Space — The Final Frontier?

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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.

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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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