Why they call me the Rocket Boy
I frequently hear that NASA is keeping entrepreneurs from conquering space and that we should close down my old agency and turn the design and building of spacecraft over to private enterprise. Well, I'm a rock-ribbed Republican (just as my father, who said the last great American president would be Eisenhower), and I don't like big government. I've seen the government up close and personal and for the most part, it's inefficient and hidebound, and it stifles creativity in any industry it clutches within its well-meaning but slimy tentacles. When and if you get Hillarycare, you'll see what I mean. But I digress.
What I'm getting at is that even with my libertarian tendencies, I see a place for federal agencies like NASA to use public funds to accomplish great technological things that are necessary to keep us a great and modern country but that private enterprise simply can't do. Energy is one of those areas (fusion energy and clean-burning coal technology should be national priorities). Another is transportation (the interstate and high-speed rail), and so is pure scientific research in areas that help us understand our planet and ourselves even if they never have any commercial application (e.g. studying the fumaroles at the bottom of the ocean).
In NASA's case, the few coins of the public purse the agency gets are for the express purpose of building the machines that will allow us to go into, explore and ultimately live in space. Private enterprise has some interest in seeing that dream accomplished, but the technology to make it happen beyond brief Rutan-like jumps into space is currently beyond its capability or interest. NASA has to prime the commercial pump by creating big technology and then handing it over. We have a history of doing that kind of thing, so we know it works. The old Army arsenal system, for instance, invented new ordnance for decades using knowledge and craftsmen not available to normal commerce. An example is the famous World War II-era M-1 Garand, which was a federal arsenal design.
So rather than being an impediment, NASA can and should be the driver of commerce, the provider of the technology necessary to make some big money in space. The truth is that private enterprise already has a huge presence up there. It's not NASA but commercial companies that send all those communications satellites rocketing aloft to the tune of billions of dollars of profits every year. Boeing, LockMart and hundreds of other companies, large and small, work in the space business, and they also create new techniques and technology; but they'd be nowhere if NASA and the Department of Defense hadn't shown the way by funding the first big rockets and satellites.
And commercial companies will stay where they are unless these same agencies build the big, new machines to take us farther out. In other words, as far as science and technology are concerned, government and commerce have a symbiotic relationship. Of course, it's best when you have a government that knows when to get out of the way. That sometimes requires a little bureaucratic head-knocking, but I'm sure Congress is up to the task. Well, I'm not sure, considering who's running that show in Washington; but I'm ever hopeful anyway. I guess that's why they call me the Rocket Boy.
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."
NACA had the knack
Homer, I absolutely agree that NASA should be a driver of space commerce rather than an impediment. I suppose that it's even possible that it can be, but history doesn't render me sanguine on that point.
I certainly wouldn't dispute that some of the capabilities of the current private space industry have been spun off from NASA, but very few came from the manned space program, and I'd argue that many more of them came from the military. The early Delta, Titan, and Atlas launchers, which later became commercial, were all derivatives of ICBMs there is no commercial equivalent of a Saturn or a shuttle (though NASA did support the development of the Delta from the Thor). The current Atlas and Delta Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) were developed with private and Air Force money NASA played no role whatsoever.
In fact, by refusing to use them in its planned lunar architecture, and instead expending its scarce resources developing what many consider entirely unnecessary new, expensive and low-flight-rate vehicles for its lunar missions, NASA is at extreme variance with the national policy goal of increasing the EELV flight rate to reduce costs and increase reliability, and satisfying one of the key "vision for space exploration" goals of enhancing national security. This has forced Boeing and Lockheed Martin into a marriage to keep them profitable, resulting in a new launch monopoly. Yes, projects like Telstar helped kick off the communication satellite industry, but it was also aided by military comsats. I find it revealing that the only example you offer of "technological pump priming" is not by NASA but the development of a military rifle by the Army.
And you're right that NASA has to know when to get out of the way. Unfortunately, history illustrates that it doesn't.
In justifying the shuttle, NASA had to grab the entire launch market, including all commercial satellite launches, which precluded competition for launch from the private sector. This policy was reversed only after the Challenger disaster for the dumb reason that astronauts shouldn't "risk their lives to launch a satellite" (forget about the multibillion-dollar, essentially irreplaceable orbiter at risk), not because taking business away from private industry with a government-subsidized system was viewed as a bad idea. When the private Industrial Space Facility (ISF) was proposed in the 1980s as a way to provide a near-term research facility in low-Earth orbit and close the gap until the space station was completed, NASA lobbied Congress (successfully) to kill it because the agency (perhaps correctly) saw it as a threat to the station program rather than an augmentation or stop-gap solution.
For decades, whenever an entrepreneur would attempt to raise money for some space venture, it was all too easy for a naive investor doing due diligence to go find someone at NASA to tell him that it wouldn't work, even when the NASA employee had no particular expertise in the matter. But he worked for NASA, so he must know all about this space stuff, right? In the 1990s, after the spectacular X-33 debacle over which it presided, the director of your former employer, the Marshall Space Flight Center, declared that that program had proved that we didn't have the technology for reusable launch vehicles, when drawing such a conclusion from a single flawed data point was logically absurd. As you can imagine, Homer, that did wonders for the fundraising ability of people who wanted to build such vehicles.
NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, or NACA, did for the aviation industry exactly what you say that NASA should (and can?) do for space. It worked closely with private industry, determining its technology needs, and funded and executed research programs to advance those needed technologies such as wing design, cowling shapes, jet engine parameters, propeller characteristics, etc. But the vast majority of NASA's funds do not go to such basic research anymore they go to developing operational (sort of) systems for NASA's own use. And because it is risk-averse, NASA avoids advanced technologies in such systems to the degree possible, so there's no incentive for it to develop them for itself or anyone else. In putting all of its resources into redoing Apollo, the space program of 40 years ago, NASA has starved of funding essentially all of its advanced research, including shutting down completely the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts in August.
Have the government prime the technology pump for private industry? Hey, I'm all for it, Homer. Let's get NASA out of the pork-and-politics-driven launch-vehicle business, bring back NACA, and expand its charter to space.
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.