Why Hasn’t Space Flight Developed As Rapidly As Aviation?

March 22, 1999 • Commentary
This article appeared in Aviation Week and Space Technology on March 22, 1999.

As the U.S. approaches the second century of air travel, there is much to be proud of. Each day, more than 1.5 million Americans wing their way around the country and the world for business and pleasure. But missing from the early 21st century are equivalent achievements in space flight. Yes, men have walked on the Moon. But where are the lunar bases and giant pinwheel space stations envisioned 30 years ago in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey?

The explanation lies in the different development paths of civil aviation and civilian space. The Wright brothers were the first to fly, in 1903, acting as private individuals, pursuing their own vision and using their own money. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927, trying to win the privately offered $ 25,000 Orteig Prize. By the late 1930s the first commercially viable aircraft, the Douglas DC-3, was flying. Much of early civil aviation was funded privately. The government, of course, was interested in aircraft for defense. But often it simply offered a prize to whatever private provider could make a wing or fuselage to best meet its needs.

World War II and the Cold War saw the government pump billions of dollars into defense aircraft. But civil aviation remained in private hands. And since the airline industry was deregulated 20 years ago, the average cost of flying has dropped 30% in real terms and the number of trips in the skies Americans take annually has jumped from 275 million to 600 million.

The saga of space flight started much like civil aviation did. Dr. Robert Goddard launched the first liquid‐​fuel rocket in 1926. In the 1930s, his funding, which Lindbergh helped secure, came principally from the private Guggenheim Foundation. But after World War II, it became a government effort entirely. The Pentagon brought Wernher von Braun and a team of scientists from Germany to the U.S. to develop more advanced designs of their V-2 rockets.

When the Soviets orbited Sputnik in October 1957, American space policy went in two directions. The Pentagon sought intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads. And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established to put satellites into orbit and men into space. Unlike the history of aviation, development of military and civilian space efforts were government‐​run.

The landings on the Moon were great human and technological achievements. But the government’s Manhattan Project approach to lunar missions (throw lots of money at the task) was not sustainable. In the early 1970s NASA, like any government bureaucracy, sought to maintain its staffs and budgets. Its partially reusable shuttle was meant to reduce the costs of putting payloads into orbit. Over the decades, the costs in fact went up. Furthermore, NASA systematically stifled competing private space enterprises, turning down many offers of those providers to launch rockets and stations. A raft of regulations and government‐​to‐​government treaties hampered private space efforts as well.

But a series of small, hard‐​won reforms after the 1986 Challenger disaster has allowed the private sector to struggle for its place in space. For example, Lockheed Martin’s Atlas launch vehicles already carry more private commercial satellites than government cargoes.

But what is really needed in the 21st century is a strategy to back the government out of civilian space activities and allow imaginative private sector ideas to flourish. For example, the shuttle’s 17‐​story‐​tall external fuel tanks currently are flown 98% of the distance into orbit before they are pushed back toward the ocean and break up as they reenter the atmosphere. But the external tanks could be put into orbit. With nearly 100 shuttle flights to date, 100 platforms — with some 27 acres of total interior space, as much as the Pentagon — could have been in orbit today, ready to be homesteaded by entrepreneurs for hotels or honeymoon suites.

Of special significance, private firms are beginning to develop a space tourism industry. For example, the X Prize Foundation of St. Louis is raising $ 10 million to award to the first entrepreneur who sends a craft capable of carrying three persons at least 100 km. (62 mi.) into space and returning it to Earth twice in a two‐​week period. The first contender to test a vehicle that could go for the gold is Burt Rutan. He designed the first plane to fly around the world nonstop without refueling, in 1986.

But ultimately, space enthusiasts will have to address the future of NASA’s shuttles and space station. Governments never will deliver services as well as the private sector, reacting to the needs of paying private customers. A transition could involve NASA purchasing data from the private sector rather than building more hardware. The private contractor now in charge of shuttle launch preparations could be allowed to rent the shuttle for private missions. It ultimately will involve selling off the shuttle as well as the station.

The technical skills of many who work for NASA are formidable. The ability of private entrepreneurs to offer new and ever‐​improving services at ever‐​falling costs is seen in the information revolution and U.S. history. The sooner the government allows the former to join the latter and frees the latter from regulatory restrictions, the sooner the U.S. will have a space sector appropriate for the new millennium.

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