Today, Hickam and Simberg debate the marketing of the once-struggling Russian space program. Previously they discussed the grudge match between private space entrepreneurs and the federal space agency, examined the moon and Mars for signs of human life and assessed national space ambitions and NASA’s role in achieving them. Tomorrow they’ll discuss evolution in space, post-communist space exploration.
The irony of space history
By Rand Simberg
Homer, today is the 50th anniversary of the dawn of the Space Age. Half a century ago, the Soviets beat us into space by launching the first satellite, Sputnik I. Being older, you will remember it better than I, who was just learning my first words at the time and I don’t recall them being either “satellite” or “Sputnik.”
It was the Cold War, and if I read my history right, we were panicked by the thought that those backward Russians could beat us at our own technological game. Unfortunately, in our panic, I think that we got the entire nation’s space endeavors off on the wrong foot, and we haven’t recovered from it yet, five decades later.
Traditionally, Americans have developed technology, and expanded their frontiers, not through collective state-socialist enterprises but by taking advantage of the creativity (and greed) of individual efforts and capitalism. But having won a world war, the largest and most brutal one in history, a little over a decade earlier by harnessing technology through massive government programs such as the Manhattan Project, and having later committed public treasure to the development of ICBMs, we apparently decided that this was the way forward for space as well. In addition, our European allies in the Cold War were particularly enamored of socialism, albeit not the totalitarian variety of the Soviets, and it was important to keep them on our side. Thus, the space race kicked off by Sputnik, which culminated in the U.S. manned lunar landings in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, was never one of capitalism vs. socialism. Instead, it was one of democracy vs. tyranny, with each form of government setting up its own socialist, command-and-control entity (complete with five- and 10-year plans), to meet in the new gladiatorial arena above the atmosphere.
And because it was considered a vital element of the Cold War, and taxpayer funding was no object (the program motto was “waste anything but time”), it worked, just as had the Manhattan Project and other national goals driven not by greed but by fear. We landed men on the moon, and returned them safely to earth, before the decade was out, fulfilling John F. Kennedy’s pledge.
But because of the anomalous cost-is-no-limit nature of the enterprise, it didn’t do it in any economically sustainable way. And it left behind, when the race was won, a large government bureaucracy with nothing to do, fraught with the heavy burden of very expensive habits and its own creation myths. NASA has endured in that state, for decades, with one make-work project after another first the shuttle, then the space station, and now the Vision for Space Exploration because we are a wealthy nation, and we can afford to do so at the 1%-or-less portion of the national budget that it absorbs. And it doesn’t matter that much whether or not it’s effective or efficient, because space isn’t particularly important, politically. Thus, it remains at its heart a state-socialist remnant of its glory days, now four decades past. As we saw in the ‘90s, under Dan Goldin, the space agency still maintains an idealistic conceit that it is above advertising or sponsorships or other forms of what the bien-pensant inside-the-Beltway think of as crass commercialization.
Ironically, though, its state-socialist counterpart from the old space race days, the Russian space program, hasn’t had the luxury of wealthy benefactors in Washington (other than the foreign aid that it received in the ‘90s from the Clinton administration as part of space station construction). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had to come up with innovative ways of generating revenue, and though the people running it didn’t really understand the intricacies of modern capitalism, they had little choice but to attempt to sell their services on the open market, to anybody who could afford to purchase them. In fact, one of the rationales for the Russian space-hardware deals was to prevent Russian space personnel from selling their services and hardware to countries like North Korea or Iran. Given that this was arguably a more important goal than building a space station, it could be thought of as “midnight basketball” for Russian engineers. Unfortunately (like the other “midnight basketball” programs of the ‘90s), it didn’t work. To the apparent indifference of the Clinton administration, much of the money lined the pockets of Russian politicians and mafiosi (who were often the same), going into dachas, Mercedes and Cayman accounts, while the space workers went unpaid, and often went to work for the Iranians anyway, to our current regret.
But the bottom line is that, as a result of policies born in the events of half a century ago, and contingent historical events since, America, the home of free enterprise, has somehow inherited a space program that is fundamentally socialistic in nature, and Russia, the birthplace of communism (in practice, if not theory) has one much more attuned and oriented to customers and markets. And while you may win wars with a large federal bureaucracy, you don’t open frontiers.
Is there a way out? I think so, but it will require a dramatic rethinking of federal space policy on a level not undertaken since those early days. We have to decide what our goals in space truly are. Then, rather than once again taking NASA, “hammering to fit and painting to match,” and once again giving it something to do, we need to decide what kind of entities and mechanisms, both federal and private, are best suited to those goals, then create them as we did in 1958. As we discussed the other day, it isn’t enough to come up with a destination. We have to truly come up with a vision for space, in a way that we haven’t since we first heard that ominous little beeping and you saw that artificial moon overhead in that October sky, as a metallic Soviet sphere first circled the planet 50 years ago.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and manager, and commenter on space policy. He is also the blogger behind the website Transterrestrial Musings.
Old wine in new bottles
By Homer Hickam
Rand, I enjoyed your version of space history which, while interesting, doesn’t entirely match the facts. You’re right, of course, that Sputnik started the space race and our response was to create NASA which, as you say, built itself into a nice little self-perpetuating federal bureaucracy. But since you were actually too young to remember all the day-to-day stuff way back then, I have to tell you it was never as simple as you apparently think. First off, Sputnik caused a furor in this country second only to Pearl Harbor that lapped over into nearly every facet of American life. This included our approach to education, our military goals, our diplomacy with other countries, our political persuasions, and even our commercial products (for example, tailfins on cars). The demand from the people was for the government to do something and get us into space. No one yelled at Boeing or Lockheed or Rockwell. It was President Eisenhower who got criticized; so of course, he had to get Wernher von Braun’s Army team to put something up, and then he and Congress had to create NASA and give it some basic marching orders, mostly having to do with forming a civilian launch capability and coordinating American space activities.
So NASA got going by cobbling together the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the von Braun team and some other test facilities. At the time, the country was also struggling out of a terrible economic recession, which some feared would sink into a major depression. Congress saw an opportunity to pump up the economy through the new NASA in the hope it would get things up and humming. After all, it had good examples to follow, and much more than the Manhattan Project. It had civil aviation itself.
Nearly from the very beginning, the government created the capability of commercial flight, from the Amy’s contracts with the Wright brothers for long-duration aircraft to the Post Office deliberately contracting air mail in order to keep the new aviation companies in business, and finally World War II, when tremendous strides were made in aeronautical engineering funded by the War Department. With the realities in hand, the economic situation what it was, and the Cold War well along, NASA was the inevitable agency when the panic that was Sputnik hit this country like a sledgehammer amid an economic recession.
But NASA isn’t socialism, Rand. Socialism is the government nationalizing industry and providing cradle-to-grave welfare. What NASA represented was the symbiosis of government with the other facets of the American economic structure. Congress and presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson saw NASA as the primer of the pump of the economic engine, doing what had to be done and doing it quickly so that the country survived. Along the way, of course, a series of technological innovations were handed off to private industry that ultimately created our vast economy of today. And what do you know? It worked!
Anyway, event by event in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, NASA labored to catch up to the Russians, never quite doing it until President Kennedy laid out his plan for us to go to the moon. Had he not been assassinated, however, I doubt that his goal would have been met in the time frame outlined. There were many powerful opponents in Congress and around the country. But JFK’s murder was yet another Pearl Harbor, and it was that raw wound that caused the glory days we now know as Apollo. Nothing could have stopped us in honoring our young dead president, even if it meant going to the moon. Still, the idea that NASA had access to a wide-open purse in the 1960’s is a myth. NASA was kept to a tight budget, and it’s one of the reasons the throwaway nature of the program evolved. It was cheaper to throw away everything along the journey except the Apollo capsule than it was to build a sustainable infrastructure such as the space station and busy Saturn assembly lines that von Braun advocated.
But you want to know how we really got to the moon so fast back then, Rand? I’ll tell you. It wasn’t the money. It was the people of NASA and its contractors. From 1961 to 1969, they worked 16-, 20-, even 24-hour days, seven days a week, every day of every year to meet President Kennedy’s goal. Along the way, marriages were destroyed, families torn asunder, health ruined and young men made old while they did the work. Sometimes, they turned to cigarettes and booze, anything to keep themselves going. I saw some of these folks when I worked for NASA, only shells of who they had once been, exhausted by the battle they had fought for the good of their country and, as far as they were concerned, the good of all mankind. Walk through the Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville sometime and see the graves of these engineers and technicians who gave up their lives to see Apollo through. You’ll find similar tombstones in Houston and all the NASA centers. These men and women deserve our respect for what they did and what they gave. But they also remind us why we’ll never have another Apollo program, not really. It was like chugging a huge bottle of delicious wine and choking on it.
So then we’d done it, gone to the moon and done a few of the other things, but now what? We had this tremendous capability in our Saturn boosters and Apollo spacecraft. We couldn’t throw away all that we’d done, could we? Why yes, indeed, we could. The opponents of Apollo now came out of the woodwork (such as Minnesota Democratic Sen. Walter Mondale) and did their best to destroy NASA. At the time in the 1970s, just as now, the new craze was the greening of America. It was the environment, stupid, and nothing else mattered. Don’t believe it? Look it up. The Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, Save the Whales, John Denver and others were all in business. All they needed was global warming, but at least they had global cooling, the prediction of a new Ice Age soon to come so it was almost as good.
Anyway, after a decade of being the biggest thing in the world, NASA was just yesterday’s news. What was it to do? Well, of course, it decided to get in on the environmental act. Some of its money was pared away for solar panel research and other green technologies, and the rest deflected toward “relevant” missions. Skylab was one result, our first space station that was touted as a platform to study Earth’s environment (never mind it had a solar telescope), and then the concept of the shuttle came into vogue: a reusable, more or less green spaceship that would make space just as commercial as aviation.
So the old Saturns were pitched and the shuttle approved and NASA started beating the drums for a new era in spaceflight. The only trouble was, it was penny-pinched by Congress and the president(s) from the beginning, resulting in the design-flawed orbiter that we know today. But and this is big but, Rand at least aerospace engineering was advanced in the process of building the thing and, amazingly enough, it sort of, more or less, kind of worked, getting up there with big cargos and humans and getting back to land on a runway just like an airplane. Shazam! The only problem was it cost about a billion dollars to launch (I know, NASA says half a billion but that’s accounting smoke and mirrors), was terribly unreliable, could never meet any kind of schedule and was actually as unsafe as any spacecraft ever hauled out to a launch pad anywhere. Oh, well!
Yet, unlike your characterization of the shuttle era as make-work, Rand, what followed were some pretty glorious missions and a sharp learning curve that will affect spaceflight for a century or more. The series of Spacelab flights resulted in magnificent returns in science and international cooperation, and the Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most important things NASA and mankind has ever done. And, say what you will about the International Space Station, we’ve learned that we can bolt big things together in orbit. That’s going to come in handy, Rand. Trust me on this.
So, throughout all these years of terrible neglect and abuse by Congress and a series of presidents who cynically praised NASA while ignoring it (except as a Russian jobs program by the Clintonistas), somehow the NASA grunts got up every morning and went to work and pulled 16-hour days for not much money and did the very best they could to keep our country in the space game. Give them their due, Rand. Without them, nothing you wish to happen in space would be at all feasible. As for coming up with new plans for spaceflight, there have been more studies by more commissions over the last decades than anyone could possibly ever read. In the end, somebody had to decide what to do and then cut metal, whether it was right or wrong. That’s what is happening now with the Ares/Orion programs. So back to the moon, friend, for the NASA rocket boys and girls who will be drinking the mission wine the country is willing to give them. I trust it won’t be sour, but as sweet as dear old Apollo.
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.
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