Politics & Policy

Time to Rethink NASA

Astronaut Michael Good in the cargo bay of space shuttle Atlantis in 2009 (NASA)
Leave human spaceflight largely to the private sector, and create a quasi-military Space Guard.

Sunday is the 45th anniversary of the first Apollo landing. A little less than three and a half years later, the last men left the moon. As I noted Friday at USA Today: “For over four decades now, no one has gone further than a couple of hundred miles or so, a thousand times less distant, from our home planet.” The question we must ask is why we spent so much to go elsewhere in the solar system and then almost completely abandoned the effort. I pointed out in the column that the Apollo moon program was not so much about exploring space for the good of humanity as about beating the Soviets in the race to land on the moon. Paradoxically, our victory in the space race has led to what I call the Apollo Cargo Cult, similar to the cargo cults that arose among the Melanesians in their effort to lure back the Westerners who had once arrived bearing riches — and then left:

Many in the space community, remembering the glory of Apollo, repeatedly attempt to recreate it, not understanding the historical contingencies that improbably allowed it. They recall the goal, the date, and the ridiculously expensive large rocket, and hope that if only they can somehow repeat those things, we will once again send men (and this time women) out beyond low earth orbit. They lack the vision to conceive any other way of opening the solar system, though what has actually trapped us circling the earth for over 40 years is not the lack of a giant rocket, but the false belief that such a rocket is either necessary or sufficient to go beyond.

And it’s not just the space community: Congress too continues to insist on building the Space Launch System, a giant rocket planned to fly only once every couple of years — with each flight costing in the billions. What justifies this cost? As it turns out, there are no plans or funds for any sort of payload, such as a lander (which would be needed to actually go back to the moon). But the project will provide jobs in the states and districts of those who serve on the space committees on the Hill. Or at least it will provide jobs until, as with the Constellation program four years ago, it is canceled as an out-of-control and unaffordable boondoggle.

Everyone recognizes that our space policy is rudderless, but few seem to understand the root cause. In an attempt to get the nation’s human-spaceflight program on course again, funded by NASA, the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report a few weeks ago on the future of human spaceflight. Unfortunately, it was hobbled by the flawed assumptions forced upon it by its congressional charter. Among these assumptions are that a) NASA will continue to lead the effort and b) the purpose of human spaceflight is “exploration.” The report also shares the premise that the unaffordable Space Launch System will be the primary tool for such exploration. Of course, while the NRC sought public input, it sought no independent technical or cost input from any agency other than NASA, so it was not exposed to any alternatives.

But almost five years ago, while few paid attention, the Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (known as the Augustine panel, for its chairman, Norman Augustine) produced a review noting that exploration was a means, not an end, and that human spaceflight is a waste of time and money if the purpose isn’t space settlement. The recent NRC report, on the other hand, refuses to identify settlement as a goal, because its authors are skeptical that settlement is even possible; instead, it cobbles together a hodge-podge of other rationales for human spaceflight.

In The Space Review, an online weekly, Jeff Foust recently assessed the various justifications the NRC cites: “No single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight. . . . Instead, the report endorses a mix of what it calls ‘pragmatic’ reasons, such as economic benefits, national prestige, and scientific discovery, with ‘aspirational’ reasons like survival of the species. (Human survival might sound like the ultimate pragmatic reason for human space exploration, but it has not been traditionally a driver of national policy in human spaceflight, and the report notes it’s ‘not possible to say whether human off-Earth settlements could eventually be developed’ to achieve that goal.)”

#page#In addition, the NRC committee (which included few people with business experience) was indifferent, if not outright hostile, to commercial activities in space and their utility in opening the solar system. Also in The Space Review, Dale Skran, deputy chairman of the National Space Society Policy Committee, lambastes the NRC for this blind spot:

The NRC report is burdened with a persistent skepticism toward commercial space activities, and often reports such efforts in a misleading fashion. . . . We are given a barebones and minimally referenced discussion of current space commerce trends, with the conclusion that “It is currently impossible to assess whether commercial capabilities will develop to the point that they can create significant cost savings.#…”#

The NRC report is based on the unstated assumption that over the entire period considered, all the way out to 2054, there will be essentially no progress in rocketry other than that funded by NASA exploration programs, and that for the entire period the SLS as currently envisioned will remain the preferred method for Americans to reach space. It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely foundation for the planning of future space efforts than this. . . . A major implication of the NRC report is that NASA should abandon all human LEO activity, commercial and otherwise, in the name of a drive to Mars.

Unrealistically, the NRC committee recommends a 5 percent annual increase in NASA’s budget to carry out its recommendations, which are to spend billions for many decades with the eventual result of putting a few civil servants on Mars. My assessment, as a space enthusiast and a taxpayer? As Senator William Proxmire once famously quipped, on the topic of funding for space colonies: “I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy.” I don’t know what the future of human spaceflight is, but I do know that the NRC’s recommendations are not it. In 2009 (the 40th anniversary of the moon landing), as the Augustine panel was deliberating, I wrote an open letter to the committee, published as an essay at The New Atlantis. In it, I noted that the fundamental problem of American space policy is that there has never been any consensus on why we should bother with space at all — people argue over whether we should go to space for science, for international prestige, for the sheer adventure, for the resources we might find, or for the benefit of future generations. Further disagreement exists on the role of NASA, I wrote: “Some think all American hopes for spaceflight rest in NASA; others think NASA is a dinosaur and only the private sector can sustain manned spaceflight.” In the absence of an overarching strategic purpose to the space program, the only definitive goal I could discern was the preservation of jobs.

Clearly, nothing has changed in the intervening half-decade. NASA was originally created for a specific purpose: to maintain our lead in space technology as its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, had done for aviation. It was then perverted into an operational agency in response to a perceived emergency, with Apollo. It has devolved into a jobs program in which (in the mindless words of the latest NASA authorization to come out of the House) “safety is the highest priority,” an attitude that not only traps us in low-earth orbit but also keeps us dependent on the Russians for access to the International Space Station.

In my recent book on how our aversion to risk is holding us back in space, Safe Is Not an Option, I posit a solution: Follow the proposal of Jim Bennett for a “Space Guard,” modeled on the U.S. Coast Guard, and get NASA out of the human-spaceflight business, with the exception of technology development and perhaps missions out into the solar system, but certainly not to and from orbit itself. Instead, partially replace the agency with “a uniformed service that reported to a civilian department . . . and [would] be attached to the Air Force as the Coast Guard is to the Navy, in times of war,” I suggest. Further:

A U.S. Space Guard (USSG) could perform space-related functions such as navigation support, search and rescue, space situational awareness, constabulary duties, and perhaps even regulation, among others, that need to be done, but are currently not being done well, or at all, because they are assigned to other agencies where they are peripheral to those agencies’ main purposes and functions and often suffer from inattention and low priorities. The USSG would have its own academy and, like the Coast Guard and unlike NASA, such a quasi-military organization would be better suited to both focus on those critical tasks, and be willing and able to risk the lives and health of the guardsmen (and women) to accomplish them, without worrying about counterproductive lectures on safety from uninformed congresspeople.

In such a scheme, NASA could return largely to its original role as a developer of technology to serve the aerospace industry. It could also continue to do science and planetary exploration robotically (and perhaps even with humans, as long as it was focused on that and not on building and operating its own launch systems). But human spaceflight would mainly be left to the private sector, with all of the ambitious billionaires — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bob Bigelow, Charles Simonyi, Eric Schmidt, and others — who are clearly more interested in it and serious about it than is Congress, particularly with its limited two-year terms of office. The USSG could provide the vital services described above, perhaps rolling the FAA commercial-space-transportation office into it as well. NASA could purchase services (such as propellant delivery) from the private sector, using the commercial cargo and crew programs as a model, to perform its exploration functions. The airmail program that jump-started many of the early airlines might also be a useful model.

That was how the modern aviation industry was created back in the 1920s and 1930s, and it could drive the space industry as well today, generating a lot more human space activity for a lot less taxpayer money. It’s the way we would have done it had we not taken the Apollo detour. It’s time finally, after four lost decades, to do space the way America does things — not the way the Soviets did.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer, serial entrepreneur, consultant on space commercialization, and the author of the new book Safe Is Not an Option.


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