25 years after the first manned lunar landing, one of mankind’s great human and technological achievements, NASA is criticized as wasteful and bloated squandering the public’s good will, enthusiasm and hundreds of billions of dollars. This is what can be expected when an enterprise that belongs in the private sector is taken up by government.
The new commitment by Congress to cut back wasteful spending as well as to keep America competitive offers an opportunity to examine NASA’s problems in the wider context of the proper role of government in science. My recommendation is to phase the government out of non-defense related space activities by marking NASA for abolition.
The highest aspirations. The civilian space program and NASA were born of the Cold War wish to wipe out the embarrassment of early Soviet space successes. But the program also was born of the American pioneering spirit, to reach for other worlds, and of the confidence that we could do whatever we put our minds and our wills to. While commercial, scientific and exploratory space ventures ideally should be left to the private sector, in the late 1950s many Americans believed that only governments could undertake such endeavors.
NASA’s lunar successes were possible in part because the adverse effects of government programs often take time to develop. By analogy with individuals, a man with a work ethic sixty years ago was unlikely to become indolent because he received a few federal aid checks while temporarily unemployed any more than he would if he received help from private charity. But raise three generations on government welfare and you have the decimated families and inner cities of America today.
Ask scientists quickly, by a certain date, sparing no expense to make an atomic bomb or put a man on the Moon, and they likely will perform well. But while many of its personnel still are competent and hardworking, today NASA as an organization has ecome the agency equivalent of a welfare recipient.
From exploration to freight hauling. In the early 1970s, as the bills for Vietnam and the welfare state skyrocketed, NASA saw Moon landings curtailed and Moon bases ruled out. Thus, like any government agency, it sought to preserve big budgets and staffs. Its new big ticket project, the Space Shuttle, was sold to policy makers as a reusable and thus cheaper way to put payloads in orbit than expendable launch vehicles. In effect, NASA’s mission went from science and exploration to freight hauling.
If at that time NASA had begun to turn over space activities to the private sector, space stations and Moon bases might be a reality today. Market competition usually brings down the real price of goods and services. For example, the revenue, and thus price, for airline travel in constant dollars since the late 1960s has dropped by around 40 percent. Shipping costs for oil dropped by 75 percent in constant-dollars. In 1981 the first IBM personal computer came with 64 kilobytes of memory and sold for $3,000, or around $46,000 per megabyte. Today a megabyte of memory can be had for less than $4. And in area of communications satellites, the space enterprise sector that has been the domain principally of the private sector, costs have dropped in real terms.
By contrast, as near has can be determined from impenetrable NASA accounting, the cost of putting payloads into orbit has gone up in real terms over the past decades. David Gump in his book Space Enterprise estimates the cost in constant dollars went from $3,800 per pound under Apollo to $6,000 with the Shuttle. If the market had reduced space flight costs by, say, 50 percent, the cost of putting a pound in orbit today would be under $2,000. Alex Roland of Duke University estimates that the cost of a Shuttle flight, including development and capital costs, is not the $350 million claimed by NASA but closer to $2 billion. This would raise the cost per pound to about $35,000.
As NASA developed and flew early Shuttle missions, it had to fend off private competitors. In the late 1970s and early 1980s federal agencies were forbidden to contract with the infant private launch industry to put government payloads in orbit, and NASA offered cheap cargo rates, subsidized with taxpayers’ dollars, that drove out private suppliers.
Private commercial efforts were hindered by the 1973 Intelsat Treaty of 114 countries creating an international satellite network and a government consortium. Article 14D requires potential private competitors to prove they would not cause “substantial economic harm” to the monopoly. America’s private Pan Am Satellite Corporation suffered years of delay before launching a satellite in 1988.
Station to nowhere. As it became apparent in the early 1980s that the Shuttle was a costly white elephant, NASA needed a mission to justify the Shuttle’s continued existence. Aside from any other benefits, an orbiting space station seemed to serve this purpose. But the cost of the station went from an estimated $8 billion to nearly $40 billion before the current stripped down $30 billion model was developed in 1993.
Among other station problems:
- There is little prospect for any profitable commercial venture coming from the station: No customers are committed to paying the actual costs for renting space on the station.
- Even free use of the station would be of limited use for many space scientists. Then-Associate NASA Administrator William Lenior in 1990 actually justified a slower station construction schedule by noting that not manning the station for three or four years would allow more scientific research that otherwise would be disturbed by a human presence.
- A special Presidential Advisory Commission, chaired by Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine, in 1991 stated that “We do not believe that the space station … can be justified solely on the basis of the (non-biological) science it can perform, much of which can be conducted on Earth or by unmanned robots.”
- And the station might never be built in any case. A 1990 Office of Technology Assessment report finds that there is a 50 percent chance of another Shuttle disaster per 34 flights. The station probably will require some 25 flights to put it up and many more for regular maintenance.
As NASA sought to protect its big budgets, it continued to ignore the private sector. For example, Space Services Industries of Houston in the 1980s offered to launch a mini-station for between $500 million and $750 million that could take government and other payloads a decade before the planned NASA station. The government would not contract with this private supplier.
An interagency U.S. government working group in 1987-88 considered the feasibility of offering a one-time prize and a promise to rent to any private group that could deliver a permanent manned Moon base. When asked if such a station were realistic, private sector representatives answered “Yes!” but only if NASA stayed out of the way and did not force the private providers to use the Shuttle or proposed station. Needless to say, this approach never saw the light of day.
NASA in recent years has seen environmental projects as potential cash cows. For example, it has fought with other agencies, through its Missions to Planet Earth, for jurisdiction over satellites to monitor the environment.
Frustrated friends. Today we face the sad spectacle of those who grasp the potentials from man’s use of space supporting programs that make space ventures more costly and less feasible. Space enthusiasts in and outside NASA must remember that space is a place, not a program. Commercial space activities are beneficial only if they are cost-effective. Further, only the market can reduce costs and efficiently allocate resources. An inexpensive launch capacity, for example, makes the quest for knowledge and space exploration for the sheer human adventure more practical and affordable.
In centuries past it was in the wake of trading ships that geologists, botanists, zoologists extended our knowledge of this Earth. The first liquid fuel rocket was developed and launched privately, in 1926, by Dr. Robert Goddard. The largest working telescopes in this century, on Mount Palomar and Mount Wilson, and at Mauna Kea, were privately funded.
It is time to rethink the government’s role in science in general and non-defense space efforts in particular. Easing government out of the space business could start with cancelling the space station. Phasing out the Shuttle and contracting with the private sector for all travel or deliveries into space would also be necessary. NASA itself might be broken up. Where no private sector option is immediately available, some functions might, temporarily, be performed other government agencies. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, technically part of NASA but with much autonomy, could continue unmanned planetary probes. The Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia could conduct basic research in spacecraft design and aeronautics without NASA.
Those who believe that mankind has a future in space should think deeply and seriously about how to ease the government out of civilian space activities. Only by approaching this challenge with the same honesty and clarity of mind that was needed to put men on the Moon can we honor their spirit made that feat possible two and a half decades ago.