The End of an Era

With this morning’s Shuttle landing, the era of NASA as we knew it officially draws to a close.

Sadly, the past forty years have forced us to bear witness to the devolution of what was once perhaps the government’s leanest, most efficient, and most successful (in terms of real accomplishment) programs.

NASA has become a perfect example of the folly of government agencies, specifically the fate of agencies whose mission is to solve a single problem — when they’ve accomplished their mission and more or less solved their problem, what do they do next?  The bureaucratic mindset simply does not accommodate ideas like phase-outs and cutbacks for itself.

And so for the last four decades, NASA has become a parody of what it once was.  Its contractors have long accepted the inevitable and, starting with the first successful Apollo moon landing in 1969, scaled back their space-based research and manufacturing.  Shuttle contractors are going through the same painful process today.  NASA may no longer have need for space capsules and J-2 rocket engines, but the narcissism and air of indispensability that permeate government bureaucracies remain as strong as ever.

As long as NASA’s role essentially remains “we have no idea what we are doing, but we’re IMPORTANT!” our best hope for space exploration lies with private endeavors.  But I have to wonder, is the snail’s pace at which private spacecraft development has progressed during the past two decades the result of an ever-present fear of government regulation?  Is private spacecraft development being held hostage by the fear that NASA will move to shut down any private space exploration effort that becomes “too” successful?

Perhaps, instead of trying to accommodate NASA or turn it into a multicultural outreach tool, our next Presidential administration should focus on encouraging private space exploration.  Legislation that would allow private companies to build rockets and spacecraft without worrying about interference from NASA or other government agencies would be extremely beneficial to this end.

While we are spinning our wheels, other nations are developing rockets and space flight systems.  There is no reason why America can’t be the world’s leader in space technologies, both today and into the foreseeable future.  If we lose our edge, it will be nobody’s fault but our own.

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ADDED: I just noticed that Rand Simberg published some similar thoughts a few days ago:

The end of the Shuttle program ends more than the Shuttle era. Historians in the future will note that it ended a false notion, one half a century old: that humanity would open up space through the application of command-economy government programs. The future, even the immediate future, of human spaceflight lies not with a single type of vehicle developed by and for a massive government bureaucracy, but with public/private partnerships that create a robust, competitive commercial spaceflight industry. This is the only practical way forward to close the gap between the end of the Shuttle and new domestic capability that will eliminate our reliance on the Russians.

Unfortunately, Congress, caring more about space pork than progress, continues to have other plans.

Read the whole thing.

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  • Anonymous

    Legislation that would allow private companies to build rockets and spacecraft without worrying about interference from NASA or other government agencies would be extremely beneficial to this end.

    Private companies do build rockets – Boeing, Morton Thiokol, Lockheed Martin.

    They even have private customers for satellite launches, although they have to compete with Russia and EADS.

    The thing is, the “government” is the biggest customer for lift rockets.  Is that “interference?”  You make no sense.

    Have you tried to do model rocketry lately?  After 9/11, the regulations almost put it out of business.

    • Anonymous

      When the potential to make travel into space becomes a profitable venture you can be sure that the industry that supports it will go all in to get a piece of the action.

      All attempts by the BATFE, FAA, Commerce and other organizations to regulate or restrict model rocketry were failures and have been struck down in the courts, there are few, if any regulations that prohibit model rocketry.

  • It’s seldom easy to break the latch on the Federal nipple.

    • Anonymous

      There’s a private market for communications satellites, weather satellites, imagery satellites, some space tourism. 

      That still leaves military communications, various spy and weather satellites and pure scientific research spacecraft in the government sector.   Of course, those are also built by private businesses.

      But the government’s the main customer, until someone has the money to invest and can make money out of mining asteroids or the moon.  It’s just the way it is. 

  • Michael,

    Before you ask, yes chicka really is that stupid.

  • Anonymous

    I suspect that Rodney is not a rocket scientist.  That said, maybe I’m missing something.  There already is a private space industry.  There are a lot of private customers, but government is the main customer.  There is no return on investment for most space research, so it can’t be done with private investment.  A lot of space stuff is classified military stuff.  

    So, saying you want to “allow private companies to build rockets and spacecraft without worrying
    about interference from NASA or other government agencies” is like saying you want to allow private companies to build nuclear submarines without worrying about interference from the Navy.

  • Obama talks about the future of space exploration but, like most of what he says, it is empty rhetoric.  There is no plan for the Mars exploration he speaks about, no budget for it, and no plan to form a plan.  Same with the return to the moon. 

    He says things which sound good (and probably poll well) to entice those dumb enough to believe him.  It’s not good policy and it is disastrous for the country but as a political strategy it works fairly well.

    As Mencken observed long ago, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

    The public bought this jive turkey’s rap hook, line, and sinker.  Our great grandchildren will still be paying the price.

  • Chico, you are correct that private contractors and the military are responsible for most of the satellite and LEO payload launches today, but it should be clear from my post that I am talking about manned space flight and interplanetary space exploration.  NASA has always controlled manned space flight in the US.  But they are such an inefficient and pork-laden bureaucracy these days that it is hard to imagine that they could ever be effective in that capacity again — certainly nothing like they were able to accomplish in the 1960’s. 

    It seems to me that if NASA’s ability to organize and execute manned space flight missions is eclipsed by private contractors (who were the ones who really developed the technology in the first place) then a lot of people will come to the conclusion that NASA has outlived its usefulness.  Sadly, the government possesses the power to destroy its competitors through regulation, and I am fearful that NASA would resort to such a strategy if it became obvious that it was no longer a worthwhile government agency.  There’s nothing that desperate bureaucrats won’t try, in order to save their jobs.

    As for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, P&W Rocketdyne, etc. — most of their technology is deeply integrated in NASA projects, so it is not readily available for use in private spacecraft development.  Unlocking that technology would give private spacecraft development a huge boost, but it would probably be a death blow to NASA.

  • Anonymous

    Michael, it’s not a matter of “regulation,” it’s a matter of funding.  Richard Branson has his own private space program, and he’s paying for it.  Nobody’s stopping him that I’ve heard of.  They’re building a private spaceport in New Mexico, aren’t they?  I say, good luck to them.

    You make a lot of charges that NASA is inefficient and pork-laden.  Is that on faith?  Or is it inefficient and pork laden the way you could say the Navy or Air Force is, in that governmental functions do not make a profit because they have other purposes?  You also offer no support to your assertion that the technology is “locked up.”  I doubt it.  The manufacturers have the patents, and it’s not as if rocket technology hasn’t been around anyways. 

    I still say it’s as if you are trying to say you want to allow private companies to build nuclear submarines without worrying about interference from the Navy.  I am really trying to understand your point, but I think you just got off on a reflexive anti-government rant and got into a dead end.

  • Michael,

    As close to an apples to apples comparison between a NASA project and a private competitor would be the X-15 vs. SpaceShipOne, with the latter costing 1% of the former.

    • Anonymous

      Rodney, you truly are no rocket scientist.  First, the cost of technology goes down as time goes on, from the benefit of previous developments.  Space Ship One obviously did not start from square one, but benefited from the research done for the X-15 and other projects.

      You might as well compare the government built ENIAC, the first electronic computer, which cost $6 million in 2010 dollars, versus a far more capable desktop today.

      You do know a gigabyte of storage cost $300,000 in 1981, don’t you? I’m not sure if you get analogies.

  • Michael,

    Despite getting free drops from the AF, while Applied Composits had to design, build and operate WhiteKnight in order to get their bird into the air.

  • Ah,

    I almost forgot.  If Aviation were subject to Moore’s Law, it would cost less for a round trip ticket to the moon today than it did for a cross country flight in 1962.

  • Chico, I discussed a lot of these things two years ago, during the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight: http://wizbangblog.com/content/2009/07/25/space-the-final-frontier.php