L. Neil Smith's
Number 210, February 10, 2003


Moving Forward - But To Where?
by Thomas Andrew Olson

Special to TLE

As I write this, over 1500 square miles of Texas countryside are being scoured for remnants of the shuttle Columbia. A special ceremony in Houston, today, focused our nation's grief for those lost souls and their families. President Bush and NASA officials solemnly declared that their lives were not sacrificed in vain; that we'll find the causes of the disaster, fix them, and "move forward", as those who risked it all to push humanity's boundaries would have wished.

But today, those words ring hollow to me.

Because we've heard them all before - nearly a generation ago, as we mourned and memorialized the last seven astronauts to die horribly on what is still considered an experimental spacecraft.

What we learn from this is that we haven't really learned anything from this.

The question is always raised, at times like this, whether space exploration is "worth it". We always hear the same tired pro/con rhetoric: "Spinoffs make our lives better" and the "man must explore to fill his soul, and that's always risky", vs. "We have more urgent needs at home", and "Space is too dangerous for humans". Frankly, none of this really impresses me any longer.

For one thing, everyone's definition of "urgent needs" is different, depending on whether your hand is in the Federal cookie jar, or you're one of the poor schlubs taxed to death to fill that jar in the first place. Whichever view one takes of that very two-dimensional debate, the debaters are actually on the same side, in that they both have their hands in the same jar fighting over the cookies. No guest on "Crossfire" or "Meet the Press" is going to boldly declare that we needn't subsidize either space research OR health care. No one will get it.

"Too dangerous"? Although very risky, it's a cakewalk compared to 16th-Century ocean voyages. When Magellan circumnavigated the globe, he set out with a crew of 272 sailors. Only 35 actually lived to complete the trip. These kinds of losses were common back then, and yet men still lined up to go, for the sake of profit, glory, and a better life.

Much has been said of the incredible loss to science Columbia's demise cost us. Notables like John Glenn waxed poetic about all the incredible experiments that flew on this particular mission: "... human tissue generation that could be done up there in 3-D in a bioreactor that give a hope of maybe preventing the transfer of cancer cells from the prostate to the hip bone ... We have crystal growth ... of a type that'll let us do chemicals of greater purity and better refining ... We have combustion experiments ... being done with lower fuel-air mixtures than ever done before, which may apply to automobiles and better conservation right here on Earth ... the reason we do these experiments-and they had 90 on this particular flight-was for the benefit of people right here on Earth."

Granted, many things that make our lives easier and longer were the result of space-related research. But contrary to Glenn's thesis, most of those innovations didn't come directly from NASA. Even in its lunar heyday, NASA didn't have many testing labs. Most of those discoveries were made by private contractors, using NASA money to develop key technologies for the space effort. The patents belonged to the contractors. If they found commercial uses for these technologies after the fact, they were the ones that brought those products to market, not the space agency. This is a form of corporate welfare that no one wants to discuss in polite company, as space and military contractors have been on this gravy train for over 50 years.

If those experiments were as important as Glenn claims, they should have been financed directly from the chemical, pharmaceutical, and engineering companies that would benefit from them, including the mission specialist's time, thus defraying those costs to the taxpayer. And those costs are high.

In today's dollars, it costs upwards of $10,000 per pound to launch something into orbit on the Shuttle, a price which, even adjusted for inflation from 1970, is still more than triple that charged by "expendable launch vehicles" of the Apollo era.

Every Shuttle launch, at minimum, costs the taxpayer between half-a-billion and a billion dollars. The vehicle is highly complex, with over a million parts to keep track of, and they must all function correctly. It takes six months and somewhere on the order of 14,000 skilled, high-paid workers to service the vehicle after every flight.

From this, we are constantly reminded how "complicated" space travel is, and we are led to believe that only governments can marshall the resources needed to achieve it. Even so, the Shuttle has a dismal reliability record. It has never lived up to its original promise of a stable, workhorse "space truck", flying once a month, at 1/10th the going rate.

Perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is not whether NASA "moves forward", but why should that even matter to us in the first place?

In every other human endeavor in Western economies, government has the lesser role (mostly regulatory), and the private commercial sector the dominant one (as the driver of innovation and markets). Everything but space, that is. Is space truly a special exception to the market rule? Is it simply too complicated and expensive to EVER "trickle down" to the mass market? The answer to that lies in its beginnings.

A Bit Of History

The worlds of the Air Age, beginning 100 years ago, and the Space Age, in 1957, were completely different from each other, and in many ways diametrically opposed.

While Buzz Aldrin likes to remind us that it only took "66 years to get from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base", and we haven't made much progress since, what is more to the point is that it took only 33 years - half that time - to go from Kitty Hawk to the China Clipper. In a single generation, we went from a few daring men risking their lives on powered kites, to regular, commercial passenger flights across both oceans, with passengers undoubtedly complaining about the food.

How did it happen? The answer, of course, is uninhibited Free Minds and Free Markets, and a relaxed regulatory environment. After the Wright Brother's successes, hosts of aerial entrepreneurs cropped up, doing their own experiments, assuming their own risks, for thrills and profit. Innovation came rapidly, using a time-honored "incremental steps" approach, always a little higher, faster, farther, safer, and cheaper. More maneuverability and the challenge of heavier loads drove progress as well.

What were the incentives? Mainly, joyrides, mail, and cash. People saw airplanes and wanted to fly in them. The owners of the craft were happy to oblige, for a price. The U.S government saw an opportunity to improve mail delivery, and hired private carriers such as Wiley Post and Charles Lindbergh to carry special "air mail" letters and packages. Corporate sponsors and wealthy individuals set up cash prizes for intrepid fliers completing certain aerial milestones, the most noted of which was the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, a prize won by the aforementioned Lindbergh, in 1927. What followed, only a few short months after his feat, we now refer to as the "Lindbergh effect", as airmail demand increased 50% and applications for pilots licenses increased 300%. By 1936, Pan American Airways had inaugurated transoceanic passenger service.

From 1903 to the onset of WWII there was very little in the way of either regulation, or government involvement of any kind. Government's only "contributions" were the FAA, CAB, and the 1913 creation of a small agency with no regulatory authority and a minimal budget: The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, or NACA. Its function was to coordinate and participate in aeronautics research. Any results were published openly, and the growing commercial aviation sector all had free access to that data, which they could use as they saw fit. With the exception of military research and experimentation, the private and public sectors had little to do with each other.

WWII changed that, however, as the government sectors and their contractors developed more of a symbiotic relationship, which Eisenhower later dubbed the "military industrial complex".

Because of 50's Cold War fears, the "incremental steps" approach to space flight never got a foothold in the private sector. But the Air Force used that philosophy in its X-planes programs, from the X-1, the first to officially document the breaking of the sound barrier, to the X-15, which rocketed to the edge of space. The first true orbiting spaceplane, the X-20 Dynasoar, actually reached a prototype phase.

But along came Sputnik and the Space Race. In light of the Soviet coup, the West was challenged to catch up any way they could. Given the Big Government approach to everything at that time, Space became a government enterprise, with the help of former Nazi rocket scientists like Werner von Braun. The Air Force approach was swept aside as being too conservative. The old NACA was upgraded in 1958 - along with its budget - to become NASA, and put in charge of the entire civilian effort. Congress and JFK all but gave the new space agency a blank check.

When price is no object, and there's only one customer, a lot of exotic technologies get developed that end up expensive dead-ends, with no long-term commercial value. In stark contrast to Aviation, Space development progressed via a top-down hierarchical, tax-fed, bureaucratic enterprise, one that was destination and mission driven, as opposed to bottom-up, value-based and customer-service driven. So it was orbit, or nothing, the Moon or nothing. We were in a race to beat the Soviet enemy, any way we had to. The only private industry that could possibly evolve from such a policy, that could withstand the test of time, was communications satellites and their launch and support systems.

A Shuttle With No Customer

Once we won the Space Race in 1969, NASA morphed from a can-do, risk-taking, think out-of-the-box organization, to Just Another Tax-Fed Federal Bureaucracy, that, instead of playing to "win", was instead playing "not to lose".

Anxious to retain the incredible team that was created for Apollo, in the wake of Nixonian budget cuts and public apathy, NASA pitched the Shuttle as a low-cost launch alternative, and a support vehicle for a space station. The first thing to leave the table, of course, was a permanent space station. Congressional committees tossed that aside immediately as way too expensive and unnecessary. But without that, what would we need a Shuttle for?

NASA's backup strategy was to improve the pitch on the "space truck" angle, with the cost savings and the possible opportunities to rent it out to both the commercial and academic sectors. Ironically, the one man who was the most skeptical of this sales pitch was a left-liberal Democrat, Senator Walter Mondale of MN. He (rightfully, in retrospect) saw the word "boondoggle" written all over it.

But despite Mondale's protests, Congress and the space agency made their Faustian bargain. The sorts of compromises made, however, both political and engineering-based, that became part of the final product, virtually guaranteed NASA's grand promises could never be realized. A camel was once described as "a horse designed by a committee" - the Shuttle became a camel with wings. It ended up too complex, too expensive to build and to operate, and in every way an "experimental vehicle" - yet it was sold to the Congress and the public as a solid, mature technology, based on three decades of research, the natural progression of our engineering prowess, and heralding the end of "ELVs" as we knew them.

In the early 80's, once Shuttle launches were well established, NASA and its friends in the Federal government protected their investment by insisting the Shuttle be the sole-source provider for satellite and other commercial launch services. Highly trained astronauts, sacrificing years of their lives readying themselves for that rare opportunity to fly, would be reduced to "space truckers".

NASA even went so far as to threaten their contractors with loss of future deals if they tried to "compete" and go into the private satellite launch business using their own ELVs. As most space contractors are wholly dependent on NASA and/or the military for their livelihoods, they caved in. The plan worked. A long waiting list for launch orders ensued. As each launch was being subsidized by the Feds to a great extent, significant distortions were created in the global launch market. US comsat companies could fly cheaper domestically, but only because they weren't covering all the costs themselves. Foreign competitors like Arianespace were having a hard time attracting U.S. customers.

Then came Challenger, in 1986. The economic consequences for the U.S. satellite industry, being forced to place all their eggs in the Shuttle basket, came home to roost. The shuttle didn't fly for over two years. The only reason our satellite industry survives today is because of foreign firms like that same Arianespace, who were able to step up their schedules and pick up the slack. Our own launch industry never fully recovered its market share.

In the wake of Challenger, there was also a policy change from the Reagan administration. NASA and the Federal government would allow contractors to fly their own ELVs. NASA got out of the space trucking business, as it was ill suited for that to begin with, and went back to R&D and classified military payloads.

But that change in policy should hardly be construed with an actual opening up of private, free-market, entrepreneurial solutions in space. In fact, the regulatory and technological burdens virtually ensured that only the largest, well-established firms, firms that already have NASA and military contracts, could possibly even hope to play on this field. Even at that, for many years, those firms (like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) were launching expendables based on technology they themselves developed in the 50's and 60's, with few fundamental improvements until only recently.

"Groundhog Day"

In terms of getting large numbers of paying customers or tons of freight cheaply and safely to orbit, we are no better off now than we were 40 years ago, or even 17, after the first shuttle disaster. In fact, in many ways, we are far worse off. The regulatory and bureaucratic entanglements born of the space program have created a nightmare for anyone today wishing to start up a private space services company, offering suborbital passenger service, for example.

John Carter McKnight, writing in "The Spacefaring Web", referred to present space policy as being akin to living in the Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day where he was forced to relive the same day, over and over again. In space today, we go around in circles, to the same places, doing the same things.

NASA's annual budget today exceeds $15 billion. That is less than 1/20th the current military budget - nickles and dimes to the political class. But after spending $450 billion (inflation-adjusted) over the last 30 years or so, one would expect we would actually get somewhere, like Mars. The International Space Station and the Shuttle takes up most of NASA's budget, leaving little extra for real exploration.

The ISS is being touted as a laboratory for fundamental research and a place where we "will learn to live in space". There are two problems with that, however: (1) It takes seven people to do proper research, and the ISS only sleeps three in safety today, and (2) the occupants of the Russian Mir station spent 15 years gathering data on how to "live in space" - I'll bet if we offered them a little cash, they'd share it with us. The Dutch East India Company didn't build ships in order to learn to live on the ocean - they wanted to trade with those they found on the other side of that ocean. I don't want to live in space - I want to explore the strange new worlds we'll find out in space!

As long as NASA believes it alone has the "one best way" to explore space, and keeps setting up roadblocks to private sector development and investment, we'll never get anywhere. The promise of an entire generation - our birthright - has been denied us, and there's no sign of reform in sight.

Our biggest economic challenge is the cost to orbit, and despite three decades of NASA promises, we are worse off now than we were then. They will carefully weigh the evidence for the destruction of Columbia, make some band-aid changes, then it will be business as usual.

If government can't be counted upon to perform something as relatively uncomplicated as mail delivery, how can they be relied upon to launch and maintain humans in space? The question we should ask our leaders is: Should government (and its contractors) remain the sole-source providers of launch services, and the gatekeepers for the High Frontier, after 42 years of marginal performance?

It's time we returned to that incremental, market-driven approach to space development. NASA should get out of the launch business, opening up specific functions to private competition. NASA's own study of suborbital space tourism, released last year, suggested a potential $100 billion market. We need enabling legislation to spark investment and creativity in the private sector, so such things can come to pass.

A thriving commercial space sector, driven from the ground up by individual initiative and competitive incentives, as opposed to a top-down, hierarchical, bureaucratic command-and-control system, would have not been able to prevent the tragedy of February 1st. But at the very least, we would not be collectively wringing our hands over humanity's future in space, for that future would be assured, regardless of NASA's decisions.

After watching the memorial service for the Columbia Seven, I should be getting reservations online for the Boeing Spaceplane service to the Trump Orbiting Hotel and Casino, for a second honeymoon with my wife. If NASA had shared its toys and talent with the private sector 30 years ago, I'd be doing just that. I don't want to see the promise of another generation, the sons and daughters of the "Orphans of Apollo", so sadly wasted.

Thomas Andrew Olson is a computer consultant in the New York area. He is also Vice President of the Mars Society of New York, and is starting up a space venture investment company, called "The Colony Fund" [www.colonyfund.com].


Net Assets
by Carl Bussjaeger
"Access to Space for Everyone!"

Help Support TLE by patronizing our advertisers and affiliates. We cheerfully accept donations!

to advance to the next article
to return to the previous article
Table of Contents
to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 210, February 10, 2003