Space Access Update #101  12/13/03 
               Copyright 2003 by Space Access Society 
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Last time we got one of these out the door, we wrote something about 
having more to say about NASA's problems in coming weeks.  That was 
one Space Access conference and a half-year of working for a living 
ago.  No more promises - but for the moment, we're writing again.  
That, and starting to put together the next Space Access conference.  
Thursday afternoon April 22nd through Saturday night April 24th, in 
the Phoenix metro area; more details as we nail them down. 

Contents this issue:

 - The Future of NASA Manned Space: Constrained Choices 
   (More on the current state of play in the emerging cheap-access 
   industry in late December... This time for sure!) 

        The Future of NASA Manned Space: Constrained Choices 

There has been a lot of breathless speculation on what the current 
Administration review of national space policy might lead to, much 
of it centered on what if anything the President might choose to 
talk about on the upcoming 100th birthday of powered flight, 
December 17th 2003.  We have no inside scoops, but we do have a few 
thoughts on the matter.

Our standard disclaimer on this: NASA is not a monolith; it's a 
whole collection of organizations of wildly varying size, missions, 
and competence.  Some parts of NASA are both competent and 
efficient, many are at least marginally functional, and some are 
massively dysfunctional bureaucratic quagmires.  There are lots of 
good people in NASA, some fortunate enough to be able to quietly go 
about producing value for the country, some mired up to their 
eyeballs in the aforementioned quagmires.  Unless we specify 
otherwise, from here on we'll use "NASA" as shorthand for by far the 
largest single part of the agency, the Shuttle/Station manned 
spaceflight establishment. 

First, however, consider that December 17th is the centennial of the 
*airplane*, that the first "A" in NASA stands for "aeronautics", and 
that the agency's problems are not confined to its space operations.  
It occurs to us that come the 17th, the President might have 
something to say on aeronautics.  Just a guess, of course. 

As far as NASA manned space goes, keep in mind two things:  One, 
money is tight. The country's coming out of a recession, there's a 
war on, and the deficit is getting politically sensitive.  Whatever 
new directions national space policy might be aimed, overall civil 
space spending is very unlikely to increase radically.  That would 
take a national consensus that simply doesn't exist. 

Two, NASA is a mess.  Read the CAIB Report and weep.  Neither the 
Congress nor the White House trust NASA anymore - neither to succeed 
on-time/on-budget (if at all) with any large new project, nor to 
reform itself unsupervised.  As far as ambitious new missions are 
concerned, these various parties are (or ought to be) acutely aware 
that the existing NASA structure is capable of soaking up huge 
amounts of additional money for a very long time before any new 
output at all appears.  The few federal legislators talking about 
funding big new NASA projects tend to have major NASA centers back 
home.  The chances of their colleagues going along with any such 
major new NASA spending anytime soon are, we estimate, near zero.  

Given all this, why not retrench - wind down the existing NASA 
manned space projects as quickly as possible, then start over from 
scratch in a few years? 

Three reasons: One, the Law of Conservation of Congressional Pork 
says that established federal jobs-in-umpteen-Districts cashflows 
are extremely difficult to shut down.  Absent huge amounts of 
political capital applied, the strong tendency on established 
programs with entrenched constituencies is to trim only around the 
margins, a few percentage points in any given year. 

Two, we have international obligations to meet in the Station 
program.  Our diplomacy is difficult enough these days without 
further annoying multiple major international partners. 

Three, "doing space" has come to be a significant part of this 
country's self-image.  (Never mind that the reality for the last 
twenty years has been a half-dozen astronauts flying a half-dozen 
missions-to-nowhere a year at a billion dollars a mission - and 
that's in a *good* year.)  At a time of considerable national doubt 
and stress, we cannot lightly walk away from "doing space". 

But neither can we just keep pouring money down the same old 
institutional rathole.  How many major space transportation 
developments in a row has NASA screwed up now?  SLI, X-33, and 
NASP... Four if we count Shuttle.  Allowing NASA to continue 
"business as usual" guarantees further national trauma and 
disillusionment, soon as likely as later. 

A major part of any new national civil space policy has to be fixing 
NASA.  Indications are the White House understands this.  We expect 
a major thrust of the new policies will be to patch up the existing 
NASA establishment enough to more or less reliably run the Shuttle 
and Station programs through the middle of this decade. 

Given the likely flat budget and the difficulties of fixing what 
we've got, we don't anticipate any major new initiatives - no hard 
date for a Mars mission or a return to the Moon.  We wouldn't be 
completely surprised, however, to see a relatively modest new 
program to begin developing the deep-space transportation and 
propulsion to eventually enable such missions.  We do expect that 
OSP will go ahead in some form, presumably with adult supervision 
lest old NASA follow its natural inclination and bloat the project 
into Shuttle-minus-the-payload-bay. 

Longer term, something needs to replace the existing NASA.  NASA may 
be repairable enough to finish Station and wind down Shuttle 
gracefully, but it has far too much institutional baggage to ever 
evolve into something fast and efficient.  You don't build a race 
car by tinkering with a Winnebago.  (If you *must*, the right way to 
do that is jack up the Winnebago hood ornament then roll a new race 
car up underneath it...) 

We will conclude by observing that much of NASA's current routine 
space operations could appropriately be contracted out, given 
reasonable attention to fostering a more diverse, innovative and 
efficient space private sector.  

In that vein, much of NASA's current advanced space R&D mission 
could benefit from increased competition, both at the contractor and 
at the contracting government agency level.  The mid-nineties 
consolidation of all advanced space transportation R&D in one agency 
and two established major contractors was a disaster.  From Space 
Access Update #98, more on this point: 

 [written as X-33 was finally shut down and SLI begun, winter 2001] 

"The real lesson here is NOT to give NASA massive new funding and 
another five years - that would be pouring money down the same old 
NASA RLV monopoly rathole.  The lesson of X-33 is, next time give 
the job to people actually willing to go at the problem in a manner 
that gives them a chance of solving it with the wide array of 
advanced technology that's already practical and available." 

"This means letting multiple other agencies take a crack at the 
problem, in competition with each other, so "it was too hard" after 
a half-assed screwed up effort is no longer a safe excuse.  Multiple 
competing outfits, possibly inside NASA (Ames and Dryden, Glenn, or 
Langley Centers come to mind) but certainly outside (DARPA, AFRL, 
NRL, NSF, and DOT are some possibilities) should now get a chance." 

"Slice up the SLI budget a half-dozen ways, set a half-dozen 
agencies loose on the problem, encourage them to take chances with 
streamlined procurement and non-traditional vendors, and tell them 
that every four years, the two most successful among them get 50% of 
the budgets of the two least successful.  Then stand back and watch 
the RLV's fly!  That would be the ideal." 

We look forward to seeing the actual policies the White House will 
adopt this winter with interest, and perhaps even some optimism. 


Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions 
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 Space Access Society 

 "Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System" 
                                        - Robert A. Heinlein