Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
A Bloated Approach
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, May 13, 2003 --
As reports of problems with NASA's aging fleet of space shuttles mount daily, many experts outside NASA's ultra-orthodox bureaucracy are saying the shuttle should never fly again. Last week, a key space booster on the House Science Committee, Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-TX), said the shuttle program should be scrapped due to its unacceptable failure rate.1 Barton's opinion matters. His committee seat puts him in a position to vote against funding to fix the safety problems that keep the fleet of shuttles grounded.
It is ironic that safety concerns could lead a congressman to kill the shuttle with budget controls, given the incredible lack of budget restraint put on the shuttle program in the past. Simply put, the space shuttle is one of the most wastefully expensive ways ever devised to put man into space. NASA's over $3 billion annual space shuttle budget managed to buy only six flights last year -- a per flight cost of over $500 million.2,3
Compare this cost with those of the Russian space program. That nation's entire annual space budget of $270 million is less than half the cost of a single shuttle flight, yet Russia manages to send two manned Soyuz ships and three Progress cargo ships to the International Space Station each year.4 With the shuttle fleet grounded, Soyuz is the only means of reaching the International Space Station. The Russian space agency has offered to provide the European Space Agency two Soyuz launches per year for only $75 million each -- only 15 percent of the cost of a shuttle mission.
NASA plans to replace the aging shuttle with a proposed Orbital Space Plane that would bring costs down in future years. But costs would not come down much. Proposals call for using off-the-shelf boosters to reach orbit, which NASA admits could cost up to $150 million per mission -- and this doesn't begin to include the cost of the plane, safety systems, or ground operations.6
NASA's bloated approach to manned space flight proves that its dinosaur-like administration is utterly incapable of restraining the costs of space travel. Frustrated with this reality, independent space enthusiasts have decided to take matters into their own hands. This has led to the creation of the "X Prize," a 7-year-old contest offering a $10 million reward to the first private organization that can put a man into space twice in a two-week period. The contest has attracted a number of serious competitors. One of the most promising is Burt Rutan, the head of Scaled Composites, Inc., who created the Voyager plane that was first to fly around the world in 1986.7 Rutan says his program will likely spend more than the $10 million cash prize, but would create a system of launching a micro satellite for only $500,000.8
These private efforts are clearly not in the same class as the space shuttle program -- ships under design could only carry people into sub-orbital space, and would have none of the shuttle's heavy lift capability. But the mere fact that private groups are attempting this could be revolutionary to the industry. Private groups see potential profits in the exact market NASA refuses to enter -- space tourism.
In recent years, the Russian space agency has supplemented its meager budget by selling tickets on its Soyuz flights to millionaires Denis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth.9 The rides purchased by these men -- at incredible costs -- prove that a market exists for space tourism. If private firms are able to bring launch costs down significantly, thousands of less-wealthy stargazers will follow.
NASA's sneering attitude toward space tourism is nothing short of hypocritical. The agency's 40 years of manned space flight have produced precious little scientific research, and absolutely no practical benefit to mankind. The only thing that has been gained from the agency's incredibly expensive flights is inspiration -- inspiration felt by the agency's own joy-riding astronauts as well as observers on the ground. Space tourism simply offers the exact same benefit to a wider group of people.
If and when a generation of relatively inexpensive space tour busses arrives, it is a virtual certainty that the safety risks will be at least as great as today's space shuttle. The fact that thousands of people will sign up anyway is proof that the real problem with NASA's shuttle program is not safety, but cost. If congressmen seek a reason to throw away the space shuttle, they should forget their patronizing safety concerns. The space shuttle should be abandoned because it is an incredible waste of money.
Related Web Columns:
An Acceptable Risk
An Astronomical Failure, October 31, 2000
The $50 Million Carnival Ride, October 6, 1998
A Long Time Ago
1. New York Times, Congress Criticizes NASA on Shuttle Safety, May 9, 2003
2. NASA, Fiscal Year 2002 Budget Overview, April 5, 2001
3. NASA, Shuttle Mission Summaries, February 11, 2003
4. Popular Science, After Columbia: The ISS In Crisis; Can Russia Save the Day? April 2003
5. Space News, ESA Proposes Buying Soyuz for Station Crew Rescue, February 3, 2003
6. Ibid, Orbital Space Plane's Congressional Critics:'Unconvinced' of NASA's Need, May 12, 2003
7. BBC, US pioneer plans to offer spaceflights, April 18, 2003
8. Space News, Passenger-Carrying Spaceship Makes Desert Debut, April 18 2003
9. BBC, Space tourist lifts off, Thursday, April 25, 2002