I'm From The Government, and I'm Here to Help You

Ninety-nine years ago this past Tuesday, Dec. 17, amid some windblown sand dunes on the shores of North Carolina, the first powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight occurred.

It was accomplished, as the popular myth has it, by two "bicycle mechanics" from Dayton, Ohio. The reality, of course, was that they almost single-handedly invented modern aerodynamics and aeronautical engineering, and they did it on their own, with their own resources.

They did have government competition, however. The Department of War (what would now be called the Department of Defense) funded a competitor to achieve the same goal (though they were probably totally unaware of the Wrights' ambitions)--Samuel Pierpont Langley, after whom the NASA Langley Research Center is named. His attempts, occurring just prior to the Wrights' accomplishment by weeks, were utter and embarrassing failures.

The Wright brothers' achievement, and example, quickly sparked the imaginations of thousands, then millions. Less than 15 years later, hundreds of flimsy aircraft were shooting each other out of the skies over France and Germany, and aircraft were dropping crude bombs.

Five years after that, dozens of aviators were barnstorming America in their war-surplus Jennies and other aircraft, offering thrill rides at five dollars a head.

A decade later, there were commercial airlines and airliners, delivering mail and passengers, and thousands of people were spurning trains, flying between destinations, making the country much smaller than it had been only a decade before.

Forty-five years after the first flight, aircraft were propelled by jet engines, and even rocket engines, and the sound "barrier" had been broken.

Compare and contrast to our progress in space.

Forty-five years after the first launch of a satellite into orbit, where are we?

We can launch a couple dozen people per year into space, selected by government bureaucrats, at a cost of almost a percent of the total federal budget.

There is almost no private activity. No one can afford a ride in a space vehicle, unless they made millions in the stock market. No five-dollar rides, let alone regular passenger service to...anywhere.

What's the difference?

Conventional wisdom is that space is "hard," and that it's not surprising that we haven't made more progress. But such "wisdom" misses the essential point of the government role (and corresponding public expectation) in the two cases.

In the case of aeronautics, other than the failed attempts of Professor Langley, there was very little government involvement in the aeronautics industry. The Wrights had very little luck in persuading the U.S. government to support their efforts, even after their successful flights, and actually ended up going to Europe for support.

In 1915, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) was founded, and it did indeed help the fledgling aeronautics industry. But it did so by providing basic technology, expanding on the Wrights' early explorations into aerodynamics and propulsion, and putting out tables of data that would aid aircraft designers.

What it didn't do was tell the industry how to build their airplanes, or actually fund new aircraft types, as a government enterprise. The government didn't take over the aeronautics business from the beginning, or even now. It remains a private (albeit government regulated) activity.

Instead, the government encouraged private enterprise in aeronautics by means such as subsidizing airmail, which didn't provide a means for bureaucrats to pick winners and losers.

More importantly, private individuals and corporations supported the activities through prizes and air races.

That's the fundamental difference between aeronautics and astronautics.

Astronautics was born in the middle of a war, albeit a cold one. From the very beginning in the 1950s, space was a realm of the government. This was not because it was unaffordable to private individuals, but because, under the circumstances, there was a government imperative to be first in space (just as in the early 20th Century, there was no government incentive to be involved in aeronautics at all).

For a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, space was important. There were races to be won.

Accordingly, it got all of the budget that it needed, and in the process, corporate cultures and system design philosophies quickly adapted themselves to the notion that performance was the highest value, and cost was of no matter, because the customer would not only pay whatever was required, but be pleased if the costs were spread around to favor various congressional districts, even if total costs increased.

We continue to suffer, four and a half decades after the first satellite launch, from this mindset. Why pursue fickle and unpredictable markets among the general public when we have a government customer, stuck in the ways of doing business four decades old, who's willing to guarantee us our costs plus a fixed profit?

On this anniversary, one year shy a century, it is a good time to look back at how the aviation industry evolved, and see if there are some useful lessons to be applied to the space industry. Is it possible that, with a different, more market-oriented approach, we could have made more space progress in the last half century?

I suspect that it's not only possible, but extremely likely.


Tom Hancock at Marshall Space Flight Center wrote to correct me on a couple of points about last week's column.

You're mistaken on a few points about the Space Station (addressed in your article). A Centrifuge Accommodations Module (CAM), built by Japan with software from the U.S. will be on-orbit in a few years to do variable gravity research. Once on orbit it belongs to the US.

Well, I'm not sure that it will ever actually fly, or that it will really be property of the U.S. under those circumstances, since it's an "International" space station. He also points out that:

Power is not a problem on ISS. In fact, we dump power we don't need. Please note that for the 1st crew power was a problem. We could not open U.S. Node 1 to the crew because the Russians would not provide additional power to the U.S. side unless we paid for it. So the Node was closed until the 1st Solar Array was installed. Spares for experiments is not a problem (the experiment teams make the parts and put them into standard EXPRESS Racks). Spares are a BIG problem for the rest of the station.

I stand corrected on the power issue--I was going on old data. But Mr. Hancock reinforces my point about spares.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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