Posted by: spacewritinguy | March 18, 2008

A Space Moderate’s Manifesto

Believe it or not, I am a “moderate” in the pro-space community. In space advocate terms, that means that I believe that the private sector will ultimately establish the basis for a long-term solar system civilization. However, unlike my fire-breathing libertarian friends, I understand that the government still has a role to play. I’ve been hearing from both sides of this particular aisle for months now, and it’s time to cut loose with The Space Moderate’s Manifesto. 

First, The Private-Sector Side

I hear from a lot of government apologists who are dismayed, confused, or downright angry about the perception that the private sector can develop space better than NASA. Here are my responses to the usual anti-private arguments, in no particular order:

  • “The private sector is more corrupt than government” – One of the big complaints I hear about the private sector (especially from those on the leftish side of the political spectrum) is that it is inherently more corrupt (given Enron, WorldCom, etc.). Yes, private enterprises are easier to corrupt than government institutions simply because the incentives are more blatantly obvious. However, the issue isn’t about whether the private sector is more honest than the government, simply whether it is more efficient. And in the operational space business (as well as rocketry in general), efficiency is king.
  • “The lowest bidder is providing the lowest-quality product” – Government and military folks often sneer at the notion of the “lowest bidder,” implying that the cheapest product is by nature the one with the lowest quality. However, the lowest bid is often the one that is picked anyway. Why?
    • Companies must meet the low bid stated on the contract. If they don’t, the government takes them to court or penalizes them come award time. Few companies can afford to compete with the government’s deep pockets when it comes to litigation.
    • A low bid forces the company to be exceptionally creative in order to meet its technical and profit goals. This atmosphere of creativity creates an entrepreneurial environment and incentives for the best and brightest employees.
    • The profit motive also keeps employees and managers focused on delivering a good product. If their product fails spectacularly through proven bad judgment or quality, cargo or passengers are destroyed, employees get fired and the company faces a loss of prestige, profits, and maybe even existence. Employees lose their jobs and (depending on their relationship to the incident) professional reputations. It’s an expensive lesson, but it does get the point across, and there are enough carrots and sticks in the system to ensure proper behavior for most of the time.

And let’s look at government programs for a moment. The Challenger incident is instructive, because it sets the tone, though Apollo 1 and Columbia are similar. In the event a government program fails, the following things are likely to happen:

  • The contractor(s) will be blamed and contractor employees will be fired.
  • After a long stretch of congressional hearings, the program will continue.
  • The vehicle’s design will be fixed at the precise location where the fault occurred. The overall architecture will not be questioned.
  • Few civil servants will be fired. At most, they will be transferred.

I’m willing to be proven wrong on this, but I haven’t seen much to change my opinion. And then there are the political “facts of life” for any NASA program:

  • The budget and program focus must be fought over once a year, giving opponents regular opportunities to question or kill the program.
  • Vehicle designs are often chosen to keep particular contractors and civil servant work forces employed. Civil servants represent one of the largest unionized work forces in the country. There’s also this evil truth: governments exist to grow their powers, which means growing their staff. The government bureaucracy’s incentives are set up to reward those who grow their “empires” or headcount.
  • Vehicles that result in established contractors losing their contracts or civil servants losing their jobs will not live long. (There are examples of certain senators promising to kill programs if they hurt jobs in their state.)

This is one of the reasons why Dwight D. Eisenhower fought against the “military-industrial complex.” Once you tie technological innovation to government spending, technical decisions inherently become political decisions.

The Practical Uses of Government in Space

It is much better for the government to have a limited role in technological development (X-programs) instead of large roles (Apollo, Shuttle, and now Constellation) because otherwise the same forces/incentives listed above will inevitably come back to bite the government (and space program) on the ass. The U.S. government has a reasonably good track record in the following categories:

  • As a builder of infrastructure (airports, highways, bridges, electrical systems, etc.)
  • As a referee of the marketplace (regulations, consumer protection, safety, etc.)
  • Funding basic research

It has had a somewhat less successful track record as a business operator, operations manager, and a “picker of winners,” it has a somewhat more checkered career. Ronald Reagan’s perspective on government is instructive here: “If it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; if it stops moving, subsidize it.” The government has gone hog-wild in the past, building up canals, railroads, gas lighting, and other technologies, only to see the marketplace create something else. Rather than admit its error, government will start to subsidize the technology that it formerly encouraged with such haste. If instead government simply subsidized new technology development, hand over the findings to the private sector, and let the market determine which technology works best, our taxes and national debt might be quite a bit lower. Be that as it may, there are still some basic functions government has done to open the door for new technologies and economic development, starting with the National Road, and moving forward to the present.

In a space context, this would include:

  • Building the Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, Deep Space Network, etc.
  • Forming the “rules of the road” for commercial spaceflight via the FAA
  • Funding “X vehicles,” which have limited budgets, limited objectives, limited life spans, and limited staff; funding also large-scale science projects, including telescopes, robotic landers, planetary orbiters, and other pure-science activities; funding first-time exploratory missions, such as Apollo and Constellation

Now, does Constellation fit into this pattern? Yes and no. The ISS mission of Ares I should be handed over to the private sector. And if Elon Musk’s SpaceX is successful in reaching ISS between now and 2012, I’m willing to bet that this suggestion will be taken more seriously in Congress and the White House. NASA does best when it’s pushing the frontier.

Here are some other common tropes I hear from NASA/big contractor space people on government’s role:

  • “Government is already involved in the space business because they’re paying for most of the flights.” This is true. However, there is the unspoken assumption that this condition is a good thing. A properly functioning competitive environment has multiple providers of products and services and multiple customers. This is beginning to change in the space business, but slowly. There are more customers, especially for satellite launch services, than there used to be; however, the market still cannot sustain a large number of suppliers. This is why Boeing and Lockheed have merged their interests to form United Launch Alliance (ULA).
  • “The government is paying for launch services, so they have a right to determine how the rockets are built.” This is false, and it is being addressed. The Apollo and Constellation models of management have been government-centric, where NASA designs the vehicle, sets requirements and specifications, and pays contractors for their costs plus a profit based on performance (“cost-plus” contracting). In the last ten years, government has started experimenting with performance-based contracting (officially, Performance Based Acquisition). Under this concept, the government says, “We need X service performed or Y widget built. We don’t know how to build it. All we know is that we want it to do A, B, and C. Set your price, tell us how you’re going to measure success, and we’ll award you accordingly.” This is the essence of the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program, as it was the essence of the Air Mail Acts of the 1920s. Notice that nowhere does it say the government will design the vehicles. All they care about is getting the cargo to ISS safely.
  • “Business/commercialism is inherently selfish.” To which I would plead, as an Ayn Rand capitalist, guilty as charged. The assumption here is that “It’s not fair that rich people get to go before everyone else.” And I’d turn around and say that “It’s not fair that government employees with six college degrees get to go ahead of me.” Which should have greater say over the marketplace, money or government employment? If space tourism makes travel into space both accessible and somewhat more affordable, why should those who can afford to go not spend their money the way they want? Of course the same folks who say it’s not fair that the rich get to do X are also likely the same ones who believe it’s not fair that the rich are rich at all
  • “Commercializing space cheapens/demeans it.” Oh, for gosh sakes! This one makes me crazy. The whole EARTH is God’s noble creation, and we’ve had no trouble commercializing it for the last 5,000 years. There is a rather elitist dynamic at work here. People saying this have issues with Golden Arches on Mars. How dare we defile such a pristine wilderness with base commerce! Who else but an elitist can afford the luxury of considering money beneath them? Consider how much less a government-funded space launch would cost if a company was willing to plaster their logo on the side of the rocket? Sorry, on this one I have to side with the commercialists. Space is not “too good” to be advertised in.
  • “Government space workers care just as much about getting things right as the private sector.” No question about it. But again, caring is not the point, results are. And if the results we’re looking for are regular, low-cost access to space, then the government system, however caring and skillful its individual members, still lacks the proper incentives to design, build, and operate efficient systems. Here’s an interesting question to pose to a NASAphile: “Would you be willing to let NASA design and build a low-cost, high-efficiency, high-utilization launch system if it meant firing half the work force?”

All this said, it is easy for the private sector to pound its chest and declare itself the more worthy and flexible insurgent fighting a sclerotic, inefficient bureaucracy. They’re starting with little infrastructure and a lot of dreams. NASA has been in the business for 50 years. They have a rightful claim to having “been there, done that,” and many of its supporters sometimes rightly scoff at the claims of advocates that turning things over to the private sector will automatically make things easier, faster, more effective.

The simple fact is that getting to space is damned difficult. Just to get there requires exotic fuels, strong yet lightweight materials, extremely precise engineering, and very high tolerances for acceleration, heat, aerodynamic buffeting. The best rocket on Earth–the much-maligned Space Shuttle–has a safety record of 96 percent. If airliners had that sort of reliability, there would be around 3,500 commercial airliner crashes per day at current U.S. flight rates. Obviously rocket travel still has a long way to go to approach the safety levels of commercial aviation. Perhaps it will never reach them.

I still say that government needs to change its thinking about its role in space. Or, more to the point, the taxpayers need to change their thinking about the government’s role in space. Exploration (human and robotic), yes. Repetitive operations to Low Earth Orbit, no. And the private sector needs to get a grip on its aspirations. Let the government go out and spend the money on the big, dangerous things for which there is no readily apparent need, use, or profit (like the internet, for example, or bases in space), and then you guys can take over.  The pro-space community is way too fractious for its size. A return to the traditional roles of government and private industry in this equation would be of immense help to all concerned and might ease the stridency at the extremes.

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