The Failure of NASA: And A Way Out
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----- Original Message -----
> Source: SpaceDaily
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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,
> 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
> - 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
> monstrous lawn ornament, moldering on its side at Johnson Space
> Center (JSC).
> Now we are building the International Space Station (ISS),
> is still incomplete after twenty years of effort. Its orbital
> inclination, chosen for political reasons, makes it useless as
> 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
> 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
> 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
> scientists that this is a reasonable allocation of scarce
> research funds.
> Until the Columbia accident, NASA had expected 4 shuttle
> 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
> case, present plans call for operation of the ISS until at
> 2016, so there will be at least 65 more shuttle flights (5 per
> Based on experience to date (two shuttles lost in 113
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> to technological problems, but to a series of blunders by NASA
> NASA engineers did not understand the popular enthusiasm
> by Apollo. They thought the Giant Leap for Mankind was not the
> lunar landing itself, but the technological prowess it
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> * a reusable orbit-to-orbit tug and a lunar orbit station in
> * 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
> The other options retained all these objectives, but reduced
> 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
> was sheer fantasy, and that NASA should expect less money, not
> 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,
> 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
> 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
> their birthright," and they resented Marshall's intrusion.
> Kraft once told me that a space station was unnecessary,
> 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
> 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
> 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
> the Soviet threat, NASA must compete for funding with other
> for the Federal dollar, and many of them are much more urgent.
> The NASA budget has therefore shrunk to well below 1% of
> 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,
> 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
> to nations struggling with the transition from command
> 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:
> 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
> 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
> 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.
> 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
> * development of a legal framework for acquiring, regulating
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> (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
> 5. This figure comes from NASA budget estimates - available
> 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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