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Old September 24 2012, 05:48 AM   #182
Crazy Eddie
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Re: Envisioning the world of 2100

gturner wrote: View Post
The fundamental problem with NASA, like any government monopoly funded by the public, is that as long as they're not making a scandal they can keep on doing things in the same old inefficient ways, just like the DMV or other agencies.
But that's exactly my point: the DMV -- in Illinois, at least -- has been completely overhauled in recent years for precisely that reason. The long lines are gone, the half-assed, smart-alec clerks actually know what they're talking about and give concise helpful answers to questions. The processes for getting IDs, liscenses and certifications have ALL been massively streamlined with new technology, and nobody's complaining about a massive cut in the workforce because the DMV paired the improvements in efficiency with increases in services so they actually get more work done with the same number of personnel.

This sort of thing doesn't happen in NASA, and I don't think you can blame this on the nature of government-run operations. To begin with, any smart NASA administrator, looking at a new shuttle design that requires a tenth the manpower, is going to immediately alter his budget proposals to order ten times as many shuttles and then put together a study group to tackle the question, "What can we do now that we have nine more shuttles than we expected?" He does this because his agency runs a fixed budget: you can only do so much with the money you have, and how much you can do depends on the capabilities of your resources. Better resources makes your budget more effective, but even more importantly, a more effective budget lets you eventually cultivate better resources.

In the case of the DMV, that means that upgrades to their computers and offices allowed their staffers to get better training and be less stressed out, which in turn provided better service to their customers and made their internal processes a lot smoother, further reducing waste. NASA, on the other hand, has a history of betting the farm on high-tech "silver bullet" projects that have ZERO chance of increasing the agencies capabilities or stretching the effectiveness of its increasingly limited budget. When they get a surplus in the shuttle budget, they blow it all on space station studies or new experiments packages. When Congress agrees to fund the Venture Star, NASA ups the ante by trying to perfect composite propellant tanks in the same project.

Even in government programs, smart managers use their existing budget to increase what they can do and how well they can do it. It's only lazy/sloppy/formulaic and unimaginative managers who look at a slight budget surplus and see it as an excuse to buy some more toys because who knows when they'll have the money to do it again later? That's the longstanding culture at NASA since way back to the shuttle program: the people who care about keeping the space program FUNCTIONAL are forever taking a back seat to people who want to keep the space program on the cutting edge of modern technology. The predictable result is that we are now running a cutting-edge space program that is entirely non-functional.

Sure, you could get a new driver's license by taking an iPhone photo of yourself and bouncing it against an automated computer system, shooting the new license to your printer, but then what would all the girls at the DMV do?
MANAGE the computer system, for starters, a task which would become none too simple when that automated system is now being asked to handle voter registrations, firearms permits, PERC cards, building permits, marriage licensees, records requests, medical records and traffic tickets. That's what you do when your capability increases under a fixed budget: you increase the number of things you do WITH that money, or you find a way to transfer the surplus to another department that needs it.

NASA would do the exact opposite of this, mind you: if someone was designing a new shuttle that required a tenth the manpower, some NASA manager would say "Well gee, that means we divert some of those personnel to developing that orbital quantum computer project we've been talking about! Oh, and how many guys do we have on the Warp Drive study model? You know, that mockup of what a warp drive might look like if we ever figured out how it worked? Well, let's put three hundred more guys on it and see if we can make it levitate with a magnetic field. And that leaves seven hundred plant workers with nothing to do... I know! Let's completely overhaul the vehicle assembly building with ultrasonic fire extinguishers!"

Private launch companies are the UPS and FedEx to the US Postal Service, and if they become e-mail too, it's all over for NASA, which can go back to being the space fisheries commission.
Another good example, considering the US Postal Service has ALSO had to modify itself to expand its capabilities on a fixed budget. If NASA functioned half as well as the USPS, they wouldn't be hitchhiking on Russian ships.
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