mesh get worked out.  A narrative and detailed plan is developed.  But once the President’s budget request goes to Congress, internal debate in the Executive branch is done.  The President’s budget is our budget proposal and we are duty bound as Federal Executive branch employees to support it. 

 

National policy is made at one place in America:  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  That is as it should be.  So, as a federal executive agency, NASA does not make space policy.  The vast majority of NASA employees have nothing to do with the development of national space policy.  The NASA Administrator and a handful of senior agency officials can propose, debate, and participate in the discussion, but after the President decides, his policy is our policy.    That is the way our republic works.  Debate before Congress or in other public venues is good, proper, and what the Founding Fathers envisioned; the executive branch personnel are required to support the President’s proposal whenever they are speaking as part of their official duties. 

 

Last year, there was a significant policy debate within the Administration about America’s plans for human space flight.  The Administration commissioned a study, the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka, the “Augustine committee”) – a group of experts who studied for many weeks what should the national space policy should be.  Their report was delivered to the Administration in October.  At Thanksgiving, when NASA expected to get its “passback” from OMB as usual, the OMB did not provide detailed information on human space flight since the policy was still under review.  The passback from OMB came just a few days before release of the President’s budget proposal to Congress on February 1. 

 

NASA is, a little out of sequence, putting together the details which result from the national space policy.  These details will be carefully reviewed to ensure that they are in accord with the overall national policies. 

 

National policy as proposed by the President is reviewed by the Congress which codifies it in an “authorization” act.

 

Congress, it should be noted, divides into two parts:  the authorizers and the appropriators.  The authorizers consider what the national policy should be (they review the recommendation by the President) and tell federal agencies what they are “authorized” to do.  A different set of the legislators deal with money and dole out “appropriations” from the national treasury.  A federal agency might be “authorized” to do many things, but federal agencies can only actually do things that money is “appropriated” for.   Authorizers do not have to pass a new “authorization” bill every year; appropriators must pass an appropriations bill every year (even it if is just a continuing resolution).

 

I hope this short, very simplified Civics lesson helps in understanding what is going on. 

 

Remember the basics:

 

(1)  National Policy is developed by the White House, generally with a lot of advice.

(2)  The President proposes policy and a budget to the Congress

(3)  The Congress agrees, modifies, or changes the policy and the budget

(4)  All Federal Executive agencies “execute” the plan approved by Congress.

 

Graduate level courses are available if you desire more detailed information.

 

The Vision Thing

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George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President, calls Houston home.   He and Barbara can be frequently seen at Astros baseball games, he made his early career in business here, was a congressman from here, even once taught a course as an adjunct professor at my alma mater, Rice University. 

 

As you may recall, Mr. Bush failed in his re-election bid; there were a number of reasons for his loss, but one of the frequently cited reasons was “the vision thing”.  The critics felt that he had not clearly articulated his vision for the future of the nation, which is a vital function that an effective chief executive must do.  Keep that in mind. 

 

On July 20, 1989 – the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing – President G. H. W. Bush had made a speech proposing what would come to be known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  This proposal included a permanent return to the Moon and human missions to Mars.  In spite of the bold and visionary words, this initiative quickly failed. 

 

Thor Hogan has written an excellent book on the history of the fiasco.  His book is “Mars Wars, The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative” NASA SP-2007-4410, August 2007.  I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in how national space policy is made and how federal agencies can be dysfunctional at times.  Dr. Hogan is a Professor of Political Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.  Let me reiterate – I highly recommend this book if you are interested in these topics.

 

When  “Mars Wars” was first published in 2007, it was widely circulated in NASA management and caused considerable discussion.  Everyone was trying to make sure to avoid the mistakes made in 1989 and create a successful program.  There are many lessons to be learned from that earlier experience, and Dr. Hogan hit many of them. 

 

The most frequently cited lesson from SEI is the need to build a “sustainable” program.  That is a shorthand way of saying stay within an affordable budget.  One of the principle  reasons the Space Exploration Initiative failed was its price tag.  The SEI package was dead on arrival at Congress because of the high cost.  Trying to apply this lesson, the NASA program of the last five years to send crews to the Moon and Mars strove mightily to remain within the budget line announced in 2004.

 

But back to 1989, because there are other lessons to be learned there.  That year I was a rookie Space Shuttle Flight Director, learning the ropes in Mission Control, and I had no time to be involved in SEI.  But I was immersed in the NASA culture of the day and I remember that time with great clarity.  Dr. Hogan’s “Mars Wars” book does a wonderful job of capturing the motivations of agency personnel in those days. 

 

It was a bare three years following the Challenger accident and the wound was still raw.  Challenger was a driving factor in the SEI story.  Remember that widely held beliefs are important whether they are accurate or not.  That is because what people believe to be true motivates them.  So take the following paragraph not necessarily as historical truth but as the mythos which psychologically undergird folks running SEI.

 

NASA was not allowed to build the shuttle the “right” way, that is, to make both engineeringly elegant and safe.  Lives were lost in Challenger due to basic design choices forced on the agency by severe budgetary restrictions.  In the early 1970s, when NASA was authorized to design and build a revolutionary reusable winged space vehicle, the Office of Management and Budget capped the total development cost of the shuttle at $5 billion.   (Money went further back then.)  This cap was far too low to allow development of several of the more innovative design options.  Fly back liquid fueled boosters were out of the question, for example.  Operational costs were higher because of choices required to keep the development costs low.  Safety was lower.  So we got an aero-space plane with a big dumb drop tank and two scaled up JATO bottles. 

 

After Challenger, there was no money to significantly improve the basic design of the shuttle.  NASA was faced with the prospect of flying its less-than-safe shuttle for the long term, but with even higher operational costs and a lower flight rate.   Anger is the only term I can use to describe the general feeling back then.  Anger that NASA was forced to build something less than perfect by green eyeshade bean counters in Washington.  Anger that those decisions had been the basis for the loss of seven of our colleagues.  Anger that NASA wasn’t given the authorization to build a second generation shuttle to correct those problems.  So when the President announced a plan to build a spaceship to go back to the Moon and on to Mars, the most frequently heard comment around the human space flight institutions was “We’ve got to do this right this time.”  Even the NASA Administrator  Dick Truly was heard to “we’ve got to do it right this time or not at all.” 

 

So when the SEI plan turned out to be very expensive, a significant part of that cost was driven by the thought that it must be done “right”.

 

Fast forward twenty years.  The recent program struggled mightily to stay within the budget because they perceived “sustainability” the principle lesson learned from the last time.  Smarting from the recent loss of Columbia, the organization believed that ‘it still had to be done right’.  So technical performance was not open for compromise.   In program management that means the only relief can come from schedule delay.  Delay that lead to an increasing gap.  Now, that analysis is very, very overly simplistic.  Blog level simplistic, in fact.  I don’t need to connect any more dots from that point, you can do that yourself.

 

I am told that over the last 20 years more than 15 major NASA Human Spaceflight programs have been cancelled.  I can’t recite the whole list but will give a few examples:  X-38, HL-20, X-33/VentureStar, Space Launch Initiative (SLI), and Orbital Space Plane (OSP).  Some never got past the viewgraph stage.  Some were cancelled because of technical issues.  Some were cancelled for budgetary issues.  And some were cancelled for political reasons. 

 

So, in hindsight, was the shuttle built “right?”  That program actually flew, well, late, and only somewhat over budget.  Of course the operations budget never went down like it was supposed to.  The shuttle is clearly not “safe” in the conventional sense, but will space flight ever be “safe” like putting your kids on the schoolbus?  At least the shuttle program actually kinda sorta worked and didn’t get cancelled before the first test flight. 

 

What constitutes “right” in advancing human space flight?  Something reasonably safe and not too costly, something that opens up the space frontier to many people rather than a few?  Is that the foundational paradigm that is being overturned today? 

 

There are more than a few lessons that you can extract from Dr. Hogan’s book.  I strongly suggest you read it.

 

And one more thing:  there is a saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  It might appear that we have been doing the “same thing” over and over again and wondering why the result turns out this way.  This time the paradigm is shifting at a foundational level.  Will the new paradigm avoid the same old outcome?

 

That a vision?   Hmm.

Hochstein’s Law

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Alan Hockstein was the man most feared by pilot astronauts.  Well, except maybe for George Abbey.  Let me explain why.

 

The shuttle is the world’s largest glider.   The pilot has one and only one chance to make a landing; there is no “go-around” capability.  Obviously, good piloting techniques are studied exhaustively.  Much analysis and simulation has been completed to maximize the chance for a successful landing.

 

Alan was the senior landing analyst.  That means he studied more and worked harder than anyone to understand how the shuttle flies – especially in the final approach and landing phase.  One part of Alan’s job was to analyze the telemetry from each shuttle landing and see how that compared to the “ideal” landing.  So in a quiet office environment over a couple of weeks, Alan and his team would look at each telemetry point, every sample (up to 125 per second for some parameters) and compute how each one affected the landing. 

 

Every shuttle commander dreaded the day of the Entry, Descent, and Landing Debriefing.  Standing in front of a projection screen filled with data curves in the presence of a room full of folks, Alan would ask the commander something like:  “why did you deflect the hand controller here” pointing at a squiggle on the screen.  “That input caused a deviation of 12 feet high above the flight path which correlates to a 273 foot miss distance at the touchdown point.”  The commander would squirm in his seat and say “we had a wind gust” or some such.  Alan would point to another squiggly line on the plot and say “the accelerometer data doesn’t show a wind gust at that point.”  The poor pilot would then have to come up with some other lame excuse: “the visual scene was obscured by some wispy clouds.”  Alan would pull out the meteorological report “the lowest observed clouds were at 25,000 feet”  And so it would go.  Excruciating for the veteran test pilots who pride themselves on their steely nerved stick and rudder reactions.

 

Why did we go through this ritual?  One reason only: to learn what we could about flying techniques, how they affected the landing, what might work better.  All of this so that the next pilot would have a better idea of how to maximize the chance “for a happy outcome.”

 

At our Flight Techniques meetings, Alan was a frequent presenter showing what had been learned, advising of the best techniques.  At one period we experienced a number of landings that were shorter than desirable – still on the runway, but consistently closer to the threshold than comfortable.  Alan analyzed hundreds of combinations of factors over a several dozen landings looking for correlations.  Nothing seemed to correlate, except one:  “If you cross the threshold low, you are likely to touch down short.” 

 

Now that may seem obvious in retrospect.  If a glider comes in low, any pilot would intuitively expect a short touchdown.  But it was only obvious in retrospect.  And any number of other correlations that common sense might have suggested were simply not borne out by the data.  So we called this “Hockstein’s Law”:  If you cross the threshold low, you will touch down short.  The entire community worked very hard with the pilots to improve techniques to be higher at threshold crossing and thereby the incidence of short touchdowns was significantly reduced.  Well, that is the very short summary anyway.

 

Nowadays, I don’t spend my time studying shuttle landings like I used to.  Recently I’ve been a data gatherer and logistics helper to the Augustine Committee.  That group has been getting a lot of data and, among other things, looking at the cost estimates of various options for space flight.  I’m not well suited to work in that ethereal regime; nuts and bolts are more my specialty.   But it occurs to me that we need an Alan Hockstein to look at project development budgets for clues of how to improve the performance of future work.

 

Somebody who will look at each data point in depth, spend the time to think about it, calculate the consequences of each movement, and then provide those of us who may have to execute a project in the future with some guidelines that might lead to a better likelihood of a “happy outcome”.

 

Some of my experience suggests possible correlations between different events and poor program performance.  For example, continuing resolutions on the budget cause disruptions and delay planned activities.  It would seem that there might be a high correlation between lack of a firm budget (e.g., a continuing resolution) and poor program performance.  Then again, Norm Augustine himself kept saying that the secret to successful project management is reserves.  Perhaps the congressional prohibition against budgeting reserves for projects plays a role in poor program performance.  Then there is something called a “rescission.”  I never knew what a rescission was until I got into program management.  A rescission basically prevents a program from spending all the money budgeted for it.  I’m no analyst but it may be that rescissions play a role in poor program performance.

 

All of those things are just guesses on my part.  I’m no analyst.  But it seems like a good study if we want to have successful projects in the future. 

 

Now, where is Alan when we need him?

Great Expectations

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First of all, thanks to all who wondered how I have been doing.  It has been a very busy month and I’m afraid that blogging fell off my “to do” list.  The outlook for summer is also extremely busy but I will try to update frequently as I have the time!

 

Yesterday we rightly spent the day remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country and for freedom.  It is, as Lincoln said, altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  For our sake, not for theirs, to rededicate our lives, not to consecrate what they have done. 

But yesterday, May 25, was another anniversary; in 1961 the young President of the United States boldly proposed that this nation should send a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth before the decade was out.  That is a good thing to commemorate, too.  Our nation achieved that goal and we still bask in the reflected glory of that achievement.

It is hard to remember, but within the life of those older than . . . 48 . . . that to “aim for the moon” was a code phrase for setting out to do the impossible.  A quixotic task.  Something that no serious person would attempt.  Something guaranteed to fail because it was so patently impossible.  Foolish, foolhardy, not worth attempting.

The nation just witnessed the repair and refurbishment of the Hubble Space Telescope.  Moments of high drama, all carried out by human beings.  A repetition of similar missions which transformed NASA’s biggest flop into the most productive scientific instrument of our time.  In retrospect it looked so, so very easy; and so, so very risk free.  It was neither.  Nor was it cheap.

As always there are a few critics out there that wish us to believe that such a mission was a waste of time and money, foolishness beyond description, risk undertaken for no good reason.  They point out that if we were to take the money and resources spent on the Hubble servicing missions over the years we could have built a fleet of Hubble space telescopes. 

Well, of course they are right.  But they are also wrong.  As Oscar Wilde once remarked, they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Because the cost is not just dollars and cents.  It is in the will and achievement of the nation.  In 1990 the Hubble looked like the biggest failure in the history of space exploration.  Coupled with the recent loss of Challenger and the grounding of the shuttle fleet for elusive hydrogen leaks, the agency was on the brink of being disbanded.  Proposals to send people beyond low earth orbit were scuttled.  The national mood was depressed.  Dollars and cents aside, no one would suggest that NASA build another telescope, much less a fleet of them. 

What a difference we see now.  Hubble, like its namesake, has revolutionized cosmology.  We understand our place in the cosmos in a much more profound way that we did before.  It is hard to even understand how we could have been so limited before.

In 1905, a Swiss patent office clerk by the name of Albert Einstein had what has been called the “anno mirabilis” — year of marvels — when he published five papers that changed the world.  Interestingly, the Nobel committee rewarded him with their prize in Physics for his paper on the photo-electric effect even though many think that the award would have been for his paper on relativity or one of the other subjects.  The photo-electric effect is such a mundane topic in comparison.  Yet, this is the basis for modern digital semiconductor electronics.  Computers, cell phones, GPS receivers, digital television, and much more rely on what Einstein described so brilliantly in 1905.  An nobody in 1905 could predict any of these devices.  In fact, the US Commissioner of Patents stated very shortly before 1905 that everything which could be invented had already been invented.  He proposed shutting down the US Patent Office for lack of future work.

In one of those landmark papers, Albert Einstein introduced a term called “the cosmological constant”.  He later felt that was his biggest mistake.  In recent years, the Hubble Space Telescope collected information that indicates Einstein’s cosmological constant may have been one of his greatest predictions.  There is an unknown process at work in the universe that is very poorly understood.  Cosmologists call it “dark energy” and do not understand it.  But its observed properties seem to fit closely with the ‘cosmological constant’.

If the HST had been labeled a failure in 1990 and never touched by the gloved hands of astronauts, it is unlikely – in the extreme  – that future space telescopes would have been funded.  After all, NASA was a flop, right?  The accelerating expansion of the universe would have gone undiscovered for an untold period of time.  The cosmological constant would still be regarded as Einstein’s biggest mistake.  And we would not be on the trail of uncovering the characteristics of enigmatic “dark energy”. 

So, in a hundred years from now, how will we solve the energy problem?  Obviously all the inventions that can be invented already have been!  And certainly we understand the universe perfectly well!  And of course a whole fleet of Hubble Space Telescopes would have been built even if the first one was flawed! 

Not.

The value of the human touch far surpasses the mere price of the journey.