Although NASA is spread across the entire US, the headquarters is based right in Washington, DC. And the headquarters building is known as Two Independence Square. This is where past and future space policy for the agency was developed.
Ep. 348: Places with Numbers: 2 Independence Sq (NASA HQ)Download the show [MP3] | Jump to Shownotes | Jump to Transcript
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Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy online, the world’s longest-running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser Kane: Astronomy Cast Episode 348, Two Independent Square, the NASA headquarters. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Kane. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Everettsville, the director of Cosmoquest. Hey, Pamela, how you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well, Fraser. How are you doing?
Fraser Kane: I am doing great. So we want to give people a couple of quick announcements. No. 1 we’re going to be going on hiatus as we do in the summer because, you know, stuff that you do, you want to hang out and enjoy time in the sun. So we’re going to be off – so we’re going to finish up our last episode at the end of June, and then we won’t be recording through July and August. And then as usual, we’ll come back with a bang in September, where we’ll be recording a live episode at DragonCon in Atlanta, which is over Labor Day weekend.
And that is, I guess, the second piece of news and announcement to make, which is that we will be recording a live episode, both Pamela and I will be at DragonCon Labor Day weekend, so come and say hi. We’d love to see you.
Dr. Pamela Gay: We are hoping to have a booth yet again, and we’ll have lanyards and T-shirts and science, and we shall science you.
Fraser Kane: Mm-hm. And hopefully now people will know what we look like. Before they had to just detect us by voice.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And that happened. That was always creepy when that happened in airports and stuff.
Fraser Kane: Yeah, yeah, exactly. In Starbucks waiting lines. Okay, well let’s get cracking.
Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at www.8thlight.com. Just remember, that’s www, the digit 8 T-H, L-I-G-H-T.com. Drop them a note. 8th Light, software is their craft.
Fraser Kane: So although NASA is spread across the entire U.S., the headquarters is based right in Washington, DC, and the headquarters building is known as Two Independent Square. This is where past and future space policy for agency was developed. All right now, Pamela, you put this on our numbers episode, so we’re three numbers in. I have no idea what we’re going to be doing next week, but you picked Two Independent Square, the No. 2. So what is this building?
Dr. Pamela Gay: It is the place where all the big decisions are currently getting made, where they have representatives of all of the NASA centers, all of the major NASA programs, and everyone is crammed into a rental office building.
Fraser Kane: No. 2, Independent Square?
Dr. Pamela Gay: No. 2, Independent Square. This – one of the reasons that I picked this topic is when you hear people talking about I’m going to NASA headquarters, I work at NASA HQ, in my head at least there’s always been this big government building idea that it was another federal building that had the marble and the granite and the stuff and the things that just lead you to feel like this is something permanent. And then when I found out that it’s just a rental property that’s not even that big in terms of what all’s housed there, it kind of made me sad.
And when I learned that most of the movers and shakers who make NASA happen live in cube farms, in this building that’s not quite big enough, it made me even more sad. And I wanted to crush the dreams of our listenership so that they could realize that in order to make space happen, NASA has crammed into too small of an office space that they rent in Washington, DC.
Fraser Kane: See, now what I was imagining was this crazy place, where you’ve got factories and people assembling rockets and testing out weird technologies. You could walk down the hall and some guy comes up with a clipboard and he’s got some weird material to test. But you know what’s the funny thing, is that I’ve actually been to the Spacex facility, and that’s what it is.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And Goddard is like that. NASA headquarters isn’t like that, but Goddard, and to a lesser degree, Ames and Marshall.
Fraser Kane: Yeah, you go to Spacex, and there’s [inaudible] [00:05:08] really cool office, and there’s the mission control center for Spacex. And over there is where they’re constructing the next round of Merlin rockets, and here’s the titanium 3D printing apparatus. And over there, you’re not even allowed to go because there’s crazy secret stuff going on. But yeah, it’s not that. It is cube farm for NASA. Okay. I don’t –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Sorry. Trying not to die laughing at the reality. It’s either laugh or cry.
Fraser Kane: Aw.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So NASA is 11 main facilities, and then there are people kind of distributed all across the United States, like myself, that don’t work for NASA, but are funded by NASA. And so the crazy thing is that even when you go to Goddard and stuff, the majority of the people who are working there are contractors. They aren’t civil service. They aren’t federal permanent employees. They’re contractors through some third party, working off of grants and government agreements. And NASA itself is very much an idea with funding.
And there are those lucky civil servants that organize and keep everything going and hire the contractors and decide who gets the funding, and then the thing that is the NASA that we think of, the building of the spacecrafts, well that’s often Lougheed or Boeing or Martin Mariata, or one of these other aerospace firms. The designing the [inaudible] of the future. That is people working in university laboratories. The writing of the software and other things, that’s often university employees. So NASA is a concept, and NASA headquarters is kind of where they have developed the bureaucracy to keep everything going.
Fraser Kane: Where do they cry about budget cuts? Is that done in –?
Dr. Pamela Gay: NASA headquarters. That’s part of why I wanted to bring this up.
Fraser Kane: Yeah, okay. Okay, so then what – I guess, what are some people who we might be aware of, who are at NASA headquarters?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, I think the two that you and I are most likely to know the names of are Charlie Boden and John Grunsfelt. So that is the, well, head honcho himself, Charlie Boden. Basically he is the current administrator of NASA, and he is the one that is working to try and keep things going, who is walking down the street to testify before Congress, to talk with Obama, to try and keep everything funded. And then beneath him, we have all of the different mission directorate leaders. And even though you and I think spacecraft all the time, what we’re actually thinking is science mission directorates.
NASA’s divided into a bunch of different directorates. So there’s the aeronautics, which works to try and get new ways of traveling. So faster, safer, better aircraft, working with the FAA on commercial space flight rules, all of those sorts of things. Then you have the human space flight and exploration directorate. Those are the people that work with the international space station. Then you have science mission directorates, and that’s us. That’s Hubbell space telescope. That’s Mars Curiosity. That’s the Land Sat missions that are studying the planet earth. That’s solar-dynamic orbiter with the sun.
So within space mission directorate, we have planetary, helio, earth and astrophysics. And so everything gets subdivided, and you have the various leaders of the various groups, and they’re all kind of crammed into that one building.
Fraser Kane: But then that’s separate from the different NASA centers, right? Like I know there’s a director for Ames. There’s a director for Marshall. There’s a director for Kennedy Space Center, etc. And I guess they sort of go back and forth and spend time in Washington, and then they go back to their specific directorate.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So there’s 11 different NASA facilities, including headquarters. So that you have Johnson Space Flight Center, Kennedy, Ames, Drisden, which is one of the places where they do a lot of flight testing. So that’s where the aeronautics part really comes in. You have the Jet Propulsion Laboratory out in California. That is very much science. You have Stennis Space Center, which – I’m having to read my notes on this one because that’s one I always forget about. It’s where they do the heavy lift and propulsion technology, and they’re also working on how do you integrate in commercial crews?
So trying to figure out the government space versus commercial space interface. You have Marshall Space Flight Center, which is also where the main space camp is located. There’s the Glenn Research Center in Ohio, where they do a lot of – well, that’s where the people doing the new technologies are. I know they have an amazing laser lab there. You have Goddard outside of Washington, DC, which is another one of these multi-building, working on developing spacecraft, building the instrumentation type of places. Then you have Langley, which is another flight center.
The way they describe themselves is they’re doing game-changing development and earth science missions and aeronautics research. So basically, Langley and Drisden are where a lot of the new things flying through the sky first get to take wing, and then we just work our way up and across as we distribute these centers across America, and distribute the tasks.
Fraser Kane: And in addition to the major centers, then there’s like minor work that gets done in pretty much every single state in the entire United States, right?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. Yes.
Fraser Kane: I know there’s launch facilities. There are small research facilities, and then a lot of contractors have been working as well.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And every state in the union has a NASA space grant consortium. These are usually located at universities, and they’re facilities that get a certain amount of money, that they distribute to try and benefit the state by spring boarding off of various NASA technologies and educational developments. So you’ll see a lot of small university projects, a lot of graduate programs, getting seed money out of the NASA space grant consortiums.
Fraser Kane: Right. And then as you said, so you’ve got the universities. And then, I guess, they’ve got their liaisons with the other space agencies in the world. They’ve got – work with the European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency – I guess not the Chinese.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well actually we do work with the Chinese. We just don’t – that’s one of the weird things, is due to a congressional rider, I think it was, we’re not allowed to generally spend money going to China, but there are special exceptions. There’s actually special seed money to develop programs between NASA and China. So if you belong to one of those programs, you’re allowed to go. But the rest of the time, you’re not. And this is the contradictions you sometimes get between congressmen throwing in riders to bills at the last moment, versus what are actually in the best interests of the country.
And collaborating with China is in the best interests of the country when it comes to developing space flight and figuring out the future. So it’s a complicated dance. And all of this dance is organized out of 300,000 square feet on 12 floors, 3 of which are below ground, by the way, at Two Independent Square.
Fraser Kane: So then what is the process, I guess, of – for the kinds of budgetary stuff, the new missions, the new kinds of ideas that are being pushed forth, you know, a lot of that work starts and ends in Washington. So what is the process for people who maybe have never experienced this kind of sausage making up close. Which I know you have.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, sadly. So I’m going to go over the normal process, and then go over the current process because we’re in special times, as I’m going to get to. So normally what happens is the folks at NASA headquarters, in consultation with the community, come up with priorities for the next ten years. And this is often drafted by the community in the form of a decadal survey, and through headquarters in consultation with Congress and the President. And then money is put forward to meet those goals, often in a competitive nature, where people say, “Okay. So we need to have this many missions that cost roughly this much and are testing new technologies.
This many that are forming the basis of our ability to survey the sky.” So you have – the great observatories came out of this. Hubbell, Chandra, Spitzer, Herschel. Then we also have the small missions, the missions like Dawn, that are exploratory missions. All of these are competed. So the process is, we need X. Go forth, propose how you’re going to do X. And you have everyone from university faculty, to center liaison – well, not liaisons, but center-based engineers and scientists, working in large collaborations, put together budgeted, detailed, science-driven proposals on how we’re going to accomplish these things.
Fraser Kane: Now when you say we need X, is that, for example, like we need more information about the corona of the sun? Or are they more specific, like we need to send a mission to Pluto?
Dr. Pamela Gay: That can actually be highly variable. So for instance, we currently have a – I believe it’s a presidential authorization, or want is probably the best word, to land human beings on an asteroid by 2025. So this is one of those things that NASA, due to the President, is working on. And so it starts out with we are looking for proposals on how to develop the technologies that will be needed. So it starts with exploratory proposals. And then eventually it will be, we need a spacecraft capable of getting human beings to an asteroid.
So it will go from general, we’ll say yes to a bunch of people, to highly specific. And this is where you end up with things such as we know we need a Mars sample return. So that was a specific call. But we also know that we need to explore the outer solar system. So there were a series of proposals that were put in. Everything – Juno was one of these proposals. There was a mission proposed to go out to Europa. Another one proposed to go out to – I don’t remember if it was Neptune or Uranus. But there’ll be a series of missions that say we’re going to take on these science goals at this price point.
And then they’ll narrow the group of five or six of these down to, if we’re lucky, the two, and if we’re unlucky, the one that is funded.
Fraser Kane: Right. And so – okay, so you’ve got this – they put this competitive system together. They described the RFP, the request for proposal.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Request for proposals.
Fraser Kane: The people have responded to the proposal. They’ve narrowed down their choices. They’ve maybe selected the mission or missions that are going to be fulfilling these objectives. So what happens next?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Then there are massive contracts. Then you spend however many years, 5, 10, 20 that it takes to construct your mission, hoping Congress doesn’t cancel you. Once you’re launched, things are good for the duration of your mission, except the length of time the spacecraft is likely to survive is generally far in excess of how long your initial funding survives. So at that point, you go into what’s called senior review. Lunar reconnaissance orbiter has done this, for instance. It’s where you say, “We have an operational spacecraft. We have these new science goals that we’re capable of. We want to do these things. This is how much it’s going to cost. And should you fail to fund us, here’s how we’re ending our mission.”
And this is where things get scary. So what we’re looking at right now is – it looks like Spitzer didn’t make it through senior review. It looks like Spitzer’s about to be canceled. Same thing for Sophia, although Sophia may have more of a fighting chance. And so if you’re lucky, when you fail senior review, you meet the fate that Wyse met. You get put into a safe, high orbit, and put into standby mode, and you hope that someday, the funding will come from somewhere to turn your spacecraft back on. If you’re unlucky, you de-orbit your spacecraft. You send it to a museum if it’s something you can get back to the surface of the planet safely.
Fraser Kane: When has that ever happened?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Fair enough. Space shuttles is what I was thinking of, the space shuttles got museum-based. The space shuttles brought a few things back with them. Now and then they got to go into museums. And when you’re really unlucky, your nice, healthy mission out far away, like Cassini, which seems to be safe right now, but we’re not entirely sure, gets crashed into the atmosphere of a distant planet, and there’s no return from that. That’s just a horrible fate.
Fraser Kane: Right. Now you said that you have to be careful that Congress doesn’t cancel your mission. But does it really work that way, that Congress cancels missions on a case-by-case basis? Or do they just say, “Sorry, NASA, you’ve got no additional budget. Or you’ve got less budget. Figure it out.”
Dr. Pamela Gay: It can go both ways. You can end up with what happened to Fermi mission, for instance. Back when it still hadn’t been launched, and it was glassed. The gamma ray telescope that is now called Fermi was canceled due to NASA budget cuts. They decided they weren’t going to be able to complete it and launch it. There was a huge public outcry, in part driven by the fact that this was a mission that put a lot of emphasis into trying to communicate to the public why we need gamma ray observatories, what this is useful for, setting up networks of people to be able to do all sorts of really awesome science.
And those people raised a human outcry, and managed to get Congress to instate a specific line saying, “You’re going to keep building this.” At the same time, there have been many times when the James Webb Space Telescope has almost been canceled by NASA – not by NASA – almost canceled by Congress. Because a congressman will get upset that NASA didn’t know how apriority completely budget a mission that is entirely new technology. And the fact that occasionally you get things really, really wrong when you’re developing entirely new technology to put in an orbit beyond the moon.
That doesn’t surprise me, but it’s not something NASA is allowed to have the slot for. And you end up with things going away. And what’s really rough right now is NASA’s looking at, depending on who you believe, a many percent cut. And at the same time, they’re trying to keep all of their missions that they can going. They’re trying to keep all their facilities going. And all of those things have flat costs. So at the end of the day, right now, we’re looking at 30 to 50 percent cuts in the money allocated for research grants and for salary. So this means that the people who aren’t civil servants are in jeopardy.
This means that the projects that aren’t absolutely required to keep a mission going are in jeopardy. And this means that last week, when I was at the American Astronomical Society meeting, everyone I talked to, the conversation was basically along the lines of, “So what’s the expiration date on your ability to do science? What’s the expiration date on your ability to help communicate what NASA’s doing to the world?” We’re looking at massive cuts, particularly to young people, and who can get a job, and who gets to keep a job?
Fraser Kane: Right. Now you had mentioned earlier on, sort of what the processes is in the normal time, and then the processes in this special time. So this is what you’re kind of going on about is –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. So right now what they’re doing at NASA headquarters is, in different divisions, at different layers, depending on what they’re looking at, they’re convening committees to go through and review what’s allowed to live and what’s forced to die. Speaking about the education, public outreach and communications funding. That’s the stuff that pays for citizen science. It pays for K through 12 educators to get materials. It pays for things like NASA TV. They’ve put together a 12-person panel, drawn from NASA headquarters, and that panel is going to be reviewing what’s going on, not necessarily with any community consultation, and deciding how we’re going to restructure everything we do.
So we’ve spent the past – I think it’s eight years – working to put in proposals, to redesign and build a long-lasting foundation on which to disseminate NASA science to the public and to train teachers and what new results are coming out that aren’t going to be reflected in their textbooks. And we’re looking at losing all of that right now. And that really hurts.
Fraser Kane: Well, I think it’s really tough. I mean especially when you’re dealing with the aerospace engineers. There are not a lot of jobs if you’re say a planetary geologist working –
Dr. Pamela Gay: No.
Fraser Kane: – on a spacecraft. Right? There’s literally one provider. And so the problem is that if you, for some reason your budget gets cut and you have to go find another job, you’re going to get a job as a computer scientist or making apps for Apple or working for a data analysis for a financial institution. Like there’s a million high-paying jobs that are out there if you’re good at technical skills.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I can’t tell you how many are going on to project management. Because project management pays really good money, and the amount of project management we do, just trying to work with NASA, is outstanding.
Fraser Kane: Yeah. No, and I mean we – you know, in the software world use a lot of NASA’s documents as the gold standard for how to run a software project. So they’ve defined how to do a proper software project. So anyone who’s been trained in these methodologies, can then go anywhere they want and get a fantastic job for lots of money. So these people are working on spacecraft, not because they have to, but because they love to and they want to. And so it’s really difficult that if you go and have to lay off your whole robotics team, you know, they’re going to go and work at Tesla.
Dr. Pamela Gay: They’re not getting them back.
Fraser Kane: They’re not coming back. They’re going to work at Tesla. They’re going to go work in some manufacturing center. They’re not going to come back to – because there’s no other place. You can’t just switch from this company’s rover to that company’s lander. It’s a different – these jobs just don’t exist. So it’s really dicey to do this kind of budgetary back and forth. It’s really too bad that this happens.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m deeply worried that we’re going to lose an entire generation of planetary scientists and public outreach specialists. Because the money’s just going away. And we can’t recover from that. And this is where all I can say is we have to find an entirely new paradigm. And I’ve been sitting down and talking with a lot of people about how to get commercial funding, but it’s very difficult because – even I’ve had this discussion. It’s not like we have a business model. We’re trying to explore the universe and explain to other people what it is we found, and that doesn’t provide a lot of benefit to stockholders, other than teaching them and providing inspiration.
Fraser Kane: Yeah, yeah, and –
Dr. Pamela Gay: And so trying to come up with this new paradigm that allows us to keep exploring.
Fraser Kane: Even the most financially commercially viable ideas, like mining asteroids and stuff, are still considered incredibly wild long shots. You know? And what is the business model of figuring out how old the universe is?
Dr. Pamela Gay: And we’re moving back to the days of, well Herschel, he was the astronomer royale. You had Kepler who was funded by the Prussian royalty. You had Galileo who was funded by all sorts of different people throughout his life, including at various times, by the aristocracy and the religious leadership. We’re moving back to that time of having to find what today I think would be called angel investors instead of benefactors. But it’s really the same thing. And this is where you hear me begging for money. Go to cosmoquest.org/donate. Please give. Because I know we’re trying to do everything we can to maintain what we can.
Fraser Kane: All right. Well I don’t know if this was the episode you were planning, Pamela, but this is the episode that we got. So thanks a lot for giving us the insight into the way NASA functions and the challenges that are about to happen. Someday you’ll give us good news.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I can only hope. I just think we need a new Congress first.
Fraser Kane: Right. Well I maintain, as always, Canada is ready and willing – I speak for all Canada, when I say we’ll pick up and continue on any of those missions that you guys just can’t afford anymore.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, I just don’t see you guys budgeting that. But okay, it’s good for you to say that.
Fraser Kane: I said I speak for all of Canada when I say that. Our offer, our gracious offer is there. All right. Well thanks, Pamela. We’ll talk to you next week.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Thank you.
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