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Repeating Myths of a Flawed NASA Past

Free enterprise had nothing to do with the U.S. getting to the moon ahead of the Russians.

Rand Simberg


August 28, 2010 - 12:00 am

I greatly respect J. Christian Adams for the sacrifices he’s made in attempting to force reform of a lawless Justice Department, and as I noted myself on the fortieth anniversary, I agree that Apollo 8 was a great accomplishment, and actually the moment we won the space race in the sixties (the landing itself, a few months later, was actually more of a denouement in that regard). But I am saddened to say that as a space historian and policy analyst, he makes a good federal prosecutor.

First, he writes:

The profound achievement of Apollo 8 also validated the brilliance of American economic ingenuity. The space race was more than zesty public relations. Apollo 8 marked the moment we passed the Soviets. It really did demonstrate the greatness of a nation dedicated to free enterprise, where the lunar module was built by Grumman Corporation, the command module by North American Aviation, and the massive Saturn rockets built by Boeing and Douglas. Sure, the Treasury was purchasing the products at great expense, but the supply side of the equation was essentially a free market one, where the best competing ideas won the contracts. Plus, we could afford it while our competitor could not.

A chief reason the Soviet Union lost the race to the moon was because it didn’t have a free market system. Instead, it had a stagnant command bureaucracy that could occasionally produce results like Sputnik, but as we learned in the 1980s, could never overcome inherent flaws that stifled ingenuity in the long run.

Well, no. Not really. Apollo established the paradigm that NASA would design, develop, and operate its own vehicles, with the labor of contractors (our version of the Soviet design bureaus) on cost-plus contracts. The competition wasn’t based so much on competing ideas as on competing rates and locations.

It’s interesting to read the Space Act, the authorizing charter for the agency. Nowhere in it does it require that NASA itself perform human spaceflight. Prior to the decision to go to the moon, NASA had simply been a new version of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, its predecessor that had provided much of the key technology that had created the modern aviation industry, updated for space technologies. After the moon decision, NASA became our own version of the Soviets’ state socialist enterprise, with repercussions down to today, because it was considered a Cold War effort for which little could be left to chance, and the driving philosophy was to “waste anything except time.”

This was an effective way to beat the Soviets to the moon (though we were still lucky to some degree that we won — it could easily have gone the other way), but it was a terrible way to open up space, as evidenced by the fact that half a century later, we still haven’t done it.

But this next statement is quite frustrating, half a year after the new NASA policy was introduced:

Unfortunately, further manned space exploration was effectively killed in the 2011 NASA budget. This is a grave mistake. Not only does space provide unique solutions for problems here on Earth, such as growing perfect tissue cells for transplant research or other medical applications, it also has strategic importance.

… I recognize that NASA has many of the problems endemic to any government bureaucracy. But the answer is to reform NASA while pressing forward into space instead of killing off manned exploration.

Mr. Adams is assuming the proposition to be proved (i.e., “begging the question,” a phrase often misused by those who simply mean raising the question).

Leave aside the overhype about space applications for biology, and the lack of explanation of the strategic importance of human spaceflight. To state that the new NASA plans “kill off manned space exploration” is to state something that is, simply put, not true, and the prosecutor doesn’t even attempt to make a case for it.

It killed Constellation, yes, but Constellation was not identically equal to human spaceflight. As the Augustine panel pointed out last year, Constellation was a slow-motion programmatic train wreck. It was doomed to failure in any realistic budget environment, and putting it out of its and our misery ended the tragic waste of time and money that it was costing. Killing the program also allows us to get onto a track that actually holds some promise for getting us back to the moon and to other locations much sooner than Constellation ever could have (if it had done so at all).

Moreover, continuing on the past policy path would have meant many years of dependence on the Russians while waiting for the flawed Ares/Orion to be ready (2017 at the earliest), while ending participation in the International Space Station in 2016 (in other words, the new system wouldn’t be ready in time to even support it) with no other American means of getting to orbit. Now that’s what I call “ending US human spaceflight.” As I explained over three months ago in my glossary:

First of all, Constellation is not a replacement for the shuttle. It is both more and less than that. It replaces only the shuttle’s capability to get crew to and from orbit, and the lofting of large payloads, not its other features, such as payload return and orbital research and operations. And it is an entire architecture to get humans all the way to the lunar surface and back, something that the shuttle has never been able to do. And the total cost for Constellation is projected to be much greater than thirty billion. That price tag is for the Ares I rocket alone.

All of this mischaracterization and flawed reporting fuels hysterical and nonsensical cries of “the end of the U.S. human spaceflight program.”

In addition, it’s ironic that Mr. Adams mistakenly lauds the Apollo-era NASA as a paragon of free enterprise when in fact it was the opposite, as was Constellation, in which a few NASA personnel got together in a room, came up with a severely flawed technical concept, and then dictated to industry what they were going to build, after throwing out all of the competing studies that same industry had performed to determine the best way forward, none of whose concepts resembled Constellation.

In contrast, the new policy proposes that industry actually compete for NASA’s business to provide human spaceflight services, with multiple providers, so we are no longer in a situation in which we are dependent on the Russians when (as inevitably occurs, as it did twice with the Shuttle) the monolithic (and expensive) NASA system goes down.

In the new plan, NASA will no longer be spending all its scarce resources (and in the coming fiscal austerity, it’s a safe bet that those resources will be getting even more scarce) on developing an unnecessary new rocket and capsule for its own use to get to orbit. Instead, it will be purchasing that service at much lower cost, allowing it to focus its resources on actually sending people beyond earth orbit, and to do things that it hasn’t done before.  \The new policy will actually allow NASA, finally, to live up to the model of free enterprise and competition that Mr. Adams mistakenly thought was in place for the past half century.

In fact, I predict that the next expedition to replicate the circumlunar voyage of Apollo 8 will be a private one, and that it will happen within a decade. Meanwhile, rather than repeating what it did forty-plus years ago with the low-risk (but high-cost) technologies represented by Constellation (aka “Apollo on Steroids,” but actually Apollo on Geritol), NASA will finally be going far beyond Apollo and getting on with true human deep-space exploration, while helping the rest of us get on with the actual development and settlement of space.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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