D. Dowd Muska


Will NASA Ruin Private Spaceflight, Too?

April 11, 2013

The separation of space and state.

It’s been pursued by astute advocates for manned exploration of the cosmos since the 1980s, and now, success is within reach. Predictably, the nation’s astro-crats aren’t surrendering their fiefdom without a struggle.

After Neil Armstrong’s bootprints in moondust avenged the shock of Sputnik, interest in NASA’s missions fizzled. With no funding forthcoming for bases on Luna or Mars, the agency got what revenue it could from a cabal of congressional patrons, and proceeded with the design, construction, and operation of the space shuttle.

An online commenter once labeled the Space Transportation System “the most unaffordable/expensive, dangerous, unreliable space vehicle in history.” Costly and lethal it was, but the shuttle employed an army of voters -- er, workers -- scattered across dozens of states. Observing NASA’s 45th birthday in 2003, the trade publication Space News admitted that “the de facto goal of the human spaceflight program is to protect jobs and dollars that get divided among the agency field centers involved in that enterprise.”

Gobs of resources, coupled with puny results, yielded additional apathy. In 2011, the shuttle (total cost: $209 billion) was retired with little outcry. And U.S. involvement in the International Space Station (ISS) has failed to generate much excitement. A recent report by the National Research Council icily concluded that support for NASA “is thin when the billion-dollar cost of major … programs is revealed and/or when surveys ask the public to prioritize NASA activities with other government functions such as national defense, education, public health, and so on.”

As NASA approaches metaphysical irrelevancy, private efforts to get mankind off-planet multiply. Some highlights: Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is modifying its Dragon cargo capsule to launch crews atop the company’s breathtakingly low-cost rockets. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is nearly ready to loft tourists from a spaceport in New Mexico. Unilever’s Axe line of products is sponsoring a contest for similar suborbital flights. Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow plans to put inflatable habitats in orbit.

In February, a new nonprofit organization announced a wildly ambitious exploration proposal. The Inspiration Mars Foundation wants to set out for the Red Planet -- not in 50 or even 20 years, but on January 5, 2018. The project envisions a husband-and-wife-crewed, 501-day, slingshot journey. Taking advantage of a “rare planetary alignment,” the “fast, free-return” mission would “spend about ten hours within 100,000 km” of its target, and use “proven, existing space transportation systems.”

Critics scoff that without a landing, the trip will neither educate nor inspire. But recall Apollo 8, which looped around the moon in 1968. The “Earthrise” photograph, and the crew’s reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve, were enormously influential.

Other than the trifling matters of funding, technology, and personnel, the foundation faces a challenge that could prove insurmountable: the aerospace-industrial complex. According to the indefatigable website NASA Watch, under “pressure” from the Marshall Space Flight Center and Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, “Inspiration Mars is now considering [the] use of [a] single launch” of the Space Launch System (SLS) for its mission.

Translation: NASA and its corporate-welfare contractors want in on the Mars action.

The SLS is a gargantuan, congressionally designed, yet-to-launch rocket. Its purpose is murky -- a firm destination for the vehicles it would one day propel doesn’t exist. If history is instructive, it’s likely that years of “schedule slippage” and massive cost overruns will lead to the SLS’s cancelation.

Besides, of all Earthlings, Inspiration Mars Foundation Chairman Dennis Tito knows NASA’s nature. He was the first tourist to pay his own way to space -- in 2001, Russia sold him a short stay at the ISS. NASA’s reaction was petty and petulant. At Johnson, it barred Tito from a week of cross-training for the American portion of the station. NASA’s boorish administrator compared the financier and former Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee unfavorably to “American patriot” James Cameron, a Canadian, who was willing to wait for an agency-approved ride. (Big surprise: Over a decade later, NASA still hasn’t gotten the director orbital.)

Today’s space pioneers frequently speak of Apollo’s role in inspiring them to pursue careers in science, math, engineering, and computers. Several of their companies have received relatively small subsidies from NASA, and SpaceX is currently ferrying cargo to and from the ISS.

But partnering with the bureaucracy that has spent decades viciously opposing what it views as threats to its monopoly on manned spaceflight? It’s madness. A victim of bureaucrats’ selfishness and legislative careerists’ addiction to reelection, NASA is drowning. It doesn’t deserve a lifeline.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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