New Administration, New NASA?
Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy wonders if the new administration will gut NASA. Philosophically I'd rather NASA did not exist (that classical liberal desire for less government). On the other hand between the public goods problem of basic scientific research and a desire to get the best value for my tax dollars I do not want to see NASA gutted. On the gripping hand, NASA needs some serious change or it will soon be completely irrelevant and thus deserve to be gutted.
NASA is currently headed for extinction. It is concentrating on a large program that is ostensibly for achieving the goals outlined in the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Yet the architecture only superficially achieves those goals, and in fact is antithetical to the full VSE. On the surface the VSE is about going back to the Moon and then going on to Mars. The full purpose of the VSE is to establish a permanent human presence out in the solar system. Constellation, specifically the Ares I/V portion practically guarantees that rather than a permanent human presence we will only get small, short term visits to the Moon and maybe reach out to Mars in some nebulous future. With only few exceptions, the non-NASA aerospace industry sees Ares as a waste of good funds. Delta IV, Atlas V, and Falcon 9 can get both people and cargo to ISS and with an architecture that uses on-orbit assembly and propellant transfer can actually deliver much higher mass to and from the Moon than the current Constellation architecture. Some industry insiders believe that on-orbit assembly and propellant transfer are a requirement for any long term human presence beyond low earth orbit.
Further, post-Apollo NASA does not have a good record of developing and operating launch capability. Granted the Space Shuttle has a lot of politician designed features (bugs) that NASA must work with, but as both the Challenger and Columbia incidents showed, NASA's culture is a far worse problem. In the meantime, science and advanced technology research, where NASA is actually good, are be neglected and cut.
It is this background that the Obama transition team must deal with. Obama has sent very strong signals that good science will be a priority in his administration. The economic reality is that it will have to be done with less. Within NASA there is an excellent opportunity to get much more science with much less budget, and this is why Mike Griffin is stressing out. Cut Ares and NASA can get a lot more science, even with a dwindling budget. Add in the fact that several key NASA supporting legislators will not be returning to Congress - it is a wonder that Griffin isn't postal yet.
From what I know of the situation, I expect that (Congress allowing) NASA is going to get a makeover. Constellation and returning to the moon will be cut back and the remains will be re-architected. SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and possibly other private launch providers will be encouraged to be the Shuttle replacement. And the various parts of NASA that have recently been cut will have funding restored or even increased. All of this would be a Good Thing.