For Spaceflight Managers, Thoughts to Turn to 2016 Presidential Election

6 August 2014, 2:55 p.m. EDT
by Ben Iannotta, Aerospace America editor-in-chief

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Participants in the panel discussion, "Human Spaceflight Report," Tuesday afternoon at the AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum and Exposition (SPACE 2014), in San Diego.

Let’s say you manage an expensive government-funded space technology program. All you need to do to ensure continuity through the next presidential administration is make sure you deliver on time and on budget and don’t overreach, right?

Different schools of thought about that question were on display during a Tuesday afternoon human spaceflight panel discussion at AIAA’s Space 2014 Forum in San Diego.

“Typically, we don’t see programs that are performing to plan get cancelled. Usually programs that get cancelled are the ones that start to overrun their schedules. So, I think most importantly, if we perform to plan then I think these programs will continue through the next administration,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing. His company’s proposed CST-100 capsule is one of the projects vying for NASA’s commercial crew transportation contracts expected to be awarded by late September.

Outreach is also important: “As long as we keep communicating” about the benefits of human spaceflight technologies “I think we’ll be OK,” said former astronaut Garrett Reisman, the senior mission assurance engineer at SpaceX.

It also helps not to make yourself a target. NASA’s Todd May, program manager for the new Space Launch System rocket, counseled managers to be cognizant of their spending requests and to focus on steady development. “I kind of like the idea of a relatively flat budget without any major ups and downs in it,” he said, suggesting that a reach for more funds can backfire. “Creating a plan around a relatively flat budget I think is the right way to go.”

Then again, maybe survival under a new administration is not so simple. NASA’s Mark Geyer cautioned that managers must always be flexible when a new president and his or her administration arrive: “Those [ideas] are really essential but I don’t know that they’re sufficient to ensure continuity,” said Geyer, a veteran of the cancelled Constellation program and now manager of NASA’s Multipurpose Crew Vehicle Program. “In my experience, when the presidents change, and also when there’s a big change in Congress, they’re going to do what they want to do.”

In the case of space exploration, presidents always want to “put their fingerprints on it and say, ‘This was my contribution to human spaceflight,'” he said. “The moon? Been there, done that,” he said in an apparent reference to the Obama administration’s decision to focus on sending humans to an asteroid and to Mars.

“The big part is you need to be flexible and you need to have systems that can adapt,” Geyer explained. “You want to go to an asteroid? We go to an asteroid. You want to go to the moon? We go to the moon."

Geyer ventured to give some personal advice to upcoming program managers: “I’ve been through [changes of administration] twice, both with the space station and Constellation,” he said. “As a program manager, you need to not get too worked up about it. You need to recognize your limitations in driving these kind of things and be ready to adapt. We had to do that in Orion, right? We were the big part and we were hated, right? And we survived.”

To view the entire session, visit AIAA's livestream channel.
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