As if it is incapable of learning from its own history, NASA is about to storm Capitol Hill with its latest highest-cost-for-lowest-return dead end of a space program.
While wrapped in the mantle of the president’s Vision for Space Exploration, it offers very little exploration and almost no vision. If it makes it through Congress I will be amazed, and if it survives without collapsing of its own weight through the next administration, I am applying to NASA for a job because it will truly be a place where miracles happen and dreams come true.
Ironically though, as it pushes Apollo Part 2 , NASA might actually be doing something useful for those interested in permanently opening the space frontier.
Faced with a presidential challenge to take Americans back to the Moon and on to Mars on a budget, our space agency has predictably chosen to answer what is really an economic or business management question with an engineering solution.
NASA could have taken the long view, wherein the leverage of national exploration dollars are used to catalyze an industrial and transportation infrastructure that would both dramatically lower the cost of getting into space in the near term, yet allow us to stay permanently on the Moon and Mars and even expand our presence over time.
Instead, NASA has reverted to its worst state design bureau habits. The result is two new expensive, limited-use national rockets feeding into a space architecture that is as wasteful as possible and clearly designed more to feed existing constituencies and pull off a stunt or two before collapsing, than to opening the space frontier.
This is due to the NASA and DoD establishment’s fondness for a Das Big Rocket and an inability to release control. This preference is rationalized by externally and internally imposed deadlines, mandates and the political importance of the standing army of shuttle supporters. Wrap this all up in the pre-existing socialist bias of the agency and you have a program that is destined to fail, but only after spending billions of dollars and wasting years of meaningless effort.
The other reality is that the frontier (permanence) movement, as exemplified by the NewSpace firms and their international partners is growing stronger and bolder all the time. Just a few examples among many are Burt Rutan constructing a new fleet of sub orbital vehicles, SpaceX making strides toward orbital access, and the announcement of a U.S.-Russian partnership that intends to fly customers around the Moon and back in a few years. (Hello NASA? Are you listening?).
Within this movement are several firms that want to work the Earth-to-low-Earth-orbit market, and or operate in low Earth orbit (LEO). The list includes CSI, t/Space, Bigelow, SpaceDev, Kistler and others. Some of these are completely stand-alone operations when it comes to NASA, yet others could benefit greatly if they could serve a government market as they work to build their own commercial customer base. Add to these companies the few joint U.S.- international ventures that are still breathing despite the strangling grip of the U.S. export restrictions governed by the International Trafficking in Arms (ITAR) regulations and you have the makings of a real, honest to goodness space transportation industry.
As myopic as it is, some people at NASA know they cannot afford to run the dying shuttle program, develop a new transportation system in house and support the international space station all at the same time.
In a common sense world, where vision ruled, profit fueled and engineers and politicians worked for the people rather than the other way around, we would see the NewSpace industry put in the lead rather than the reverse, but unfortunately the old school doesn’t trust the new. They trot out the argument that the NewSpace industry hasn’t proven itself, which may sound good on the surface, but the one thing that has been proven over and over again is that the traditional aerospace cabal has failed often and magnificently.
Given the traditionals’ proven record of failure, it would seem worth giving some new folks a chance in the Moon-Mars effort. But just as in a bad marriage, sometimes the pain you know is more comfortable than the hope for a new love; the inclination is to avoid change.
So that is where we stand.
The frontier movement is unable to stop the the snake oil-based architecture NASA will try to sell on Capitol Hill. At the same time the NewSpace industry is moving ahead, partially self-funded but in dire need of being legislatively and if possible, financially supported by the nation.
To his credit, it seems Mr. Griffin is going to try and do just that. If the charts and promises rolled out this month are true, he will feed the aerospace beast by pouring taxpayer dollars down the throats of the old school conglomerate of NASA centers, states and space firms to build Das Rockets. With the other, he will give the NewSpace industry a chance to prove itself by providing transportation services to ISS, while along the way perhaps spending a tiny amount of the taxpayer’s money in ways that lead to something lasting, rather than dead ends.
Although it fizzles off the charts a few years into the plan, Mr. Griffin has decided to use the space station as a market for NewSpace firms and others to flex their muscles. In the end this may either be a cruel joke or a brilliant master stroke. We shall see.
His initiative to use this new industry must be handled the right way or it too will fail. It must be funded adequately, with contracts and deals written in a way that works for the private sector and are protected from drifting into overly managed NASA programs.
These deals have to be structured in a way that opens the station in a real way to new players while encouraging old players to do things new ways if they want to play. The process should be open and transparent, and the contracting standardized as much as possible.
Congress should take much of this away from NASA and set up an international space station management entity outside of the agency with mandates such as minimal bureaucracy and the ability to write pay-for-service contracts.
This entity could build on the most innovative current contracting methods, and be safely removed from the old bureaucracy, encourage new players and systems that would benefit all space station users, while working towards a re invention of the station as a facility that actually has relevance to future plans in space.
Congress must also mandate that over zealous NASA managers do not get carried away and try to commercialize the station in a way that competes with — and could hurt — planned space stations such as Bigelow’s and others. Congress also can help by creating a package of tax incentives and holidays for all of those supporting and engaging in space station and other low Earth orbit activities, perhaps declaring low Earth orbit to be an enterprise zone.
Private space station management would avoid NASA’s constant urge to decide details like the color of the paint on the space trucks it hires, or requirements for constant reporting and other meddlesome paperwork that will only crush small firms.
NASA should specify the needed payloads and other directly relevant parameters then back off and let the system work. Simple contracts like: “We need a thousand pounds of cheeseburgers delivered each month in containers that will fit through our airlocks;” or “We need transportation for five NASA employees twice a year to and from the space station .”
If the firm fills its obligation, it gets paid the agreed upon rate. Its profit margin should be none of the government’s business, nor should what it does with those vehicles when they are not being used to serve the agency. For that matter, if the same firms want to split a payload or seats between NASA and other paying customers such as NASA’s space station partners or commercial users down the orbital street, then fine. This is none of NASA’s business.
Next, the government must level the playing field. For example, all carriers must be given the same waivers and ability to approach and dock with the station that have been given to the shuttle and Soyuz vehicles. There should be no double standards. If station managers are worried about proximity operations risks to the facility, then a last-mile service should be hired to serve all providers, thus requiring only one certification.
I hope NASA and Mr. Griffin really do follow through on the idea of handing space station and low Earth orbit to the commercial sector. It will be an act of faith to some, but in the end it may prove to be one of the most important decisions he and the agency make.
Rick Tumlinson is a space policy expert and editor of Return to the Moon, to be published in fall 2005.