Space Access Update #101 12/13/03
Copyright 2003 by Space
Last time we got one of these out the door, we wrote something about
having more to say about NASA's problems in coming weeks. That was one
Space Access conference and a half-year of working for a living ago.
No more promises - but for the moment, we're writing again. That, and
starting to put together the next Space Access conference. Thursday
afternoon April 22nd through Saturday night April 24th, in the Phoenix
metro area; more details as we nail them down.
Contents this issue:
- The Future of NASA Manned Space: Constrained Choices
(More on the current state of play in the emerging cheap-access industry
in late December... This time for sure!)
The Future of NASA Manned Space: Constrained Choices
There has been a lot of breathless speculation on what the current
Administration review of national space policy might lead to, much of
it centered on what if anything the President might choose to talk about
on the upcoming 100th birthday of powered flight, December 17th 2003.
We have no inside scoops, but we do have a few thoughts on the matter.
Our standard disclaimer on this: NASA is not a monolith; it's a whole
collection of organizations of wildly varying size, missions, and competence.
Some parts of NASA are both competent and efficient, many are at least
marginally functional, and some are massively dysfunctional bureaucratic
quagmires. There are lots of good people in NASA, some fortunate enough
to be able to quietly go about producing value for the country, some
mired up to their eyeballs in the aforementioned quagmires. Unless we
specify otherwise, from here on we'll use "NASA" as shorthand for by
far the largest single part of the agency, the Shuttle/Station manned
First, however, consider that December 17th is the centennial of the
*airplane*, that the first "A" in NASA stands for "aeronautics", and
that the agency's problems are not confined to its space operations.
It occurs to us that come the 17th, the President might have something
to say on aeronautics. Just a guess, of course.
As far as NASA manned space goes, keep in mind two things: One, money
is tight. The country's coming out of a recession, there's a war on,
and the deficit is getting politically sensitive. Whatever new directions
national space policy might be aimed, overall civil space spending is
very unlikely to increase radically. That would take a national consensus
that simply doesn't exist.
Two, NASA is a mess. Read the CAIB Report and weep. Neither the Congress
nor the White House trust NASA anymore - neither to succeed on-time/on-budget
(if at all) with any large new project, nor to reform itself unsupervised.
As far as ambitious new missions are concerned, these various parties
are (or ought to be) acutely aware that the existing NASA structure
is capable of soaking up huge amounts of additional money for a very
long time before any new output at all appears. The few federal legislators
talking about funding big new NASA projects tend to have major NASA
centers back home. The chances of their colleagues going along with
any such major new NASA spending anytime soon are, we estimate, near
Given all this, why not retrench - wind down the existing NASA manned
space projects as quickly as possible, then start over from scratch
in a few years?
Three reasons: One, the Law of Conservation of Congressional Pork says
that established federal jobs-in-umpteen-Districts cashflows are extremely
difficult to shut down. Absent huge amounts of political capital applied,
the strong tendency on established programs with entrenched constituencies
is to trim only around the margins, a few percentage points in any given
Two, we have international obligations to meet in the Station program.
Our diplomacy is difficult enough these days without further annoying
multiple major international partners.
Three, "doing space" has come to be a significant part of this country's
self-image. (Never mind that the reality for the last twenty years has
been a half-dozen astronauts flying a half-dozen missions-to-nowhere
a year at a billion dollars a mission - and that's in a *good* year.)
At a time of considerable national doubt and stress, we cannot lightly
walk away from "doing space".
But neither can we just keep pouring money down the same old institutional
rathole. How many major space transportation developments in a row has
NASA screwed up now? SLI, X-33, and NASP... Four if we count Shuttle.
Allowing NASA to continue "business as ususal" guarantees further national
trauma and disillusionment, soon as likely as later.
A major part of any new national civil space policy has to be fixing
NASA. Indications are the White House understands this. We expect a
major thrust of the new policies will be to patch up the existing NASA
establishment enough to more or less reliably run the Shuttle and Station
programs through the middle of this decade.
Given the likely flat budget and the difficulties of fixing what we've
got, we don't anticipate any major new initiatives - no hard date for
a Mars mission or a return to the Moon. We wouldn't be completely surprised,
however, to see a relatively modest new program to begin developing
the deep-space transportation and propulsion to eventually enable such
missions. We do expect that OSP will go ahead in some form, presumably
with adult supervision lest old NASA follow its natural inclination
and bloat the project into Shuttle-minus-the-payload-bay.
Longer term, something needs to replace the existing NASA. NASA may
be repairable enough to finish Station and wind down Shuttle gracefully,
but it has far too much institutional baggage to ever evolve into something
fast and efficient. You don't build a race car by tinkering with a Winnebago.
(If you *must*, the right way to do that is jack up the Winnebago hood
ornament then roll a new race car up underneath it...)
We will conclude by observing that much of NASA's current routine space
operations could appropriately be contracted out, given reasonable attention
to fostering a more diverse, innovative and efficient space private
In that vein, much of NASA's current advanced space R&D mission could
benefit from increased competition, both at the contractor and at the
contracting government agency level. The mid-nineties consolidation
of all advanced space transportation R&D in one agency and two established
major contractors was a disaster. From Space
Access Update #98, more on this point:
[written as X-33 was finally shut down and SLI begun, winter 2001]
"The real lesson here is NOT to give NASA massive new funding and
another five years - that would be pouring money down the same old NASA
RLV monopoly rathole. The lesson of X-33 is, next time give the job
to people actually willing to go at the problem in a manner that gives
them a chance of solving it with the wide array of advanced technology
that's already practical and available."
"This means letting multiple other agencies take a crack at the problem,
in competition with each other, so "it was too hard" after a half-assed
screwed up effort is no longer a safe excuse. Multiple competing outfits,
possibly inside NASA (Ames and Dryden, Glenn, or Langley Centers come
to mind) but certainly outside (DARPA, AFRL, NRL, NSF, and DOT are some
possibilities) should now get a chance."
"Slice up the SLI budget a half-dozen ways, set a half-dozen agencies
loose on the problem, encourage them to take chances with streamlined
procurement and non-traditional vendors, and tell them that every four
years, the two most successful among them get 50% of the budgets of
the two least successful. Then stand back and watch the RLV's fly! That
would be the ideal."
We look forward to seeing the actual policies the White House will adopt
this winter with interest, and perhaps even some optimism.
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"Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System"
- Robert A. Heinlein