TCS Daily

Rocket to Nowhere

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 3, 2002 12:00 AM

Life on Earth was a total waste,
I don't care if I'm lost in space,
I'm on a rocket to nowhere!

Webb Wilder actually wrote these words to describe the drawbacks of a swinging-single lifestyle, but they apply all too well to America's decidedly non-swinging space program.

The aerospace industry as a whole is in trouble. Even in the aviation sector, there are too few companies for significant competition, and only one major company - Boeing - that is really competitive in the civilian market. Today's airliners are modest improvements over the 707s that ruled the skies when I was born, and there's nothing on the drawing boards that will be much better.

In the space sector, things are the same only more so. Oh, it's not all bad: The civilian commercial space industry has been booming in terms of revenue. But the technology of getting into space hasn't progressed much since the 1960s (some would say that the balky, expensive space shuttle is actually a step backward), industry concentration is even worse, and there's no prospect of any improvement.

Certainly the International Space Station isn't doing much to promote our future in space. Originally designed as a place that would support extensive experimentation, and the on-orbit construction of bigger crewed structures and interplanetary spacecraft, it has now been pared down so thoroughly that it's little more than a jobs program: lots of people on the ground supporting three astronauts in orbit who spend most of their time simply doing maintenance.

NASA has gotten leaner, but not appreciably meaner. It's like the Space Station writ large: Most of what science and technology development goes on there is an afterthought, with the lion's share of the agency's revenue and energy going to supervise NASA bureaucrats, not to produce anything.

This isn't entirely NASA's fault, for at the top there has been a policy vacuum for a decade: NASA successfully used inflated cost estimates to kill President George H.W. Bush's 1991 Mars mission plan for fear it would compete with the space station, but then the Clinton Administration - which abolished the National Space Council that used to oversee space policy - never provided much new guidance beyond Al Gore's lame plan to launch a satellite that would broadcast pictures of the Earth via the Internet.

This is a depressing litany, and I could spend another column or twenty just filling in the details. But the real question isn't how bad our situation is, something that the space community has understood for a decade. It's what to do about it.

The first thing we need is some direction at the top. It's virtually impossible to accomplish anything with bureaucracies without strong White House backing. That means we should reconstitute the National Space Council (traditionally headed by the Vice President), whose abolition was opposed by every major space group at the time. Once reconstituted, the Space Council should set out to address several major problems:

1. Concentration. There aren't enough firms in the space industry to foster competition, and competition is what gives us expanded capabilities and lower costs. Whether this calls for the Justice Department to pursue a breakup of some of these companies, or whether the government should attempt to foster the growth of startups is unclear, but that's one of the things that should be looked at. (Nor would either tactic constitute unwarranted interference with the free market, since what we have now is in essence a cozy, government-supervised cartel.)

2. Caution. People in the space field are afraid to fail. In fact, they're afraid to even try things that might risk failure. A certain amount of caution, of course, is a good thing. But failure is one of the main ways we learn. A lesson that no one has taken from the failure of the X-33 program is that the failures there yielded important lessons and - because of its comparatively small scale - didn't produce a serious political backlash. Those lessons could prove useful, but they'll do so only if there's a program that can take advantage of them. We need to institutionalize learning from failure, something NASA and the aerospace industry did very well in the 1950s.

3. Civilians. The military has caught on to the importance of space to its mission; civilians in the federal government outside NASA (and a disturbing number within NASA) don't feel a comparable urgency. But space isn't a Cold War public-relations arena now. It's essential to economics, military strength, and cultural warfare. That means it needs support from agencies beyond NASA: the FCC, for example.

4. Counting. It isn't sexy, but having a decent accounting system makes a huge difference. Experts within the government have called NASA's financial management system "abominable." It's not that they don't know where the money goes, so much as that they don't know what they're getting back for it. (This may not be entirely an accident). New NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe is well positioned by experience to fix this problem, and it's an essential first step to addressing the others.

5. Cost. Cost is the major barrier to doing things in space. The government is lousy at lowering costs. But it can help promote the technological and economic environments that will allow such things to become feasible on a self-sustaining basis. Sadly, while the federal government has the power to help, it has even greater power to screw things up in this department. NASA needs to see space tourism as an accomplishment, not - as it sometimes does now - as a competitor. NASA needs to rethink its core mission, and focus on its original role of developing technologies that enable others to do things, rather than feeling that it must do things itself. (NASA has been giving lip service to this for years, but follow-through has been iffy at best). It's the free market that lowers costs, and empowering such competition will do more to promote American supremacy in space than any single R&D program.

In addition, the government needs to do other things to smooth the path by streamlining regulation for commercial space (FAA), protect radio spectrum needed by space enterprises (FCC), make some sense out of export controls (Commerce & State), etc. But those are topics for another column.

The year 2001 is now behind us, but we're a long way from the space stations, lunar bases, and missions to Jupiter that Kubrick & Clarke made so plausible way back when. It's time to get our act together, so that we won't find ourselves in the same straits in 2051.

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