A Brief Case for NASA (or, NAA, as I'd suggest)

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Via a short post at ChicagoBoyz, I saw an interesting piece by Paul Jacob at TownHall.

It's worth a read, but here's the upshot: since private industry has proven itself to be highly interested in -- as well as capable of -- space exploration, NASA should be defunded since it has proven itself outdated in both thinking and performance. The piece stops a little short of calling for full shuttering of NASA:

Maybe NASA should remain, as an umbrella or watchdog organization. Maybe not. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation seems to be doing a good job. But no matter what its ultimate size and shape and scope, NASA can and should built down [sic: I think it might be meant as "should be built down"]. Now.

I'm sympathetic, to an extent.

Now that my work brings me into regular contact with NASA, I have two arguments for keeping some form of NASA around: 1) Your tax dollars help pay a small part of my company's pool for payroll. Thank you all, by the way, and consider this your "full disclosure notice". 2) The first "A" in NASA is aeronautics, and in that field I think NASA still has some valuable room to play.

A large part of the work conducted by NASA deals with the issues that abound in a country heavily dependent on the safe functioning of its national airspace. This means the technology for tracking planes, scheduling arrivals at airports, training for the people monitoring traffic, and a whole slew of minutia that doesn't dawn on you until you sit behind a pile of papers and reports and have to sift through them.

Yes, even within this realm there are things that NASA is probably overly concerned with. For instance, I am now a serial user of a concept/term Don Boudreaux used in this post on the FDA: choosing your own level of safety. But in this it's probably best to pull apart the FAA (which deals heavily with safety regulation) and NASA, despite NASA essentially being the R&D branch of the FAA.

However, in terms of that first "A", I tend to view the work of NASA as a solution to one massive coordination game that's in the same vein as "choosing" which side of the road to drive on. That is, the technology that guides the national airspace is, from what I can tell, something that ought to be uniform across the country so as to avoid planes running into each other in the air or on the ground. Competing products for air traffic control towers might sound like a fine idea, but without a standard set of terms, mechanisms, priorities and the like, you might well run a significant risk of having two planes attempting to reach similar metering points (common points of approach to airports that traffic will be routed through so the planes can reach runways and so on) at the same time, or trying to use the same runway to land. Handoffs from one sphere of control to another as planes cross the country ought to have agreed upon methods so we don't lose flights indiscriminately. From this, however, flows a great deal of work on how best to optimize the traffic patterns for flights, capacity at airports, flight patterns and methods of flight path planning (such as the possibility of "free flight"), sorting out arrival times that heavily affect commercial industry in terms of cargo and people, just to name a few.

Little of this, you'll notice, has to do with space. As I mentioned, I'm very sympathetic to the arguments about the "S" part of NASA. Which is why my choice would be to reduce the amount of space-related work NASA does, and have it focus almost exclusively on domestic and international airspace issues. A National Aeronautics Administration, perhaps.

2 Comments

Yes, food for thought... good food at that... I buy into the limited use. I agree that a central standards body needs to coordinate the handoffs, etc. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is not going to work in this case.

Everyone with interest in this topic should read Dan Brown's historical fiction, "Deception Point"

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This page contains a single entry by published on November 22, 2004 11:26 AM.

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