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The Failure of NASA: And A Way Out
Sunnyvale - May 30, 2003
I was in Mission Control when Neil Armstrong announced that the Eagle had landed. The applause was unexpectedly muted as we were all overwhelmed by the significance of the moment. Nobody had any doubt that Tranquility Base was the first step in an expansion into space that would drive human progress for centuries to come.
We had of course all seen the 1968 Kubrick/Clarke movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the facilities depicted there seemed entirely reasonable. In our lifetimes, we expected to see hotels in orbit, translunar shuttles operated by commercial airlines, and settlements on the Moon. Only the alien monolith was questionable.
None of this has happened.
Despite cutbacks, NASA has spent a total of $450 billion since Apollo 11 (adjusted for inflation to 2003 dollars). That very large sum was more than enough to fund the developments that Wernher von Braun predicted for the end of the 20th Century, but we have not even started on any of them.
If it had been spent wisely, as seed money to stimulate commercial development, we could have established a growing, self-sustaining extraterrestrial enterprise, offering opportunities for thousands of people to live and work off Earth - but the sad truth is that we have less capability in human spaceflight now than in 1970.
In 1969, we landed on the Moon, but now we cannot leave low Earth orbit (LEO). NASA claimed that the shuttle would be fifteen times cheaper to fly (per pound of payload) than the Saturn vehicles used in Apollo, but it is actually three times more expensive.
The average cost of each flight is a staggering $760 million. After a mission, the time required to prepare a shuttle for the next flight was supposed to be less than two weeks, but in practice tens of thousands of technicians spend three to six months rebuilding each "reusable" shuttle after every flight. Worst of all, the shuttle is a needlessly complex, fragile and dangerous vehicle, which has killed fourteen astronauts so far.
In 1973, we had a space station called Skylab, with berths for three astronauts. NASA let it reenter and break up over Western Australia. A second Skylab was built, which could have become the Earth terminal of a lunar transportation system.
It is now a tourist attraction at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, and the Saturn V to launch it is nothing more than a monstrous lawn ornament, moldering on its side at Johnson Space Center (JSC).
Now we are building the International Space Station (ISS), which is still incomplete after twenty years of effort. Its orbital inclination, chosen for political reasons, makes it useless as a base for future missions beyond Earth.
In the original design, the ISS had a crew of six or seven, but cost overruns have forced deletion of a habitation module and a lifeboat that could return that crew to Earth in emergency. The shrunken station, called "core complete," will accommodate only three astronauts (who will use a Russian Soyuz as a lifeboat). In normal operations, only one of the crew will be American.
The cutbacks gutted the research program, by eliminating much of the scientific equipment aboard the station, reducing the scheduled shuttle flights in support from six to four per year, and leaving the small crew with very little time to spare from housekeeping tasks.
If there are no unusual maintenance problems, the lone American may average 90 minutes per day working on the research that is the alleged purpose of the facility. He or she will conduct experiments by following a checklist, because the small crew precludes specialists in relevant disciplines. The scientific program is thus perfunctory at best, with rote experiments of a kind that might win prizes at a high school science fair. (2)
The life-cycle cost of the ISS, including development expenses and shuttle flights, amounts to at least $8 billion per year (2003 dollars). This is 60% more than the entire budget of the National Science Foundation, which supports thousands of earthbound scientists.
US taxpayers have a right to expect that such expensive research will be of a quality that wins Nobel Prizes, but what we are actually getting are pro forma experiments that occupy a small fraction of the time of one person.
The cost is preposterous: it amounts to nearly fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000!) for each hour of scientific work by the American crewmember. NASA has no chance whatsoever of convincing scientists that this is a reasonable allocation of scarce research funds.
Until the Columbia accident, NASA had expected 4 shuttle flights per year to the ISS, and one more for missions unrelated to the station (e.g., to lower inclination). Now the shuttle may be restricted to orbits in the same plane as the ISS, so that the shuttle can go dock there if it is damaged during launch. In any case, present plans call for operation of the ISS until at least 2016, so there will be at least 65 more shuttle flights (5 per year).
Based on experience to date (two shuttles lost in 113 missions), the accident probability is a little less than 2% on each flight. Astronauts may accept this risk because there is no other way to fly in space, but they would of course prefer a safer system. As a matter of public policy, however, only a compelling national interest can justify so hazardous a venture. The ISS presents no such necessity.
With these odds, the probability of losing at least one more shuttle during the life of the ISS (i.e., in 65 flights) is nearly 70%. In other words, NASA is gambling its future, and the lives of astronauts, on a program that has less than one chance in three of avoiding disaster. This is like playing Russian roulette with a revolver in which four out of the six chambers are loaded. Only a suicidal lunatic would accept such a proposition.
After wasting three decades (and a perfectly good Cold War), frustrating the dreams of a whole generation of space enthusiasts, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars, NASA's net achievement is a space station that has no definable purpose except to serve as a destination for shuttle flights.
We would not need the shuttle missions if we did not have the station, and we would not need the station if we did not need something for the shuttles to do. The entire human spaceflight program has thus become an exercise in futility.