Time to Privatize NASA

January 26, 1998 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

John Glenn’s 1962 spaceflight and the Apollo moon landings were inspiring achievements. Unfortunately, the recently announced plan to give the 77‐​year‐​old Mr. Glenn a seat on a space shuttle is NASA’s version of bread and circuses. It is entertainment, a way to draw attention from that agency’s truly astronomical costs.

Why are no regularly scheduled commercial spaceflights available for Mr. Glenn to book? Because no government agency that runs with the efficiency of the Pentagon and the U.S. Postal Service will ever realize the dream of commercially viable orbiting stations or moon bases.

A history of flight

Put the progress in spaceflight in historical perspective. The Wright brothers’ first flight was in 1903, and Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. By the late 1930s, the first commercially viable aircraft, the DC-3, was flying. But 35 years after Mr. Glenn’s first flight, travel into space is still an expensive luxury.

Should we have expected better? If the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had backed out of the civilian space business after the moon landing, yes.

Consider the progress in other areas. The inflation‐​adjusted cost of commercial air travel has dropped by about 30 percent since the late 1970s, when airline deregulation began. And the cost of shipping oil has dropped by as much as 80 percent in a little over two decades. But the government’s reusable shuttle has actually made spaceflight more expensive.

In his book “Space Enterprise: Beyond NASA,” space specialist David Gump calculates that even using NASA’s own very low cost‐​per‐​flight figures in the 1980s, the cost to put a pound of payload into orbit on the shuttle was $6,000. That compares to an inflation‐​adjusted figure of only $3,800 for the Saturn V expendable launch vehicles that carried men to the moon.

But this analysis is too kind to the shuttle. Duke University Professor Alex Roland, taking into account shuttle‐​development costs that NASA ignores in its news releases, pegs the per‐​pound price at $20,000. Other overhead would mean a cost as high as $35,000 per pound. So if a 160‐​pound John Glenn were sent up as shuttle cargo, total postage would run between $3.2 million and $5.6 million. But as a passenger on a shuttle flight with a crew of seven, at more than $1.5 billion per flight, his ticket actually costs between $214 million and $286 million. Hardly the right stuff at the right price.

No thanks, private sector

The government has had many opportunities to turn over civilian space activities to the private sector. In the 1970s, American Rocket Co. was one of the private enterprises that wanted to sell launch services to NASA and private businesses. But NASA was moving from science to freight hauling, and planned to monopolize government payloads on the shuttle and subsidize launches of private cargo as well. The agency thus turned down American Rocket.

In the late 1980s, Space Industries of Houston offered, for no more than $750 million, to launch a ministation that could carry government and other payloads at least a decade before NASA’s station went into operation. (NASA’s station currently comes with a price tag of nearly $100 billion for development, construction and operations.) NASA, not wishing to create its own competition, declined Space Industries’ offer.

In 1987 and 1988, a Commerce Department‐​led interagency working group considered the feasibility of offering a one‐​time prize and a promise of rent to any firm or consortium that could deliver a permanent manned moon base. When asked whether such a base were realistic, private‐​sector representatives answered yes — but only if NASA wasn’t involved. That plan was quickly scuttled.

Each shuttle carries a 17‐​story external fuel tank 98 percent of the distance into orbit before dropping it into the ocean; NASA could easily — and with little additional cost — have promoted private space enterprise by putting those fuel tanks into orbit. With nearly 90 shuttle flights to date, platforms — with a total of 27 acres of interior space — could be in orbit today.

These could be homesteaded by the private sector for hospitals to study a weightless Mr. Glenn or for any other use one could dream of. But then a $100 billion government station would be unnecessary.

As long as NASA dominates civilian space efforts, little progress will be made toward inexpensive manned space travel. The lesson of Mr. Glenn’s second flight is that space enthusiasts ignore economics at their peril.

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