America’s public-sector space program recently had a rough couple of weeks that perfectly exemplify why it desperately needs a free-market overhaul.
On July 29, the International Space Station (ISS) suffered a serious loss of control after a Russian spacecraft docked with it, accidentally causing the station to make a full 540-degree rotation and a half before coming to a stop upside down, when the astronauts got it under control.
Like most NASA programs, the ISS is massively over budget. Costs were initially projected at $12.2 billion, but the bill ultimately reached a stunning $150 billion. American taxpayers paid around 84 percent of that. What happened to the American dream of human space exploration? Put simply, the government happened. NASA devolved into a jobs program to bring home the space bacon.
Then, on August 10, NASA’s inspector general released a report deeming plans to send astronauts back to the moon in 2024 unfeasible because of significant delays in developing the mission’s spacesuits. Right now the suits are being built by 27 different companies that successfully lobbied the government for a piece of the action. SpaceX’s Elon Musk has rightly noted that NASA has “too many cooks in the kitchen.” The difference between NASA’s cumbersome designed-by-committee suits and SpaceX’s suits — created by a single contractor — is remarkable, even to the naked eye.
The report unconvincingly blames NASA’s failure to develop a new spacesuit over the last 14 years solely on shifting technical requirements. It recommends “ensuring technical requirements for the next-generation suits are solidified before selecting the acquisition strategy to procure suits for the ISS and Artemis programs.”
Instead of dealing with the problem, the Biden administration is trying to distract attention from the space agency’s mismanagement by announcing plans to land the first person of color on the moon . . . even though NASA has been incapable of sending astronauts of any color into space under its own power since July 2011. NASA has been reduced to begging the Russians for a ride. The agency’s troubled Constellation program, meant to replace the Space Shuttle fleet, was canceled after tens of billions of dollars had already been spent.
But NASA’s troubles are, depressingly, likely to get even worse.
In November the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally launch, after taxpayers have forked over $9.7 billion. It was originally supposed to launch in 2007 on a budget of $500 million. That means the project is over a decade behind schedule and costing almost 20 times its initial budget. Perhaps the telescope, meant to locate potentially habitable planets around other stars and perhaps even extraterrestrial life, could instead search for a calendar . . . or fiscal sanity . . . in the stars?
JWST isn’t the first NASA space telescope to suffer cost overruns and setbacks. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was originally intended to launch in 1983, but technical issues delayed the launch until 1990 because the main mirror was incorrectly manufactured.
JWST is very likely to fail because it is supposed to unfold itself “origami style” in space in an extremely technically complicated process. If difficulties arise, JWST lacks HST’s generous margin for error because of its location far beyond earth’s orbit at the Sun-Earth L2 LaGrange point. NASA currently lacks the capability to send a team of astronauts out that far to fix any problems. Even if NASA could get out to JWST, the telescope doesn’t have a grappling ring for an astronaut to grab onto and thus could potentially kill astronauts attempting to fix it.
It is hard to imagine a better example of the private sector’s amazing ability to outcompete government bureaucracy and mismanagement than NASA’s planned Shuttle replacement, the Space Launch System. It is estimated to cost more than $2 billion per flight. That’s on top of the $20 billion and nine years the agency has already spent developing the vehicle. Contrast that with the comparatively inexpensive $300 million spent by SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 in a little over four years, and the fact that each Falcon 9 costs around $62 million. One SLS launch could pay for over 32 SpaceX launches.
Private ventures such as SpaceX are more efficient because they have a lot more incentive to avoid excessive costs and focus on solutions: Their own money is at stake, and people spend their own money more carefully than they spend taxpayer dollars collected from others. Multiple private American space firms are currently pursuing accomplishments beyond those of NASA, and they are more advanced and ambitious than the entire government space programs of China and the European Union combined. So one possible solution to NASA’s woes would be to greatly increase its reliance on commercial launch providers. And one way to do that would be to return to the system that made civil aviation great: prizes to reward private-sector innovation.
Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of the privately funded Orteig prize, valued at almost $395,000 in today’s money. Another famous example was the X Prize, which rewarded Burt Rutan’s company Scaled Composites with over $14 million in today’s money for becoming the first nongovernmental organization to launch a reusable and manned space vehicle, SpaceShipOne. The X Prize succeeded in creating over $100 million in investment by private corporations and individuals.
Aerospace experts expect that establishing a $10 billion prize for successfully landing a crew on Mars and returning it safely to earth could very well lead to a successful landing. That’s a bargain compared with the $500 billion cost estimates NASA puts out for the same objective. And of course in the worst-case failure scenario for a prize program, taxpayers would pay nothing until the mission was complete. A system based on private enterprise incentivized by a fixed prize would end government cost overruns and waste.
The cause of space exploration is simply too important to leave to the public sector.