NASA's Descent

March 31, 2003

 

Roland: Is the program spaced out?

Roland: Is the program spaced out? Les Todd.

You are a critic of the shuttle program. Is it correct to call you a critic of manned space flight in general?

After writing the piece for Discover, I concluded that the shuttle program was unsustainable--that is, it was based on an economic model that simply could not work. I said we shouldn't send people into space unless we have something that's worth the cost and the risk of putting them there. So I got labeled as being opposed to manned space flight, and that isn't quite my argument. My argument with NASA has always been: The shuttle was a good idea that just didn't work. What you really need to do if you want to open up space for human exploitation, whether you're sending people or machines, is to have a better launch vehicle. Then, all kinds of things will be possible in space that are impractical now.

What is the nature of the unsustainable economic model that you say NASA is saddled with and how did it evolve?

Halfway through the Apollo program, funding to the agency started going down, and they were shocked by this. They believed that the United States had committed itself to opening up the heavens, what Kennedy called "the new ocean." But by 1965, when the funding started to go down, the war in Vietnam was heating up, Lyndon Johnson had his Great Society, and there was not a lot of enthusiasm for continuing this "crash program." Apollo was essentially that, to get to the moon as soon as possible and beat the Soviets. So NASA started asking itself in the late Sixties, What can we do to restore our funding? You know, to catch that sort of Kennedy enthusiasm. And they decided then that a manned mission to Mars was the goal that would really spark the American imagination, that would get the money flowing again.

But nobody was buying that. So NASA settled on what they called the "Next Logical Step." And that meant, if we're going to Mars, we have to have a space station as a launching platform. And they did the numbers on the space station and found that it would cost as much every year to maintain as it would to put it up. That is, the only way it was going to be practical was if they had a low-cost, routine way of getting to the space station. And, reasonably enough, they thought the problem was that the launch vehicles they were using then were expendable, and if they had a reusable rocket, wouldn't that save a lot of money? So, they started the "Next Logical Step" program of building a shuttle that was cheap and reliable transportation into Earth orbit.

So it's been the same program ever since the late 1960s. They started to build the shuttle and they made some rather optimistic projections. They said it was going to reduce launch costs by 95 percent. One of their own engineers told them that was impossible, because half of launch cost is not in the vehicle itself, it's the overhead, it's maintaining the Kennedy Space Center and all the other infrastructure. So, even if you reduced the cost of the shuttle to zero, you could only bring the total costs down by 50 percent. Nonetheless, that was the promise that they made to Congress.

Also, that it would amortize its development costs; it would fly so cheaply that it would recover all the money it cost to develop within the first twelve years of operation. Then they started flying it and, as it turns out, it's more expensive to send a pound into space on the space shuttle than it was on the old rockets. And that was my argument to NASA: The shuttle wasn't an unreasonable program. It probably could have reduced launch costs, but when you find out that isn't true, then you've got to stop and face reality. They didn't. They just went right on with their commitment to the Mars mission: "Well, we have this shuttle. Fine. So now we need a space station."

Does NASA face serious budget problems now?

Yes. And it has, consistently, ever since the shuttle started flying, because it is so much more expensive to fly than they had predicted. To compound the problem, they decided to bowl ahead with what I call "summit shuttle," the space station. If you did a realistic economic model, Congress would never buy it. So they promised them this bargain-basement thing, and, of course, it's late and over-cost and under-specification. They just kept hoping that things would get better. Instead, it's not one but two albatrosses surrounding them, and it's strangling the program.

Was the shuttle state-of-the-art when it was created?

It's the most sophisticated launch vehicle in the world, but it's so sophisticated that it's not economical or practical or reliable. The reason the shuttle is the size it is--why it has that payload bay, and also why it has the shape it does, with that particular wing form--was to meet Air Force requirements to put up reconnaissance satellites. When NASA was trying to sell the shuttle, nobody was very interested. The Nixon Administration wasn't. Congress wasn't. So NASA went to the Air Force and proposed a deal. They said, "If you agree to support the shuttle and tell the president and Congress that there's a national-security need for it, we'll customize it to suit you, and we'll let you fly on it for less than cost."

The Air Force bought on but told them what shape it had to be. And the Air Force used the shuttle quite a bit, but never liked it very much. It was unreliable, always late getting off, always had problems. So after the Challenger accident, the Air Force pretty much got out of shuttle operations. They fly some missions on the shuttle, but mostly they've gone back and developed their own generation of launch vehicles, and now they have a whole stable they can use. Which is what NASA should have. In other words, there should be a range of launch vehicles to choose from, and then for each particular mission you use the one that's appropriate. So, for instance--and I don't think it's a good idea--but if you're taking up a big unit for the space station, then the shuttle makes sense. If you're just flying astronauts up to put them on the space station and to bring others back, it's a waste. It's like driving a big truck when a little Volkswagen would do.

Suppose that NASA were to abandon manned space flight tomorrow. Is space technology advanced to the point that the public would embrace it without astronauts?

Yes. I think we're already there. NASA's got a satellite that's essentially taking a picture of the whole universe. It's measured the whole universe to the very end. It's an enormous scientific achievement, and, to boot, you can go to a website now and see a picture of the whole universe. It's just staggering. All NASA has to do is advertise that stuff, but they have consistently downplayed their space science and built all of their public relations around the astronauts. They think that the astronaut sells, so that's what they market.

And, in fact, the astronauts, what they're doing, what NASA's doing, is pretty dull stuff. For twenty years we send people up, and they fly around in orbit, and they do these silly experiments. They're not pioneering. They're not doing new scientific research. They're not expanding the bounds of exploration or anything. But NASA's perception is that people really like to see people in space. And my argument with them is, if you really want people in space, then build a launch vehicle that makes it practical for them to get there.

But you say that no manned vehicle could ever be very safe; they're too complex.

I think we would all tolerate a certain amount of risk, if the astronauts were doing something vital. But the astronauts in the Columbia died for nothing; they were not doing anything worth the cost and the risk. The Israeli astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon, was up there to push a button on a camera, to take pictures of the desert. We have satellites that do that all the time and do it much better than he could. That was just make-work. To the extent that people want to pay just for the romance of having people in space, sure, that's worth something. I just don't think it's worth the enormous cost that we are investing.