nasa vs. private space, the fictional dilemma

December 22, 2010

Journalists have two tricks to add conflict to an otherwise boring story, two tricks that drive skeptics up a wall without fail. One is to add false balance to stories, like quips from people who may not be completely sane or educated on the issue. One example is quoting conspiracy theorists and quacks in health or political articles for the sake of having two sides to a story that only has one. The other is to create some sort of a big struggle between two parties included in the report despite the fact that the two groups might actually be the very best and most cooperative of friends, and are actually working together to tackle a common problem. And it’s this latter route that Jeffrey Kluger chose for his article on new aerospace startups for Time.com. Painting a big competition between the private market and NASA’s stogy bureaucracy, he presents companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences as replacements for the space agency, trying to keep the government in space as the shuttle finally fades into the twilight of retirement. However, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth…

Rather than being forced by presidential edict to let private space companies build new spacecraft, set out in the space exploration agenda laid out by the Obama administration, NASA has been actively helping them and watching the development at SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and even Virgin Galactic. Because the goal is to build cheaper vehicles that will significantly lower the cost and streamline the logistics of getting to space, it’s in the agency’s direct benefit to contract with private companies as much as possible. Less cost means more missions and more science being done, as well as the potential to lay the groundwork for making money in space with orbital hotels and giving scientists easier access to the final frontier. As for the space companies themselves, they don’t see NASA as an obstacle or a competitor either since the agency runs competitions to find the best and most promising ideas among them, showing every sign of becoming a customer should a new rocket design prove itself flight-worthy, or a new piece of equipment show itself superior and cheaper to the existing hardware used on the shuttle or the ISS. Why would they possibly want to start conflicts with their future number one customer? And why would they see themselves as pushing aside old bureaucrats when they and they agency share the same goal: to get machines and humans to space safely and cheaply?

Yet that said, there is political opposition to NASA’s transition from a government body to an umbrella agency for a swarm of aerospace contractors competing for the best design, and that opposition comes from those who you’d least expect to object to such privatization; the GOP. Because they rely on NASA’s largesse for a steady number of jobs in their states, plenty of Republican senators and congressmen are not happy, going into the realm of ridiculous hyperbole to make sure that those jobs stay put. Funny how the very same people who preach to their party core that the government is at the root of every problem, that we need as little of it as possible, and that it has never created a single job, oppose an effort to reduce the government’s reach in their districts. Now, all of a sudden, the very private enterprises that are supposed to be at the heart of the country’s innovation engine and the economy, become woefully unqualified and inexperienced when it comes to space travel and exploration, even though virtually every vehicle ever flown by NASA was built by defense contractors like Lockheed Martin or Boeing. And if we listen to politicians only interested in the cash flow to their districts, we’re going to end up with a space program that falls behind the times and have to rely solely on the military for steady access to space, a military that’s going to take its time letting the latest and greatest technology get converted for civilian uses to maintain its strategic advantage in orbit.

Repeat after me. There’s no big shift at NASA in which the old guard must warm up to the idea of companies building new rockets and crew vehicles. Its just business as usual with more and smaller companies being allowed to experiment and submit their ideas for testing and consideration. And because there are more and more companies interested in getting to space, our space program will only benefit from their efforts. Why do you think NASA helped launch Bigelow Airspace’s prototypes of inflatable space stations if it’s so loath to let high minded startups experiment with new vehicles they’ll want to lease or sell to the agency? But oh well, we can’t let things like facts or real conflicts get in the way of telling the story we want to tell, right Mr. Kluger?

[ illustration by Matthew Benton ]

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  • RocketCy

    Mostly spot on analysis. I would say that at the NASA centers, news of successful tests and launches in the private world are met with the same degree of celebration and enthusiasm as are their own successful launches and tests. If there’s any skepticism it’s related to safety and the notion that private/commercial operators may be less able to resist the temptations to take unacceptable risks without the “safety-first” system of barriers and blockades built up over the years at NASA, but it’s only that, skepticism, not opposition. It’s the same skepticism I hear when “affordability” is cited as one of the primary metrics of the new heavy lift vehicle and I don’t think it’s a sign of any stodginess or over-conservatism, but rather a sign that the NASA engineering community takes its duties and charges very seriously.

    I also found the GOP position on the privatization of space to be cognitively dissonant, but it becomes a little more understandable if you recognize that senators and representatives (in addition to representing the contractors) often serve as back door channels for the viewpoints of the NASA centers in their districts that don’t quite harmonize w/ official NASA HQ (or White House) positions. Most of the NASA centers happen to be in GOP districts and so it gives the appearance that these are Republican positions when it’s more likely that it’s only the NASA centers trying to preserve some oversight role for themselves.

  • Paul

    RocketCy,
    “these are Republican positions when it’s more likely that it’s only the NASA centers trying to preserve some oversight role for themselves.”

    I’d say, less the NASA centres as the major contractors that supply them.

    (Senator Hatch, in Utah, spruiking for ATK in the shuttle-replacement, for example. That requirement didn’t come from NASA.)

    Greg,
    I noticed back in the 80’s and early 90’s, there was a distinct antipathy between New.Space and NASA. Every time some entrepreneur got investors interested in a new venture, a NASA team floated a plan to do the same thing to get preliminary paper-study funding. Investors fold, of course, can’t compete with NASA. Then the commercial failure is used by rival NASA teams as proof that there is no demand in the industry, justifying killing the program’s funding. It apparently happened over and over.

    At the time, NASA was trying to sell it’s programs as profit centres. Shuttle as a “truck” for once-a-week low-cost launches. Space station as a centre for commercial research. Etc etc. There was some seriously horrible decisions made to try to justify programs, such as management banning probes from flying on commercial launchers, resulting in huge delays and/or costly redesigns so they could fly on the shuttle, to artificially create “business” for the shuttle.

    That attitude is long gone, and I think that’s why it’s easy for NASA to support new.space even to the point of trying to get-around corrupt “forced bid” legislation. Once new.space can buy some political muscle, perhaps things will ease there as well. And one day, hopefully, the “Obama killed the space program” meme will die too.

  • Greg Fish

    “Most of the NASA centers happen to be in GOP districts and so it gives the appearance that these are Republican positions…”

    Rocket, and I’m pretty sure I noted that fact in the post. However, the reason why I’m emphasizing their party affiliation is because NASA programs show how the GOP will take public cash when it benefits them, all while railing against “government meddling” and promoting supply-side based privatization of just about everything. Besides, it gives them a chance to appeal to the party faithful by ridiculing Obama’s initiative because as we all know, everything Obama proposes has to be ridiculed as evil or doomed to fail by the Republicans, no matter what it is.

    Honestly, I’d like to see them come out and just admit that they’re reliant on NASA money and without a center for the space agency in their state or a contract with a contractor whose interests they represent, they’ll lose jobs and financial support for their next election. But of course in the U.S., we’re supposed to pretend that lawmakers just really, really care about all of America and our space program, and not just the cash flow in their districts and to their PACs, so that’ll never happen.

    “At the time, NASA was trying to sell it’s programs as profit centres.”

    Paul, well thar’s yer problem. NASA could license its technology to make a profit, but trying to squeeze cash from overpriced spacecraft maintained at a very high cost just wouldn’t work. This is why private space would be cheaper while still (hopefully) preserving all the safety standards. Much smaller overhead. Faced with the high legacy and maintenance costs, and with spacecraft that have to be used to justify their existence, NASA had little choice but to manufacture business with the ideas you cited.

    And yes, that attitude is gone, probably because there are no replacement craft for the shuttle or money to build them, so the agency will take whatever help it can in that department. From what I’ve heard, NASA is very supportive of SpaceX, Bigelow, and Armadillo, and is sharing its requirements and guidelines with the companies so they can build new generation rockets and space stations.

  • Paul

    “how the GOP will take public cash when it benefits them, all while railing against “government meddling” and promoting supply-side based privatization of just about everything.”

    Actually it is consistent with their “business is more efficient than government” philosophy. In theory. They believe that if the government wants to perform a service, it is better to contract it out than have public servants perform the actual work. In practice, the process becomes more corrupt than traditional public services. (Which, ironically, allows them to still justify their original philosophy, even while corruptly channelling taxpayer funds to their friends and sponsors.)

    It’s why you sack your council road-workers to replace them with a contractor. The difference, and why it so often fails, is if your own workers do a crap job, you just tell them to go out and do it again. Enough of that and they risk their jobs, or at least promotion. If the contractor does a crap job, you probably can’t do anything because they exploited the letter of the contract. And when you want the work fixed, you are required by contract to use the same company, and pay them higher penalty rates since you are changing the terms of the agreement. And you can’t just avoid them for the next contract, because the people who set the budget (elected members) are the in bed with the contractor, and won’t give you the power to exclude proven bad actors. So you make the requirements tighter and tighter, ending up with specs thousands of pages long for something that should be a few lines. And over time, less and less companies are capable of bidding for the job, and you’re stuck with fewer and fewer companies more and more entwined with elected members and senior agency management.

    It happens time and time again. But economic-rationalists could make up the same type of just-so story about how pubic servants similarly fail. And they’re right. Both methods suck as an overall philosophy. And yet, no one seems to just commission a best-practice study into when and how to get the best out of private contractors vs. public servants. It’s what science is made for. Empirical study. Hell, given the money at stake, let alone human lives, there should be entire research agencies dedicated to this.

  • Paul

    “thousands of pages long for something that should be a few lines” Heh, irony.