Why NASA Is Stagnant

by Robert Zubrin
If we could put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put a man on the Moon?

“We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . . This is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us . . . But space is there and we are going to climb it.”

                                                            — John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962

Today is the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. As the nation celebrates that great achievement, there is also reason for solemn reflection. For while NASA was able to put men on the Moon within eight years of the Apollo program’s start, the space agency has been unable to go further in the four and a half decades since. In fact, it is no longer capable of going to the Moon and, as these lines are written, is totally adrift, with no real plan for going anywhere.

If we are to remedy the space agency’s current impotence, we need to look at its history.

Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.

It is sometimes claimed that the reason for NASA’s Apollo-era success is that the agency was much better funded at that time. That is simply untrue. The agency did receive a larger share of the GDP then than it does now, but that is because 1960s America was much poorer. The actual inflation-adjusted space-agency funding was virtually the same then as now. In today’s dollars, NASA’s average budget from 1961 to 1973 was about $20 billion per year. This is only 18 percent more than NASA’s current budget. To assess the comparative productivity of the Apollo Mode and the Random Mode, it is therefore useful to compare NASA’s accomplishments between 1961 and 1973 and between 2000 and 2014, as the space agency’s total expenditures over these two periods were equal.

Between 1961 and 1973, NASA flew the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner missions, and did all the development for the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager missions as well. In addition, the space agency developed hydrogen–oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy-lift launch vehicles, nuclear rocket engines, space nuclear reactors, radioisotope power generators, spacesuits, in-space life-support systems, orbital rendezvous techniques, soft-landing rocket technologies, interplanetary navigation technology, deep-space data-transmission techniques, reentry technology, and more. In addition, the Cape Canaveral launch complex, the Deep Space Network, the Johnson Space Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other valuable institutional infrastructure were all created in more or less their current form.

In contrast, during the period from 2000 to 2014, NASA flew 39 Shuttle missions, allowing it to twice repair the Hubble Space Telescope and complete a space station. About a dozen interplanetary probes were launched (compared to over 30 lunar and planetary probes between 1961 and 1973). Despite innumerable “technology development” programs, no new technologies of any significance were actually developed, and no major space-program operational infrastructure was created.

Comparing these two records, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that NASA’s productivity both in terms of missions accomplished and in terms of technology developed during its Apollo Mode was at least ten times greater than under the current Random Mode. The Random Mode is the expenditure of large sums of money without direction by strategic purpose. That is why it is hopelessly inefficient. But the blame for this waste cannot be placed on NASA’s leaders alone, some of whom, such as the tough-minded previous administrator, Mike Griffin, have attempted to rectify the situation. Rather, the political class must also accept major responsibility. This is particularly the case with the current president and his science adviser, John Holdren, who in 2009–10 intervened forcefully in space policy to cancel the destination-driven lunar-base program that Griffin had launched, replacing it with a goalless “flexible path” to nowhere.

Why did Obama and Holdren cancel Griffin’s lunar-base program and return the agency to its Random Mode? It was not to save money. During the Obama administration, NASA’s budgets have remained at about Bush-administration levels. So if it’s not about the money, why has the Obama administration chosen to derail NASA? The answer can only be that the objections are not to what the agency gets, but to what it does. There is good reason to believe that the administration doesn’t like what NASA, and in particular NASA’s Human Space Flight program, represents.

NASA may be a government agency with the usual bureaucratic attributes, but it is also something else: It is the epitome of the pioneer spirit. The agency’s formative adventure — and in a very real sense the agency itself — was launched by an administration whose slogan was “The New Frontier.” It is not without meaning that so many of its craft have had names like Liberty, Freedom, Pioneer, Voyager, Discovery, Endeavor, Pathfinder, Opportunity, and so on. Its astronauts are heroes in the most classic Homeric sense of the term, voluntarily risking death to do great deeds and win eternal glory.

The values championed by the Obama administration are comfort, security, protection, and dependence. But the frontier sings to our souls with different ideals, telling stirring tales of courage, risk, initiative, inventiveness, independence, and self-reliance. Considered as a make-work bureaucracy, NASA may be perfectly acceptable to those currently in power. But for mentalities that would criminalize the failure to buy health insurance, the notion of a government agency that celebrates the pioneer ethos by risking its crews on daring voyages of exploration across vast distances to terra incognita can only be repellent.

So in place of the ringing declaration of courageous spirit that JFK gave in his speech at Rice University in 1962, the current administration offers this alternative:

We choose not to go to the Moon, nor do other things, because they are hard. We do not want a goal that will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are unwilling to accept, one that we are quite willing to postpone, and one that we will not win.

This is unacceptable. The American people want and deserve a space program that is really going somewhere. The nation needs a space program that can make a powerful statement to a confused world — as Apollo did in its day — that free societies are the path to the future. Our youth needs a bold space program that inspires them to excellence with the grand challenge of pioneering new worlds. We can have such a program. Despite all the issues of concern — real, exaggerated, or imaginary — from a technical point of view, we are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than JFK’s America was to being able to send men to the Moon in 1961, and we did send them just eight years later. Given the will, we could be on Mars within a decade. We can inspire millions of our youth to devote themselves to science and engineering, and once again astonish the world with what free people can do, as we plant the seed of a new branch of civilization that will put our stamp on the human future for ages to come. But leadership is necessary.

In the absence of viable executive-branch leadership, Congress needs to open a discussion as to what the nation actually wants to accomplish in space. Hearings should be held, and the options for a strategic objective examined in public. Is our primary aim to keep sending astronauts into low Earth orbit to be used as experimental subjects for endless, pointless, and arguably unethical research on the harmful effects of zero gravity (which can be avoided by rotating a spacecraft)? In that case, we can just keep doing what we are doing. But if we want our astronauts to be explorers, not guinea pigs, and if we want to send them to the Moon or to Mars, we must make that decision, and then design and build a hardware set that is appropriate, and accept the risk necessary to actually accomplishing those goals.

Advocates of the Random Mode, such as the current administrator, Charles Bolden — who calls it “the flexible path” — claim that by avoiding real commitment to a destination (fake commitment is another matter; Bolden is fine with nominal far-future goals that require no action), they are developing technologies that will allow us to go anywhere, anytime. That just isn’t true. The Random Mode hasn’t gotten us anywhere in four decades, and it will never get us anywhere, because, fundamentally, it’s just a method for distributing patronage with no responsibility to deliver results. The Apollo Mode got us to the Moon, and it can get us back there, or take us to Mars. But leadership is required.

In the beginning was the Word.

Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.