25 years after the first manned lunar landing, one of mankind'sgreat human and technological achievements, NASA is criticized aswasteful and bloated squandering the public's good will, enthusiasmand hundreds of billions of dollars. This is what can be expectedwhen an enterprise that belongs in the private sector is taken upby government.
The new commitment by Congress to cut back wasteful spending aswell as to keep America competitive offers an opportunity toexamine NASA's problems in the wider context of the proper role ofgovernment in science. My recommendation is to phase the governmentout of non-defense related space activities by marking NASA forabolition.
The highest aspirations. The civilian space program and NASAwere born of the Cold War wish to wipe out the embarrassment ofearly Soviet space successes. But the program also was born of theAmerican pioneering spirit, to reach for other worlds, and of theconfidence that we could do whatever we put our minds and our willsto. While commercial, scientific and exploratory space venturesideally should be left to the private sector, in the late 1950smany Americans believed that only governments could undertake suchendeavors.
NASA's lunar successes were possible in part because the adverseeffects of government programs often take time to develop. Byanalogy with individuals, a man with a work ethic sixty years agowas unlikely to become indolent because he received a few federalaid checks while temporarily unemployed any more than he would ifhe received help from private charity. But raise three generationson government welfare and you have the decimated families and innercities of America today.
Ask scientists quickly, by a certain date, sparing no expense tomake an atomic bomb or put a man on the Moon, and they likely willperform well. But while many of its personnel still are competentand hardworking, today NASA as an organization has ecome the agencyequivalent of a welfare recipient.
From exploration to freight hauling. In the early 1970s, as thebills for Vietnam and the welfare state skyrocketed, NASA saw Moonlandings curtailed and Moon bases ruled out. Thus, like anygovernment agency, it sought to preserve big budgets and staffs.Its new big ticket project, the Space Shuttle, was sold to policymakers as a reusable and thus cheaper way to put payloads in orbitthan expendable launch vehicles. In effect, NASA's mission wentfrom science and exploration to freight hauling.
If at that time NASA had begun to turn over space activities tothe private sector, space stations and Moon bases might be areality today. Market competition usually brings down the realprice of goods and services. For example, the revenue, and thusprice, for airline travel in constant dollars since the late 1960shas dropped by around 40 percent. Shipping costs for oil dropped by75 percent in constant-dollars. In 1981 the first IBM personalcomputer came with 64 kilobytes of memory and sold for $3,000, oraround $46,000 per megabyte. Today a megabyte of memory can be hadfor less than $4. And in area of communications satellites, thespace enterprise sector that has been the domain principally of theprivate sector, costs have dropped in real terms.
By contrast, as near has can be determined from impenetrableNASA accounting, the cost of putting payloads into orbit has goneup in real terms over the past decades. David Gump in his bookSpace Enterprise estimates the cost in constant dollars went from$3,800 per pound under Apollo to $6,000 with the Shuttle. If themarket had reduced space flight costs by, say, 50 percent, the costof putting a pound in orbit today would be under $2,000. AlexRoland of Duke University estimates that the cost of a Shuttleflight, including development and capital costs, is not the $350million claimed by NASA but closer to $2 billion. This would raisethe cost per pound to about $35,000.
As NASA developed and flew early Shuttle missions, it had tofend off private competitors. In the late 1970s and early 1980sfederal agencies were forbidden to contract with the infant privatelaunch industry to put government payloads in orbit, and NASAoffered cheap cargo rates, subsidized with taxpayers' dollars, thatdrove out private suppliers.
Private commercial efforts were hindered by the 1973 IntelsatTreaty of 114 countries creating an international satellite networkand a government consortium. Article 14D requires potential privatecompetitors to prove they would not cause "substantial economicharm" to the monopoly. America's private Pan Am SatelliteCorporation suffered years of delay before launching a satellite in1988.
Station to nowhere. As it became apparent in the early 1980sthat the Shuttle was a costly white elephant, NASA needed a missionto justify the Shuttle's continued existence. Aside from any otherbenefits, an orbiting space station seemed to serve this purpose.But the cost of the station went from an estimated $8 billion tonearly $40 billion before the current stripped down $30 billionmodel was developed in 1993.
Among other station problems:
- There is little prospect for any profitable commercial venturecoming from the station: No customers are committed to paying theactual costs for renting space on the station.
- Even free use of the station would be of limited use for manyspace scientists. Then-Associate NASA Administrator William Leniorin 1990 actually justified a slower station construction scheduleby noting that not manning the station for three or four yearswould allow more scientific research that otherwise would bedisturbed by a human presence.
- A special Presidential Advisory Commission, chaired by MartinMarietta CEO Norman Augustine, in 1991 stated that "We do notbelieve that the space station ... can be justified solely on thebasis of the (non-biological) science it can perform, much of whichcan be conducted on Earth or by unmanned robots."
- And the station might never be built in any case. A 1990 Officeof Technology Assessment report finds that there is a 50 percentchance of another Shuttle disaster per 34 flights. The stationprobably will require some 25 flights to put it up and many morefor regular maintenance.
As NASA sought to protect its big budgets, it continued toignore the private sector. For example, Space Services Industriesof Houston in the 1980s offered to launch a mini-station forbetween $500 million and $750 million that could take governmentand other payloads a decade before the planned NASA station. Thegovernment would not contract with this private supplier.
An interagency U.S. government working group in 1987-88considered the feasibility of offering a one-time prize and apromise to rent to any private group that could deliver a permanentmanned Moon base. When asked if such a station were realistic,private sector representatives answered "Yes!" but only if NASAstayed out of the way and did not force the private providers touse the Shuttle or proposed station. Needless to say, this approachnever saw the light of day.
NASA in recent years has seen environmental projects aspotential cash cows. For example, it has fought with otheragencies, through its Missions to Planet Earth, for jurisdictionover satellites to monitor the environment.
Frustrated friends. Today we face the sad spectacle of those whograsp the potentials from man's use of space supporting programsthat make space ventures more costly and less feasible. Spaceenthusiasts in and outside NASA must remember that space is aplace, not a program. Commercial space activities are beneficialonly if they are cost-effective. Further, only the market canreduce costs and efficiently allocate resources. An inexpensivelaunch capacity, for example, makes the quest for knowledge andspace exploration for the sheer human adventure more practical andaffordable.
In centuries past it was in the wake of trading ships thatgeologists, botanists, zoologists extended our knowledge of thisEarth. The first liquid fuel rocket was developed and launchedprivately, in 1926, by Dr. Robert Goddard. The largest workingtelescopes in this century, on Mount Palomar and Mount Wilson, andat Mauna Kea, were privately funded.
It is time to rethink the government's role in science ingeneral and non-defense space efforts in particular. Easinggovernment out of the space business could start with cancellingthe space station. Phasing out the Shuttle and contracting with theprivate sector for all travel or deliveries into space would alsobe necessary. NASA itself might be broken up. Where no privatesector option is immediately available, some functions might,temporarily, be performed other government agencies. The JetPropulsion Laboratory in California, technically part of NASA butwith much autonomy, could continue unmanned planetary probes. TheLangley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia could conduct basicresearch in spacecraft design and aeronautics without NASA.
Those who believe that mankind has a future in space shouldthink deeply and seriously about how to ease the government out ofcivilian space activities. Only by approaching this challenge withthe same honesty and clarity of mind that was needed to put men onthe Moon can we honor their spirit made that feat possible two anda half decades ago.