Why is NASA the only game in space?

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Today, Hickam and Simberg assess national space ambitions and NASA's role in achieving them. Later this week, they'll talk about the Mars mission, evolution in space, post-communist space exploration and other far-out topics.

Doing so much with so little By Homer Hickam
Rand, here's my take on NASA. Ask a senator or member of congress what NASA is for and, after a puzzled frown, you'll hear some yammering about "exploration" and "inspiration" and "science." I always laugh when I hear that because right beneath their noses, they've actually been funding a subversive organization. NASA's charter is to give Americans the means to get into the wild, black yonder, beyond even the grasp of the federal government that funded it. Now, what could be more subversive than that?

OK, OK. I'll grant you my take is more Rodenberry than reality. In actuality, I confess NASA is a timid bureaucracy that goes crawling to Congress every year for a pittance (less than 1%t of the federal budget) and will do anything — anything — to please. The agency even cozied up to the Russians when Al Gore told it to. Yet somehow, even though Washington essentially considers it a jobs program (sometimes for foreigners), NASA manages to accomplish some astonishing work. Let's see. It has some really cool robots on Mars (I love those little guys) and others heading for the far reaches; it's got some great telescopes out there looking almost to the beginning of the universe; it can put humans into orbit on a big old spaceplane; it has managed to bolt together a space station with some pretty good lab equipment aboard; and though most Americans aren't aware of it, it's also cutting metal to take its astronauts back to the moon and maybe beyond. In my opinion, those are some pretty amazing accomplishments for an agency so thoroughly ignored by its masters.

Personally, I've got bigger hopes for NASA. I will stipulate it should keep putting telescopes in space so we can figure out where we fit in the universe, and it should also keep building those little robots that can and do. But I think its purpose should primarily be to invent, test and field the ships that will allow American industry to get out there, look around, and figure out how to make some money (hint: the solar system is awash with energy). Sure, building the big, reliable machines needed for that takes a great deal of money, but I say why not raid the federal budget for it? I mean, it's not like it's spending its annual $3 trillion (!!) of our money on much that's worth anything, anyway. Iraq, anyone? Bosnia?

Yeah, yeah, I know. We have to keep the world squared away but, hey, I'm a Vietnam vet so give me some slack. But did you know the Department of Labor (that this department exists at all deserves another ! from me) gets four times more money than NASA? Health and Human Services 26 times more? Housing and Urban Development (!!!) gets twice as much? You want to talk about waste? Just peruse a list of their programs! It will make you weep. And what do those outfits and most federal bureaucracies give back to the economy? Nada. NASA, on the other hand, is an organization that gives our economy a positive jolt with all its inventiveness. It's worth every penny. No, I take that back. It's worth more pennies than we give it and if we keep underfunding it, we're idiots.

So, anyway, Rand, there's my rant in favor of good ol' NASA (which, in the spirit of transparency, still sends me a monthly retirement check, God bless its bureaucratic little heart).

Homer Hickam is an engineer, former NASA designer and astronaut trainer, veteran of the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam and author of nine bestselling books, including the acclaimed memoir, "Rocket Boys," which was made into the film "October Sky."


So much is owed for so fewBy Rand Simberg
Homer, let me begin my side of our little dialogue by expressing my admiration and gratitude for your service to the nation, both in the literal jungles of southeast Asia and in the figurative bureaucratic ones of our nation's civil space agency, to which you devoted your most noteworthy career.

I agree that the ultimate goal of a civil space program should be to enable the expansion of humanity off its home planet and the harvesting of the abundant resources, both energy and material, of the 99.9999% of the universe that is not Earth, for both denizens of Earth and those living off-planet. Ultimately, this is the insurance policy against disasters here, either natural or self-inflicted. By its very definition, this is not a goal that will be achieved solely by sending robots into space ad infinitum.

But you are far too kind to your former employer when you claim that the shuttle or space station are great achievements. Considering the vast national treasure that was expended on them, they were in fact policy disasters if the goal is to have humanity affordably accessing and utilizing space. Despite Mike Griffin's more-recent backtracking against his faux pas of a couple years ago, when he called the shuttle "a mistake," he was right. And no, comparing them to other, even greater perceived wastes of federal expenditures doesn't excuse them — at best, it damns them with faint praise. And in many ways, as we'll discuss later in the week, the very existence of those programs has in fact for decades held back, not advanced, prospects for more cost-effective efforts by the private sector.

If the goal is to have large-scale human activities in space, how can a vehicle that can only send a few government employees at a time, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per flight, or a space facility that can house only half a dozen, at a cost of billions per year, be said to advance such a goal? And how does NASA's current plan of developing and operating for decades to come yet another single (and fragile) means of getting its astronauts (of which it has an oversupply) to orbit, at a cost of billions per lunar mission for a few civil servants, to occur once or twice a year (while the "rest of us" voyeuristically watch on high-definition television) do so?

The answer is that they do not. I think that we both agree with the president's "vision for space exploration," in its broadest sense — to send humanity back to the moon and to Mars and beyond. Where we seem to differ is on whether or not, almost half a century after its birth in the urgency of a Cold War and space race, NASA is the right agency, given its current bureaucratic inertia and the Byzantine and pork-barrel politics that drive many of its decisions, to implement such a bold vision.

You contend that NASA's human spaceflight program is underfunded. I would argue that, given its paltry ambitions, it's vastly over-endowed because the results won't be worth the money. If NASA were to put forth a plan by which it enabled hundreds or thousands of people to go into space, I think that would be worth going back and asking the Congress and Office of Management and Budget to fund. Sadly, NASA isn't capable of that, by its nature as a federal agency, because it would mean too much relinquishing of control to what it perceives to be a frighteningly uncertain and unpredictable private sector, with too few opportunities for pork in specific districts. But this debate is supposed to be about what our national goals are in space and how best to achieve them, 50 years after the launch of the first satellite, not what is good for a historically contingent space agency that happened to be formed in the wake of that long-ago event.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and manager, as well as a commenter on space policy. He is also the blogger behind the website Transterrestrial Musings.

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