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The Failure of NASA: And A Way Out

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  • Joe McGonagle
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    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 5, 2003
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      Via UFO Updates:

      ----- Original Message -----
      >
      >
      >
      > Source: SpaceDaily
      >
      > http://www.spacedaily.com/news/oped-03zn1.html
      >
      >
      > The Failure of NASA: And A Way Out
      >
      > by Philip K. Chapman
      > Sunnyvale - May 30, 2003
      >
      > I was in Mission Control when Neil Armstrong announced that the
      > Eagle had landed. The applause was unexpectedly muted as we
      were
      > all overwhelmed by the significance of the moment. Nobody had
      > any doubt that Tranquility Base was the first step in an
      > expansion into space that would drive human progress for
      > centuries to come.
      >
      > We had of course all seen the 1968 Kubrick/Clarke movie 2001: A
      > Space Odyssey, and the facilities depicted there seemed
      entirely
      > reasonable. In our lifetimes, we expected to see hotels in
      > orbit, translunar shuttles operated by commercial airlines, and
      > settlements on the Moon. Only the alien monolith was
      > questionable.
      >
      > None of this has happened.
      >
      > Despite cutbacks, NASA has spent a total of $450 billion since
      > Apollo 11 (adjusted for inflation to 2003 dollars). That very
      > large sum was more than enough to fund the developments that
      > Wernher von Braun predicted for the end of the 20th Century,
      but
      > we have not even started on any of them.
      >
      > If it had been spent wisely, as seed money to stimulate
      > commercial development, we could have established a growing,
      > self-sustaining extraterrestrial enterprise, offering
      > opportunities for thousands of people to live and work off
      Earth
      > - but the sad truth is that we have less capability in human
      > spaceflight now than in 1970.
      >
      > In 1969, we landed on the Moon, but now we cannot leave low
      > Earth orbit (LEO). NASA claimed that the shuttle would be
      > fifteen times cheaper to fly (per pound of payload) than the
      > Saturn vehicles used in Apollo, but it is actually three times
      > more expensive.
      >
      > The average cost of each flight is a staggering $760 million.
      > After a mission, the time required to prepare a shuttle for the
      > next flight was supposed to be less than two weeks, but in
      > practice tens of thousands of technicians spend three to six
      > months rebuilding each "reusable" shuttle after every flight.
      > Worst of all, the shuttle is a needlessly complex, fragile and
      > dangerous vehicle, which has killed fourteen astronauts so far.
      >
      > In 1973, we had a space station called Skylab, with berths for
      > three astronauts. NASA let it reenter and break up over Western
      > Australia. A second Skylab was built, which could have become
      > the Earth terminal of a lunar transportation system.
      >
      > It is now a tourist attraction at the Air and Space Museum in
      > Washington, and the Saturn V to launch it is nothing more than
      a
      > monstrous lawn ornament, moldering on its side at Johnson Space
      > Center (JSC).
      >
      > Now we are building the International Space Station (ISS),
      which
      > is still incomplete after twenty years of effort. Its orbital
      > inclination, chosen for political reasons, makes it useless as
      a
      > base for future missions beyond Earth.
      >
      > In the original design, the ISS had a crew of six or seven, but
      > cost overruns have forced deletion of a habitation module and a
      > lifeboat that could return that crew to Earth in emergency. The
      > shrunken station, called "core complete," will accommodate only
      > three astronauts (who will use a Russian Soyuz as a lifeboat).
      > In normal operations, only one of the crew will be American.
      >
      > The cutbacks gutted the research program, by eliminating much
      of
      > the scientific equipment aboard the station, reducing the
      > scheduled shuttle flights in support from six to four per year,
      > and leaving the small crew with very little time to spare from
      > housekeeping tasks.
      >
      > If there are no unusual maintenance problems, the lone American
      > may average 90 minutes per day working on the research that is
      > the alleged purpose of the facility. He or she will conduct
      > experiments by following a checklist, because the small crew
      > precludes specialists in relevant disciplines. The scientific
      > program is thus perfunctory at best, with rote experiments of a
      > kind that might win prizes at a high school science fair. (2)
      >
      > The life-cycle cost of the ISS, including development expenses
      > and shuttle flights, amounts to at least $8 billion per year
      > (2003 dollars). This is 60% more than the entire budget of the
      > National Science Foundation, which supports thousands of
      > earthbound scientists.
      >
      > US taxpayers have a right to expect that such expensive
      research
      > will be of a quality that wins Nobel Prizes, but what we are
      > actually getting are pro forma experiments that occupy a small
      > fraction of the time of one person.
      >
      > The cost is preposterous: it amounts to nearly fifteen million
      > dollars ($15,000,000!) for each hour of scientific work by the
      > American crewmember. NASA has no chance whatsoever of
      convincing
      > scientists that this is a reasonable allocation of scarce
      > research funds.
      >
      > Until the Columbia accident, NASA had expected 4 shuttle
      flights
      > per year to the ISS, and one more for missions unrelated to the
      > station (e.g., to lower inclination). Now the shuttle may be
      > restricted to orbits in the same plane as the ISS, so that the
      > shuttle can go dock there if it is damaged during launch. In
      any
      > case, present plans call for operation of the ISS until at
      least
      > 2016, so there will be at least 65 more shuttle flights (5 per
      > year).
      >
      > Based on experience to date (two shuttles lost in 113
      missions),
      > the accident probability is a little less than 2% on each
      > flight. Astronauts may accept this risk because there is no
      > other way to fly in space, but they would of course prefer a
      > safer system. As a matter of public policy, however, only a
      > compelling national interest can justify so hazardous a
      venture.
      > The ISS presents no such necessity.
      >
      > With these odds, the probability of losing at least one more
      > shuttle during the life of the ISS (i.e., in 65 flights) is
      > nearly 70%. In other words, NASA is gambling its future, and
      the
      > lives of astronauts, on a program that has less than one chance
      > in three of avoiding disaster. This is like playing Russian
      > roulette with a revolver in which four out of the six chambers
      > are loaded. Only a suicidal lunatic would accept such a
      > proposition.
      >
      > After wasting three decades (and a perfectly good Cold War),
      > frustrating the dreams of a whole generation of space
      > enthusiasts, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars,
      > NASA's net achievement is a space station that has no definable
      > purpose except to serve as a destination for shuttle flights.
      >
      > We would not need the shuttle missions if we did not have the
      > station, and we would not need the station if we did not need
      > something for the shuttles to do. The entire human spaceflight
      > program has thus become an exercise in futility.
      >
      > The lack of progress has not been due to insufficient funding
      or
      > to technological problems, but to a series of blunders by NASA
      > management.
      >
      > NASA engineers did not understand the popular enthusiasm
      aroused
      > by Apollo. They thought the Giant Leap for Mankind was not the
      > lunar landing itself, but the technological prowess it
      > displayed.
      >
      > This led to the mistaken inference that the way to maintain
      > popular support, and hence generous funding, was to propose
      > megaprojects of great technical complexity, regardless of
      > whether they were intrinsically interesting.
      >
      > They are surprised and disappointed that the public are
      > unimpressed by the shuttle and ISS, despite their technical
      > virtuosity. The Giant Leap delusion persists today, in the form
      > of proposals for a flags-and-footprints mission to Mars.
      >
      > In reality, of course, Apollo existed because Jack Kennedy and
      > Nikita Khruschev chose to make space a principal arena for
      > competition between the superpowers. The purposes of the
      program
      > were to overcome the perceived Soviet lead in space, and to
      > foreclose the possibility that the USSR would reach the Moon
      > first and claim it as Soviet territory. No Congress was willing
      > to spend more than the minimum needed to achieve those
      > objectives.
      >
      > The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 relieved concerns about Soviet
      > hegemony by banning weapons and territorial claims on the Moon.
      > This allowed Congress to respond to Lyndon Johnson's
      > simultaneous expansion of social programs and the war in
      VietNam
      > by slashing funding for NASA. As shown in Figure 1, the budget
      > peaked in 1966, and then fell precipitously.
      >
      > Despite these obvious trends, NASA developed grandiose visions
      > of the post-Apollo program, which culminated in the Space Task
      > Group Report of 1969. (3)
      >
      > The STG proposed three options. The most ambitious called for
      >
      > * a reusable Earth-to-orbit shuttle and a small space station
      by 1975;
      > * a reusable orbit-to-orbit tug and a lunar orbit station in
      1976;
      > * a nuclear-powered tug and a lunar surface base in 1978;
      > * a 50-man space base in Earth orbit in 1980;
      > * a manned Mars mission in 1981;
      > * and expansion of the Earth orbit space base to 100 people by
      1985.
      >
      > The other options retained all these objectives, but reduced
      the
      > cash flow by delaying some of them for up to five years.
      >
      > Figure 1 also shows the funding profiles required by the STG
      > proposals (in 2003 dollars). Richard Nixon responded
      > immediately, making it perfectly clear that the whole STG
      Report
      > was sheer fantasy, and that NASA should expect less money, not
      > more.
      >
      > Given this fiscal reality, NASA could have adopted an
      > incremental approach to space development. The obvious plan was
      > to launch the second Skylab, with minor modifications to permit
      > a long life on orbit, and to support it initially with a simple
      > ballistic capsule (such as a proposed stretch of the Gemini
      > capsule, called the Big G, which could carry seven to nine
      > people) atop an expendable booster.
      >
      > In time, a small reusable orbiter would replace the capsule,
      and
      > the booster could eventually become reusable too. Beyond that,
      > the scope of the program would depend on funding, but might
      > include a permanent lunar base.
      >
      > This plan was unacceptable because it had two dreadful defects.
      > First, it involved a series of small, affordable steps, instead
      > of the Giant Leaps that many in NASA thought essential to
      public
      > support.
      >
      > The second and much worse problem was that Skylab was a project
      > run by Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and
      > not by JSC. As JSC Deputy Director Chris Kraft said, people in
      > Houston believed that "being in charge of manned spaceflight
      was
      > their birthright," and they resented Marshall's intrusion.
      >
      > Kraft once told me that a space station was unnecessary,
      because
      > the shuttle would be so cheap that astronauts could commute to
      > orbit, returning home every evening.
      >
      > The claim that the shuttle would be cheap was based on an
      > economic model that was totally divorced from reality. It
      > assumed that the shuttle would fly 60 times per year, so that
      > fixed costs could be amortized over many missions, and that the
      > direct operating cost would amount to less than $250/pound
      (2003
      > dollars). If these estimates had proven correct, we would have
      > flown the shuttle 1500 times by now (and presumably would have
      > killed about 200 astronauts).
      >
      > The worst mistake made by NASA managers was that they allowed
      > disputes over who would be in charge to influence the direction
      > of the program. Their preoccupation with intercenter turf wars
      > obscured the writing on the wall.
      >
      > The real lesson of the STG debacle was that a healthy program
      > was not sustainable if funded only by taxpayers. NASA could
      > retain exclusive control of an insignificant, moribund program,
      > or it could accept a supporting role in a growing program,
      > funded by investors and controlled by entrepreneurs.
      >
      > Given these options, NASA chose the first - but instead of
      doing
      > the best it could with limited funds, it dissipated its
      > resources in the care and feeding of the white elephants called
      > shuttle and ISS.
      >
      > The end of the Cold War has intensified the need to engage the
      > engines of free enterprise. Absent a dire national exigency
      like
      > the Soviet threat, NASA must compete for funding with other
      uses
      > for the Federal dollar, and many of them are much more urgent.
      > The NASA budget has therefore shrunk to well below 1% of
      Federal
      > outlays, and there is virtually no hope of any significant
      > increase. Sustained growth is possible only in the private
      > sector, where it is seen as a boon to the economy.
      >
      > Apart from other issues, the purpose of human spaceflight is to
      > open the solar system to all of us, not just to civil servants.
      > The appeal of the program depends on the perception that it is
      > opening a new frontier where people can escape the increasing
      > regulation of life on Earth. A centrally-planned,
      government-run
      > program is incompatible with that vision. It cannot survive,
      > because it contradicts a principal reason for popular support.
      >
      > There are many other advantages to transferring responsibility
      > for human spaceflight to private enterprise:
      >
      > * Commercialization could convert the program from a Federal
      > expense to a source of tax revenues.
      >
      > * Corporations can grow exponentially because of positive
      > feedback of profits from investments, a mechanism that is
      > unavailable to NASA.
      >
      > * Corporations can make rapid progress because they can take
      > risks that government agencies cannot.
      >
      > * A growing commercial program would create the constituency
      > needed to avoid further cuts in Federal funding.
      >
      > * Human spaceflight can be a potent demonstration of US
      > leadership, but the current NASA program sends the wrong
      message
      > to nations struggling with the transition from command
      economies
      > to democracy and free enterprise.
      >
      > The extraterrestrial economy will be like that in Hawaii, where
      > tourism and the export of pineapples are important industries,
      > but not the reason most people live there. The gross Hawaiian
      > product depends primarily on trade between residents.
      >
      > Similarly, space entrepreneurs may begin by exporting goods and
      > services to customers on Earth (the most promising candidates
      > are space tourism and electric power from solar power
      > satellites), but the real growth phase will begin when trade
      > between people living and working in space generates a
      > significant fraction of corporate revenues.
      >
      > The principal barriers to expansion into space are firsty: the
      > high cost of launch to orbit; secondly: actions by NASA that
      > suppress competition from the private sector (4); and thirdly:
      a
      > regulatory environment, especially in the UN General Assembly,
      > in which capitalism and competition are seen as regrettable
      > aberrations that we should leave behind as we venture out into
      > the universe.
      >
      > These are all correctable, but not within the institutional
      > culture that has taken root in NASA.
      >
      >
      > How to Fix It
      >
      > First of all, we must recognize explicitly that NASA has
      bungled
      > human spaceflight. There have been many suggestions for reform
      > of the agency, and none of them has worked. The only viable
      > solution is a new Federal organization, one that sees its
      > purpose as helping the private sector rather than flying space
      > missions. For convenience, I refer to it here as the Advisory
      > Committee for Commercial Enterprise in the Solar System
      > (ACCESS).
      >
      > NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for
      > Aeronautics, was a research organization that provided much of
      > the knowledge base that brought us from the Wright Flyer to the
      > Boeing 747 in 65 years. NACA did not try to run airlines.
      ACCESS
      > should provide analogous services for human spaceflight.
      >
      > There will be plenty for ACCESS to do. The proper functions of
      > government include:
      >
      > * support for development of enabling technology;
      >
      > * sponsorship of facilities such as simulators and test
      > chambers, available for rent by anybody;
      >
      > * funding for exploration and scientific research;
      >
      > * utilization of Federal buying power in creating initial
      > markets for products and services;
      >
      > * subsidies and tax breaks aimed at overcoming barriers to
      > investment;
      >
      > * development of a legal framework for acquiring, regulating
      and
      > protecting property and other rights in space;
      >
      > * negotiations leading to international agreements that benefit
      > US industry;
      >
      > * law enforcement;
      >
      > * search and rescue;
      >
      > * traffic and debris control;
      >
      > * protection of fragile environments in space;
      >
      > * military applications of space technology; and
      >
      > * provision for the security and, if necessary, the physical
      > defense of US space assets and interests, public and private.
      >
      > Some of these functions may require military personnel in
      space,
      > but there is no need to transfer them from the USAF, USN or
      > Coast Guard to a civilian agency. Any civil missions the
      > government feels it needs should be flown in commercial
      vehicles
      > by astronauts who are employed by contractors.
      >
      > I recommend the following specific steps:
      >
      > 1. Ground the remaining three shuttles permanently, as too
      > dangerous and expensive to fly.
      >
      > 2. Mothball the ISS and move it to higher orbit, where it is
      > safe from reentry, citing the lack of shuttles as the excuse.
      > Perhaps somebody will eventually find a real use for it.
      >
      > 3. Set up ACCESS as an agency entirely independent of NASA,
      > perhaps reporting through the Department of Commerce.
      >
      > 4. Remove the line items for the shuttle and ISS from the NASA
      > budget and use the money about $5.5 billion per year (5) to
      fund
      > ACCESS.
      >
      > 5. Have ACCESS provide immediate financial incentives for
      > private development of human spaceflight, including economical
      > launch vehicles (6) and corporate operations in space.
      >
      > 6. Provide office and lab space for ACCESS at JSC in Houston,
      > and transfer test facilities and selected NASA personnel to the
      > new agency. Eventually, JSC will become a center run entirely
      by
      > ACCESS.
      >
      > 7. Phase out other human spaceflight activities in NASA over a
      > five year period, and transfer the funding to ACCESS. NASA will
      > be left as a smaller agency, focusing on aeronautical research,
      > unmanned spacecraft and the space sciences.
      >
      > A reform of this magnitude is possible only by legislative
      fiat.
      > NASA will of course fight it by every means available, but
      > perhaps the Congress will take the necessary action once it is
      > realized that transfer to the private sector can make human
      > spaceflight a source rather than a sink for tax revenues.
      >
      > # FOOTNOTES
      >
      > 1. Phil Chapman was born in Melbourne, Australia. He has a
      > doctorate in physics from MIT, and was one of the second intake
      > of NASA scientist astronauts, during Apollo. He has been active
      > in the space advocacy community throughout his long career,
      > including serving as president of the L5 Society (now the
      > National Space Society) in the early 'Eighties. His principal
      > research interests have included laser propulsion, solar power
      > satellites and economical launch vehicles.
      >
      > 2. In 2002, the Space Sciences Board of the National Academy of
      > Sciences issued a scathing report on the scientific
      capabilities
      > of the "core complete" ISS. It is available online
      >
      > 3. This high-level committee was chaired by the US VP (Spiro
      > Agnew), and included the NASA Administrator (Tom Paine), the
      > Secretary of the USAF (Bob Seamans), and Nixon's Science
      Advisor
      > (Lee Dubridge). The report is available online here
      >
      > 4. An example: In the late 'Nineties, several small companies,
      > financed by investors, demonstrated substantial progress in
      > developing cheap launch vehicles for human spaceflight. NASA
      > responded by funding a comparable but much more expensive
      > project at Lockheed Martin, called the X-33. Since investors
      > were unwilling to compete with NASA, funding for the small
      > companies evaporated overnight. In 2001, after wasting $912
      > million, NASA canceled the project. By that time, some of the
      > small ventures were bankrupt. Whether motivated by malice or by
      > stupidity, the net effect of the X-33 was to crush private
      > enterprise.
      >
      > 5. This figure comes from NASA budget estimates - available
      here
      >
      > 6. For example, ACCESS could stimulate investment in launch
      > vehicles by offering a prize of $750 million (i.e., the cost of
      > a single shuttle flight) to the first company to demonstrate
      > routine, reliable launch of people to LEO, at a recurring cost
      > below $500/pound.
      >
      >
      >
      >
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