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Space -- The Final Frontier?


Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the historic flight of Apollo 11, which was launched on July 16, 1969 and splashed down a thousand miles southwest of Hawaii on the morning of July 24. America won the "space race", but after taking her victory lap through the remainder of the Apollo flights (Apollo 12-17, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz), a great problem remained -- what do we do next?

During the 1960's America poured about $136 billion inflation-adjusted dollars into the race for the moon. We spent around another $80 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars to finish out the Apollo program and begin -- just begin -- development of the Space Shuttle system. Unlike today, few high-ranking members of the government (with the notable exception of Senator Walter Mondale, who led the government's investigation into the 1967 Apollo 1 fire) had the temerity to question the space program at a time when the public feared that the Soviet Union could conquer space and hold America hostage with a arsenal of satellite-based weapons.

During Apollo, NASA had grown into an enormous agency that employed scores of bureaucrats and tens of thousands of workers in Houston, Huntsville, AL, and Florida, pumping millions of dollars into local economies. Space contractors like Boeing, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, and General Dynamics also employed thousands of workers whose jobs depended solely space-related work.

But with the successful launch of Apollo 11, the status quo suddenly became expendable. Tom Wolfe wrote in last weekend's New York Times:

[In October 1969] I was in Florida, at Cape Kennedy, the space program's launching facility, aboard a NASA tour bus. The bus's Spielmeister was a tall-fair-and-handsome man in his late 30s ... and a real piece of lumber when it came to telling tourists on a tour bus what they were looking at. He was so bad, I couldn't resist striking up a conversation at the end of the tour.

Sure enough, it turned out he had not been put on Earth for this job. He was an engineer who until recently had been a NASA heat-shield specialist. A baffling wave of layoffs had begun, and his job was eliminated. It was so bad he was lucky to have gotten this stand-up Spielmeister gig on a tour bus. Neil Armstrong and his two crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, were still on their triumphal world tour ... while back home, NASA's irreplaceable team of highly motivated space scientists -- irreplaceable! -- there were no others! ...anywhere! ... You couldn't just run an ad saying, "Help Wanted: Experienced heat-shield expert" ... the irreplaceable team was breaking up, scattering in nobody knows how many hopeless directions.

The successful completion of the Apollo flights left an enormous hole in NASA that no one was quite sure how to repair. The Space Shuttle program, and related plans to build a permanent orbiting space station, were officially approved in 1972 by President Nixon because of joint development plans by NASA and the US military and their perceived usefulness in relation to national security issues. But the Space Shuttle served only as an analgesic and not a cure.

Like all bureaucracies, NASA evolved into a bloated agency whose primary mission seemed to revolve more around self-preservation and justification for heavy Federal funding, rather than developing and flying worthwhile manned missions into Earth orbit and beyond. By the early 1980's, with the Space Shuttle years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, NASA bureaucrats had disconnected themselves from effective engineering management and chose instead to refocus the agency on public relations and politics.

The Shuttle was a classic example of "too many cooks spoil the soup." Compared to Apollo, which had a single goal of landing a manned spacecraft on the moon, Shuttle development continually suffered as compatibility requirements for military hardware and continually evolving mission goals kept designs in a constant state of flux. In an effort to keep Shuttle development on track, NASA downplayed several potential problems in its design, including problems with the rubber o-rings used to seal the sections of the Shuttle's solid rocket booster engines together. In an effort to sell the Shuttle to the public, NASA bureaucrats claimed that it boasted an unbelievable 1 in 100,000 potential for catastrophic failure. After the Challenger disaster, it was revealed that NASA's own engineers estimated the probability of catastrophic failure to be more like 1 in 100.

Richard P. Feynman, the iconoclastic physicist who famously demonstrated the faulty rubber o-rings on national television during the Congressional hearings following the Challenger explosion, recommended a ground-up restructuring of NASA in order to eliminate bureaucratic complacency and restore the agency's original task, which was to execute safe, reliable, and useful missions into space. When the Commission report failed to include Feynman's recommendations, he refused to sign it. He signed his name only after the Commission agreed to publish his dissent as an appendix to the official report.

In the wake of two catastrophic Space Shuttle failures (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2001) and no concrete plans for future space missions, what should we do with NASA? What should be the role of the United States in the exploration of space? Rand Simberg has just published a superb essay that explores these questions in great detail. It's long, but very much worth reading if you are interested in space exploration. Simberg agrees with the Bush Administration's original Vision for Space Exploration introduced in 2004, which characterized a worthwhile space program as being "affordable and sustainable," useful for national security purposes, and including significant contributions from the private sector.

Here is part of Simberg's conclusion:

The United States should become a spacefaring nation, and the leader of a spacefaring civilization.

That means that access to space should be almost as routine (if not quite as affordable) as access to the oceans, and with similar laws and regulations. It means thousands, or millions, of people in space--and not just handpicked government employees, but private citizens spending their own money for their own purposes ... It means that we should explore the solar system the way we did the West: not by sending off small teams of government explorers--Lewis and Clark were the extreme exception, not the rule--but by having lots of people wandering around and peering over the next rill in search of adventure or profit.

We should have massively parallel exploration--and not just exploration, but development, as it has worked on every previous frontier. We need to expand the economic sphere into the solar system, as John Marburger, George W. Bush's science adviser, used to say in his speeches. We need to think in terms of wealth creation, not just job creation. That would be "affordable and sustainable," almost by definition.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one: Apollo left many orphans. But it's not a dream shared by NASA, successive presidents, or members of Congress, at least to judge by their plans over the past four decades ... NASA needn't do all the work of making space affordable and sustainable, but it ought to do something. To put it another way, it isn't NASA's job to put humans on Mars; it's NASA's job to make it possible for the National Geographic Society, or an offshoot of the Latter-Day Saints, or an adventure tourism company, to put humans on Mars.

The current size, spending priorities, and debt trajectory of the Federal government would make another effort by NASA on the scale of the Apollo program completely unrealistic. NASA conquered space in the 1960's and 1970's, but that conquest should not be equivalent to an occupation. There is plenty of room in the heavens for the government, the military, and the private sector, and given the fact that government space exploration has turned into an overly expensive boondoggle, I agree with Rand Simberg that our best hope lies within the private sector. I hope that one day, my children will have the opportunity to assess the risks and decide to make the journey to other worlds, free from the encumbrances of government.


One more Apollo link: an awesome gallery of hi-res Apollo 11 photographs courtesy of the Boston Globe.


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Comments (10)

Only problem with Simberg's... (Below threshold)

Only problem with Simberg's recommendation is that it's damned expensive to get off the earth in the first place. Amounts of money that only governments can afford(?). Right now you have to take everything along with you that you need to survive. Besides their boats, the only other things Lewis and Clark took were muskets, bullets and clothing. While the climate conditions might have been threatening in various parts of the country, it wouldn't immediately kill you if you took off your shirt or hat. Simberg is right in that space will only be explored when it's found that there's a PROFIT in it....besides public adulation.

The recent unpredicted mass... (Below threshold)

The recent unpredicted massive impact upon Jupiter might suggest something NASA could work on.

If today a comet or a large asteroid was detected coming at Earth, could we do anything about it?

Given the current administr... (Below threshold)

Given the current administration, the question is "Would we WANT to do anything about it?"

Sometimes suicide is the best option.

GarandFan,One of t... (Below threshold)


One of the problems that has dogged NASA (and which Simberg discusses at length in his piece) is the extremely high cost of throw-away space hardware. We still haven't figured out how to make a heavy-launch vehicle that isn't mostly throw-away. Consider Apollo: out of over 3350 tons of spacecraft, the only part that returned to Earth was the command module. Even the new Ares V heavy-launch vehicle is mostly throw-away.

As you pointed out in your comment, when you travel to space, you have to take everything with you. That necessarily means heavy payloads and heavy-launch vehicles. And with the current state of our rocket technology, it means a lot of money.

You'll note that in the future imagined by science fiction writers, there are no rockets. Instead, there are airplane-like spacecraft that can effortlessly zip in and out of Earth's atmosphere, break free of Earth's gravity, and travel through deep space. Although it's easy to point out some of the questionable (and in many cases impossible, given physics as we understand it) aspects of those imaginary spacecraft, I still wonder if we must develop something better than rockets before the exploration of space really becomes practical.

"...if we must develop some... (Below threshold)

"...if we must develop something better than rockets...."

Yep, according the laws of physics we do. Unfortunately it takes one heck of a lot of energy to break free of earth's gravity. Maybe the hint is that we're looking in the wrong direction. As Democrats might say, 'a more nuanced approach' rather then simple brute force. It will be done someday, but not with currently known technology.

Forgot to add: The problem... (Below threshold)

Forgot to add: The problem then might well be; Will "THEY" want "US" out there?

Gents,I'll add my ... (Below threshold)


I'll add my two cents to the discussion.

First, I agree wholeheartedly that NASA, like any other govt bureaucracy, has morphed away from its original reason for existence into budgetary self-preservation.

If you take a look back in history, the old NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics), as best I can tell, quietly plodded along as a govt dept backwater over the years of its existence (for trivia buffs, one of its white papers on hypersonic flight via "wave riding" became the basis for the design of the XB-70 bomber). As best as I recall, though, NACA had very little connection to the nation's efforts to traverse the Final Frontier. In 1958, NACA was dissolved and superceded by a new agency, NASA.

What led to the successful moon shot effort was nothing more than a revolutionary lineup of the planets, as it were:

a) NASA was very young (both figuratively and literally; the agency was only three years old when JFK made his famous Rice University speech in 1961, and at the time of Armstrong's step onto luna firma, the average age of a NASA engineer was around 25);

b) the effort was based on the perception of a clear threat to national security: most people reasoned that if the USSR could launch satellites to orbit over America, they could potentially launch nuclear warheads over America as well; and

c) JFK gave a clear mandate on project timing that, when combined with a Congress that (GASP!) almost never tried to micro-manage the project from a budgetary perspective (from that point of view, Mondale was a harbinger of the future of Congressional dickering and dithering in regards to defense projects), meant that NASA was fully funded from the beginning to complete its task of landing a man on the moon.

So there you have it: new govt department with young employees, national mandate, and very few funding issues.

That is why we were able to go in eight years from having a disastrous track record on the launchpad (mainly due to an intramural fight between the Navy, with its problem-plagued Vanguard project, and the Army, with its "Huntsville Nazis" led by von Braun). Eight marvelous years after multiple launch failures at the Cape, our system was an absolute marvel of both engineering and project management. The Apollo project proved that if national will were combined with full funding, no problem was insurmountable.


People need to remember that one of the main reasons the project succeeded was because it was rooted in national security concerns. This reason was also why the project began to be shut down the moment that the success of Apollo 11 became clear. The mandate was to land a man on the moon, so as to demonstrate that the US could lift enough weight into space, and do it under the ultra-tight engineering constraints of guarding the safety and health of its human pilots, that we could easily turn that effort into lofting enough bombs over the USSR if necessary that we could erase any evidence that the land mass of that country ever existed.

Crude, but true. Otherwise, the Apollo project would not have been canceled after Cernan and Schmitt left the moon in late 1972.

Oh, to be sure, NASA tried its hardest to continue that work, setting up an "Apollo Applications Office" that lobbied for such things as further exploration of the Moon and a permanent space station. But without a clear national security mandate, and with Congress no longer happy with throwing buckets of money to an agency that couldn't meet its immediate political needs, NASA withered.

In less than three years, NASA went from its glory days of Apollo 17 down to the disastrous beginning of Skylab, finally reaching its nadir in 1975 with the ASTP (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project). I remember seeing that mission on TV as a 10yro kid, wondering "why"?

You are also right to call out the dithering on scoping out the design of the Space Shuttle. By comparison, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo rockets had a clear purpose and mission, which dictated their designs from the outset. Since then, the military aerospace world has been shackled by endless design dithering, with projects that are continually oversold, overscoped, and underfunded. Bureaucrats, military project managers, and private industry all get locked together in this death-dance of project disaster, which results in items that are studied to death (for fear that testing failures will result in project cancellation), loaded up with ambitious goals that overburden these projects with technical complexities, even as the project withers on the vine from continual cuts in funding.

Perhaps one of the best recent examples of the fracas I just described would be the X-33/Venture Star project, canceled in 2001.


Govt chokes out private industry development of space in two ways: excessive regulation (and the liability costs which flow from such regulation) and its drain on capital and expertise.

Scaled Composites proved that a private company could loft a vehicle into space that has the potential to turn a profit. But thanks to liability issues, it has been years since Scaled won the X Prize, but no paying passengers have made the flight yet.

When private individuals wanted to pay to visit the Space Station, remember who accommodated them and who did not.

And the Space Shuttle has turned NASA into a victim of its own success: costs to fund the operation of the Shuttle leave nothing for development of a successor.

So I will include my voice with those who believe that the best thing that should happen to NASA is its wholesale disbandment. Let the govt be led by private industry under a DARPA model of funding research. That way, private industry will focus on technologies that will generate profits for investors.

After all, the Wright Brothers didn't go begging for Washington to fund their little plane. They knew that when they had a working model, Washington would buy it for military use, and they would turn the profits into finding ways for individuals to buy and use it.

Think on that.

negrospaceprogram.com/blog/... (Below threshold)


Yep, according the laws ... (Below threshold)
Paul F. Dietz:

Yep, according the laws of physics we do. Unfortunately it takes one heck of a lot of energy to break free of earth's gravity.

Launching into earth orbit, or even to escape velocity (which requires only twice the energy of launching to LEO) is not expensive because it uses a lot of energy. The cost of the fuel for a liquid propellant launcher is currently only a tiny fraction of the total cost of the launch itself. Most of the cost is in hardware and labor and amortization of development costs. All of these costs can be expected to decline dramatically with reusable launchers flown at very high flight rates.

I am still for funding th... (Below threshold)

I am still for funding this worthwhile project.
Now only a fraction of a penny goes to the space industry. Eventually there will be more private ventures but in the mean time I want my money on something positive for the US and our citizens and that provides enhancements for our lives here on earth. Much better than the social programs that waste our money and doesnt better our society as a whole.






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