Posted by: spacewritinguy | March 19, 2008

Conservatives in Space – Chapter 2

Why NASA Cannot Lead the Space Economy and What Can Be Done About It

Bottom Line: NASA cannot grow a sustainable space economy because its mission is to perform government, not private activities in space.

Imagine meeting a woman who was once a spectacular artist, leader, or athlete in her youth. Then, at the height of her career, her job was cut because her work was no longer seen as necessary or popular anymore. This same woman was given a nice, safe, innocuous job somewhere, doing something well below her abilities and nowhere near as interesting. The fire went out of her life and she thereafter kicked around from one dead-end job to another.

Then, just after she suffers a death in her family, her latest manager gives her the opportunity to return to the scene of her old glory. She isn’t quite as confident or as talented as she used to be, and she hasn’t been given all the resources or support she got in her youth. However, she realizes that this is her last chance to prove herself. If she doesn’t succeed brilliantly (zero miscues), her career will be over, and she’ll never be given another opportunity to become a star; she will be firmly but politely pushed aside, and someone else will be given her job. That could well describe NASA in the early 21st century.


Okay, let me state up front that I have great respect for the people at NASA. I believe strongly in space exploration, regardless of who is doing it. Most of the people there have forgotten more about engineering than I am ever likely to learn. They have managed to accomplish amazing things-during the ‘60s with Apollo, in the present with robot explorers and space telescopes, and yes, with the Space Shuttle.

BUT…I want to go into space. This book envisions a space economy where thousands of non-“astronauts” are able to go as civilians, and that will not happen if NASA is our nation’s primary method of going into space. Why? Because NASA is not institutionally wired to make it happen.

Budgetary Restrictions

More importantly, though, NASA is a national space program. That means its activities ultimately are subject to the President and the Congress. Many of the agency’s problems are political and beyond the Administrator’s control. The organization’s priorities change with every class of new representatives in Washington. Lately, they have changed with every year’s budget. As one of the few government programs in a $2.9 trillion budget that qualifies as discretionary spending, NASA is one of the easiest parts of the budget to cut. Again, why?

  • The Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security have had serious budget increases in the last decade due to the War on Terror, which includes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As long as our military commitments abroad remain large and the President and Congress won’t abandon Iraq, give up on border security, or shrink the size of the security bureaucracy, those budgets will remain high.
  • Social Security is about to be drained by the Baby Boom generation. Given the size of that voting bloc, it is HIGHLY unlikely that benefits will be cut.
  • Welfare payments and entitlements, from Medicare and Medicaid to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), are all big favorites of the left and the media. Any hint of a cut to these programs, and conservatives will be pilloried for “taking away old people’s medicine” or “stealing children’s lunches.” Cutting entitlements is a political nightmare.
  • Interest on the national debt must be paid if America is going to remain a reliable and worthwhile investment overseas. If we start defaulting on payments, everything will be cut–defense, entitlements, and discretionary spending–and no amount of lobbying by interest groups will help. The only other option in that case would be to print more money, which would produce double-digit inflation not seen since the Carter Administration.
  • “Discretionary” spending also includes organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs. Given that we are at war, it is unwise to make cuts there.
  • So why not cut the budget of an agency that equals less than sixth tenths of one percent of the budget? You know: go after the small spenders. After all, NASA “just spends money on space.”

And so forth. NASA’s budget is eminently negotiable and, given the way the budget and the electorate is structured right now, unfortunately, expendable.

Organizational Restrictions

But NASA’s portion of the federal budget is not the only issue. As I stated before, NASA is not set up to develop a space economy where large numbers of private citizens can participate. Let’s start with the main road blocks to serious innovation:

Incentives Against Progress

NASA’s internal civil service is populated by individuals who advance through seniority. Government organizations do not change or innovate rapidly because they are designed for consistency, so there are two incentives not to innovate.

Protected Employees

Civil service jobs are protected by union contracts. Poor performers are not easily removed. And unlike the private sector, where organizations can be “downsized” due to tough economic times or because they are no longer needed, it is not so easy to dislodge or reduce the federal work force. Governments exist to expand their powers. Thus, the cost of any new spacecraft must factor in the salaries for these civil servants, and…

Spreading the Pork

NASA employees at all ten centers therefore must be kept busy. As a nationwide agency, NASA needs to ensure congressional support from as many states as possible. Congresspersons and senators are kept happy by keeping or bringing in jobs and money to their districts to ensure reelection.

Let’s suppose the engineering team at one of the NASA centers developed a truly radical rocket, one that would revolutionize space travel and reduce launch costs tenfold. If NASA were a private-sector organization, they would build a plant in one place–either the cheapest location or the place where the experts are–and start manufacturing, adding more plants or personnel as demand warranted. None of that would happen on the government side. Instead, the manufacturing jobs would be spread among all ten existing centers instead of cutting unproductive or unrelated organizations or consolidating people to work on the one big thing. In an organization like NASA, which must keep senators and congresspersons happy across multiple states, everyone has to have a piece of the action.

Being All Things to All People

Next, let’s say that this NASA center developed a rocket that did one thing very well, like launching human beings to orbit. Other government agencies would suddenly want a say in the vehicle’s design as well. Government resources are limited, and we have only one space program, so any single rocket would have to meet as many needs as possible.

The Defense Department would want the rocket to be more maneuverable, capable of launching within a certain amount of time, or be capable of flying in particular orbits. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would want the rocket to perform weather observation missions, thus adding hardware and weight. The Department of Labor and the Federal Acquisition Regulation office would want to make certain that a specific percentage of the manufacturing labor was performed by union members, women, minorities, Alaska Native, and Native American-owned small businesses, regardless of the availability of such companies to do the work. All of these requirements complicate and add cost to what was once a low-cost rocket.

When the Only Tool You Have is a Hammer, Every Problem Looks Like a Nail

NASA has been a large organization for nearly 50 years. Project Apollo, arguably their greatest succes, was accomplished by throwing a massive amount of tax money and personnel at the problem to get it done within a decade. And they did it, to the benefit of us all. However, there is an institutional bias within NASA that the Apollo model of management is the only way to get into space: big budgets, big rockets, big staffs, govenrment control, and short timelines. If NASA can’t do it, they somehow feel that no one can do it.

One also must ask: is NASA so large because space exploration is so complicated or is space exploration so complicated because NASA’s organization is so large? “Parkinson’s Law” states that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” A companion to that law might be that “work expands to fill the number of people available for its completion.” Rather than rescale or cut its workforce to match the tasks at hand, NASA takes any problem and subdivides it among its 18,000-person standing army accordingly. Thus, if your only tool is a large organization, the only way you know how to solve problems is to use everyone in that organization.

Resistance and Lobbying by Existing Contractors

NASA’s budget is subject to Congress, which in turn is pressured by lobbyists from NASA’s existing prime contractors: Boeing, Lockheed, United Space Alliance (the Boeing-Lockheed organization that operates the Shuttle), United Launch Alliance (the Lockheed-Boeing organization now providing satellite launch services to the U.S. Government), and ATK Launch Systems.

A new administration could not make a rapid change in NASA’s direction without confronting these entrenched interests. There are jobs at stake, after all. If a group within NASA developed a new rocket that required none of the current Shuttle-legacy hardware, a whole lot of people would have to find new jobs. The Constellation Program reflects some of this thinking. A seriously new spacecraft would be killed off before it ever got past the design study phase.

Monopoly Rules

The primary objection private sector fans have to NASA is that government has set itself up as the primary designer, manufacturer, and user of human spaceflight activities. In other industries, that is called a monopoly. Furthermore, the individuals who do fly on the spacecraft must be highly trained and capable of multiple tasks because the vehicles are so complex and fly so rarely. The government has set up the space program as an exercise in orbital space construction, space science, and national security; it has not treated space as a potential economic opportunity or place for future settlement.

Institutional Attitudes

Risk Avoidance

NASA has become a risk-averse organization. This is, perhaps, understandable. There are taxpayer dollars at stake every time a NASA vehicle goes up, not to mention astronaut lives. Any catastrophe shuts down NASA operations for months or nearly years at a time. Contrast that with commercial or military aviation, where the planes keep flying (unless there’s a system-level problem) and a local investigation team is sent to the site to find out what happened.

Unnecessary Risk Taking

On the flip side of this, NASA has also “pushed the envelope” too far at times, as it rushes to meet arbitrary and unreasonable deadlines. The Challenger explosion was a direct result of this gung-ho, stick-to-the-schedule attitude.

In the year after the Ares Launch Vehicles began development, NASA’s management decided it would be a good idea to add “countdown clocks” in the offices at Huntsville to measure the time until the “Ares I-X” flight test of the new Crew Launch Vehicle in 2009. What is so magical or crucial about April 2009? It is less than three months after the next president takes office. NASA needs to prove to the next administration that it can design, build, and launch a vehicle on time, before the president decides to kill the program. Everyone at NASA works very hard to keep to the schedule, and dragging the program out is probably unwise, but people also make mistakes under pressure. NASA needs to assess what is a reasonable amount of risk and which risks are healthy and in the agency’s best interests.

Superiority and Disdain

Another aspect to private sector space exploration is within NASA’s control, but it is doubtful anyone will do anything about it. Right now, NASA is our nation’s largest organization capable of launching vehicles into space. They were there first, and they have a certain amount of rightful institutional pride. However, there are some folks within the agency that are just plain hostile to the private sector. They dislike any use of the word “marketing” or “branding” in the agency’s public outreach efforts; distrust NASA’s contractors; look down on the new space entrepreneurs (“Burt Rutan didn’t make it to orbit”); and laugh when others fail (“Now Elon Musk knows why we call it rocket science”). This arrogance is distasteful and unhelpful. It is not official policy–indeed, Mike Griffin is one of the best friends the private sector has had in the Administrator’s position in years–but it is present nonetheless.

There also seems to be a perception within NASA that space tourism is somehow an unworthy activity. Consider their attempts to block Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, from entering the International Space Station. Civil servants scoff or look down upon delivering pizza to the ISS or putting advertising logos on the sides of rockets. I can only suppose, since I’ve never heard anyone state it directly, that NASA believes space can only be a lofty affair that requires serious (what some might call “stodgy” or “boring”) behavior, not simple, jaunty acts of commerce. Why else would the agency punish Apollo Astronaut Dave Scott after he attempted to auction off some stamps he’d brought into space with him? What else can this be except a blatant hostility to capitalism?

How ironic it is that NASA, an agency built in the ‘60s to combat surging communism, has become the major block to capitalism in space, while the Russians are now the entrepreneurs selling flights for $25 million!

It does not please me to say this, but if we want to get human beings into space on a grand scale for the safety and betterment of our civilization, we cannot use the NASA model. We need to try something else.

What Should NASA Do?

If I am so convinced that NASA should not be the lead player in the space economy, what would I suggest instead?

The human space exploration program should be redirected. Never mind using Ares I to service the International Space Station. NASA should concentrate on exploration and building the infrastructure that allows civilians to settle the final frontier. What follows is a a series of “fallback” positions, which might be a little more politically feasible.

Proposal #1:  Close Down the NASA Human Spaceflight Program After Completing the International Space Station (ISS)

The libertarian in me wants to eliminate unnecessary government functions. However, our nation also has serious financial economic and diplomatic commitments tied up with ISS. Killing it now would create more problems than it would solve, especially if we expect international cooperation in developing the space economy.

Once the station is completed, NASA’s mission must be redefined. Instead of designing, developing, and using large-scale human space transportation systems, the agency should concentrate on:

  • Space science, including orbiting telescopes, lunar and planetary landers, and planetary orbiters.
  • Earth science, including monitoring weather observation, environmental health, and quantifiable trends and sources of influence in the global climate.
  • Aerospace technology research that leads to developing fully reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), turning that information over to the private sector to exploit.
  • Human space exploration, not transportation.

Notice I’ve said nothing about cutting NASA’s budget; instead, the priorities need to change. Unproductive spending on human spaceflight can instead be concentrated on pure research or straightforward exploration.

In this scenario, NASA would continue developing world-class telescopes, planetary probes, and landers (using private sector launchers to get them to their destinations). Meanwhile, the agency’s role in human spaceflight would be to develop outposts and technologies that enable free individuals to reach, explore, and develop the space frontier.

Back when NASA was the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA), the agency’s primary mission was to facilitate private sector aviation development by performing pure research that only the government can usually afford.

It was John F. Kennedy’s “moon shot” that fundamentally shifted NASA’s mission and the government’s relationship with the private sector. It is time to revisit that decision.

Alternate Proposal #1: Increase COTS Funding

Continue funding Orion and Ares I, but increase funding to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and aerospace research to encourage RLV development. If a private sector provider beats Ares I to the International Space Station, the orbital version of Orion should be bypassed to focus on exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Alternate Proposal #2: Allow Dual Development of Near-Earth Space

Allow NASA to continue as it is, subject to the annual budgetary wrangling in Washington. However, it would be specifically required to fund COTS at a higher level; accept a mix of NASA and commercial launches to ISS; and avoid interfering with the private sector. The primary commandment for NASA in this “peaceful coexistence” model would be to “do no harm.” And again, if commercial providers can provide launch services to the ISS (or, later, the Moon) more cheaply, the government should have the good grace to cut its losses and get out of the way.

Alternate Proposal #3: May the Best Sector Win

Continue with the status quo: allow NASA and commercial providers to develop in parallel (with no additional spending on NASA’s part), and let the best organization(s) win.


All of these proposals make the same assumption: that the private sector can and will develop better capabilities than the government has today. The only difference is in the timeline for those capabilities to occur. As the space programs of China, India, and Japan prove, what human beings can do once, they can do again, regardless of their organizational structure. Yet regardless of the circumstances, I am still convinced that whatever system a government comes up with, the private sector will be able to develop something more affordably and efficiently.

NASA has America’s human spaceflight program, dedicated (for the moment) to one and a half missions: flying the Shuttle and finishing the ISS, and building Ares and Orion space vehicles. Shuttle is a finite program; Ares and Orion, while open-ended, have no guarantee that they will not be cut in a future budget. Exploring the Moon is not a government priority. It is, as someone put it, “the national hobby.” There also is no great rush to turn that hobby into a money-making concern or to turn it over to private individuals.

Pardon my impatience, but I want to go now. And I am not alone.

In the end, if we are to have a fully functioning space civilization, NASA obviously will be a player; however, it will not be the most important player in the future. Therefore, the rest of this book will describe the potential of the space economy on its own terms, with the federal government’s actions discussed only to show how it can help or hinder that progress.


  1. The Superiority and Disdain section hits the nail on the head. I was appalled as you were as Denis Tito was lampooned and mocked by the folks at NASA. Why must we (the great USA) learn capitalism from Russia?? This showed in their simple distain for the space tourism that they were, once and for all, anti-change, anti-private enterprise, anti-private sector, and will do almost anything to protect their territory. This UNION mentality is their un-doing and their days are truly numbered. I’m looking at the SpaceX and Virgin style of business and it looks REALLY good and a welcome change from the NASA bilge.

    Your alternate proposal #3 is weak. If you allow NASA to compete with the private sector, it will destroy the fledgeling market. This happened to Beal Aerospace in 1999-2000 timeframe and it could (and might) happen again. Putting the gov’t against private sector, the gov’t will always win because it doesn’t have to show a profit. Look at how the postal service COMPETES with FedEx. This should outrage each taxpayer to see the USPS advertize on TV AGAINST FedEx and UPS!!! If the USPS sells more services, will it magically turn a profit and no longer be SUBSIDIZED by the taxpayers?? NO!! The more business it does, the more we have to subsidize it because it is a gov’t program (albeit, constitutional program). We need to do the same with NASA and NOT ALLOW IT TO COMPETE with the private sector. Otherwise, it will be proven that the gov’t is the only player that can do this and private industry will not be allowed to compete.

    You have hit the nail on the head in all of your analysis, you are spot-on. Are your writings anywhere in book form??

  2. Apologies for the delayed response. The system read your message as spam.

    Re: my stuff in book form

    Alas, no. I am in a position whereI can’t freelance. Thus the unpaid, anonymous blog. Thanks for the vote of confidence, though. I hope to get a book or two published after my employment situation changes.

    Thanks for reading and for the vote of confidence.

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