Lost In LEO
San Francisco - Feb 23, 2003
In my most recent piece on the implications of the Columbia accident, I said that "Whether or not it turns out that NASA is indeed still seriously underestimating the risk of fatal Shuttle accidents -- as they unquestionably did before Challenger -- that is not even the main scandal in this case."
I stand by that statement. And while I gather that accusations are now flying that I am opposed to the human spirit of exploration or to the potential of commercial exploration of space, those accusations are -- to put it bluntly -- pure twaddle. I've been personally fascinated by space exploration for 38 years having caught the bug from Arthur C. Clarke.
I am no more "anti-space" than Freeman S. Dyson, who is considered sufficiently "pro-space" that he's on NASA's Advisory Council. And the comments he made about space exploration in the November 1997 Atlantic Monthly deserve careful consideration:
The central scandal of NASA consists of three parts:
A good starting point is Glenn Easterbrook's series of articles that began 23 years ago with his April 1980 piece on the Shuttle in the "Washington Monthly" (which foresees, with eerie accuracy, virtually every terrible thing that would happen to the program in the years since), running through his series of pieces in the New Republic, and through to his latest piece on his interpretation of the meaning of the Columbia disaster in "Time" (Feb 10).
Most of these articles (including the 1980 one) are available on the Web. They should be required reading for all space analysts and Congressmen.
I also recommend William E. Burrows' book "This New Ocean" (a runnerup for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in History), and experienced aerospace engineer T.A. Heppenheimer's equally good 1997 history of NASA, "Countdown".
Among shorter pieces, I recommend Heppenheimer's articles on the Space Station in the May 1991 "Reason" and on NASA in general in the Nov. 1992 "American Heritage".
I also recommend Alex Roland's series of book reviews in the March 12, 1998 "Nature"; Sen. Dale Bumpers' bitter op-ed on the Space Station in the August 10, 1998 Aviation Week; and Dennis Overbye's equally bitter and lethally prophetic column in the June 10, 1991 "Time".
Through these books and articles and the countless reports that have documented the cost overruns and reduced performance results of so much of the shuttle and station program, a reader can find everything he needs to know about the bizarre -- and spectacularly dishonest -- path by which NASA first tricked Congress and the White House into narrowly approving both the Shuttle and the Station.
And ever since narrowly persuaded them to continue that support through a combination of continuing deception and wholesale political bribery that has kept legions of Congressmen happy with gilt edge pork for their home state.
The entire story, however, can be nicely summarized by two comments: The first is from an anonymous ex-NASA official to a "Time" magazine reporter after the Challenger disaster: "We hated to do it, but we were getting SO many votes."
The second is from President Reagan's chief science advisor George Keyworth several years before that tragedy: "All government agencies lie part of the time, but NASA is the only one I know of that does so routinely."
Keyworth later had his nose rubbed in that fact, when then-NASA Administrator James Beggs told Reagan and Congress that the Space Station would cost only $8 billion -- despite the fact that his own engineers were setting the price at $30 billion -- simply because Beggs' PR specialists had told him that $8 billion was the most Congress and the White House would be willing to pay at the time.
Beggs also used his personal ties with Reagan advisors William Clark and William French Smith to make sure that Keyworth and OMB Dirctor David Stockman were kept off the board appointed to judge the Station's feasibility, and that the board was instead stuffed with his personal allies.
Afterwards, NASA simply resorted to the time-honored "Camel's Nose" technique that had worked earlier with the Shuttle: raise your estimate of the project's cost and lower your estimate of its utility a little each year, while arguing that it must be continued anyway or the money already spent will have been wasted.
Regarding the form America's space program should take at this point, I recommend "Veteran Designer Offers Reconfigurable Alternative to NASA Space Station" in the January 13, 1992 Aviation Week -- and I very strongly recommend Robert C. Truax's "The Future of Earth-to-Orbit Propulsion" in the January 1999 "Aerospace America".
Truax -- the very experienced engineer who was the main figure in conceiving the Polaris missile back in the late 1950s -- is perhaps the wisest Cassandra of all. He accurately predicted the physical and fiscal disasters that would riddle the Shuttle program all the way back in the mid-Seventies; and had his "Sea Dragon" alternative launch system (or at least most of its aspects) been accepted, both America and the cause of space exploration and commercial exploitation would have been spared an enormous amount of grief.
But before I talk about possible workable designs for manned spaceships, we should get back to the more basic point made by Dyson and so many others: why do we need manned space missions -- and, in particular, why do we need large numbers of them in the next two decades?