The Usual Suspects

In the movie classic Casablanca, Captain Louie Renault (Claude Raines) has a line that's become a cliche--"Round up the usual suspects."

Despite encouraging and visionary legislation introduced in the House of Representatives a couple weeks ago to clarify the regulatory environment for private suborbital passenger flights, when it came to last week's hearings before the House Science Committee on the future of spaceflight, they rounded up their own usual suspects--a couple former NASA associate administrators, a former JPL center director, a microgravity researcher and, to leaven the mix, a myopic space historian. Not surprisingly, they got the usual testimony, of the sort that isn't particularly visionary, and as history testifies, is always ultimately (and perhaps appropriately) ignored.

As this article describes, "NASA should ditch the shuttle as quickly as possible, build a new and improved spacecraft, and plan to go to Mars -- while continuing its scientific research using automated platforms in space."

"The agency doesn't have to get a blank check to do it, they said -- an additional $5 billion per year could be enough. But it does have to streamline its goals and "go somewhere," as one panelist put it."

So, apparently, according to them, there's nothing wrong with the government's approach to space that a better goal and a little more money won't fix. Just a few billion more a year should do it.

We also hear from the conventional naysayers, represented this time by Alex Roland, former NASA historian.

"The shuttle has never been and never will be the launch vehicle that NASA wants it to be, yet the agency appears determined to return to business as usual," Roland said. "At least for the short term, we do not need the shuttle and we do not need people in space. Anything we want to do in space, we can do more cheaply, more effectively and more safely with automated spacecraft monitored and controlled from Earth."

Ah, yes, it's the old, "let the robots do it."

The problem with that thinking is that it's not possible to know whether or not we should have robots do it until we develop a national consensus on just what "it" is. Professor Roland is being disingenuous when he says that "we" don't need people in space. He may not need people in space, but he doesn't speak for me, nor does he speak for the millions of other Americans in public opinion polls who've expressed interest in visiting space themselves. Despite the clear interest of the American public in a space program that actually involves them, and makes space meaningful to them, it doesn't occur to any of these dinosaurs that this should be a legitimate focus of government policy. Instead, to the degree that they support manned spaceflight at all, they continue to propose the same voyeuristic state enterprise, in which the taxpayers shell out their hard-earned money to watch a few NASA-selected astronauts go into space, and they continue to berate us about our unwillingness to do so.

"The space program, given NASA's current budget of slightly more than $15 billion, costs each American about $50 per year, or about 14 cents per day, Griffin said."

"'A really robust space program could be had for a mere 20 cents a day from each person,' he said. 'We as a nation quite literally spend more on pizza than we do on space exploration.'"

This is one of many fallacies that space enthusiasts use to argue for their own pet programs. I dissected another one--the "broken window fallacy"--in this space a few weeks ago. I've been hearing the pizza one, in various forms, for years (I even used to use it myself, decades ago, when I was younger and more naive). If it isn't pizza, it's cosmetics, or video games, or pet food.

Here's the problem, Dr. Griffin. Americans are willing to spend more money on pizza than on NASA, because unlike NASA, when we spend our money on pizza, we get to eat a few slices, rather than watching a bureaucrat get all of the pie, and not even getting crumbs.

Now you can rant and whine all you want about how "selfish" we're being, and what penny-pinching philistines we are for not wanting to ship our tax dollars off to Houston and the Cape (and to Washington, where such things are, to use an overgenerous term, managed), in order to watch government employees gallivant on far-off planets that NASA seems determined to maintain as science preserves. But it's not going to change our minds.

I want to go, and I suspect that if I said "we" want to go, I'd be a lot more accurate than Professor Roland is when he attempts to impute his interests on those of the populace.

And the ironic thing is that, if these people could break themselves free from the paternalistic Cold-War thinking that has given us our current space program, it would be a win for all of us. Large numbers of people going to and from orbit implies low cost access, for both passengers and payloads. It also implies a private space transportation and orbital space infrastructure that would render trivially (at least relatively, compared to today) inexpensive many of the missions for which they currently want us to futilely spend our pizza money.

Unfortunately, there was no sign that any of last week's witnesses understand either what the desires of the American people are when it comes to space, or how to achieve them. Perhaps next time, the committee might consider calling some of the unusual suspects.

A Truce?

Apparently, the FAA has at least partially, if not fully resolved the ongoing turf war between FAA-AVR and FAA-AST over who will regulate suborbital vehicles, discussed in this space last week.

This is very good news, not just for X-Prize competitors, but for all the new companies forming to tap the suborbital passenger and research market. The agency seems to be aligning itself with the apparent wishes of congress as expressed in the legislation I discussed in that column, including the definitions for suborbital trajectories and suborbital vehicles. This will make it much easier to perform flight test operations almost immediately. It's now clear that Burt Rutan will fly as an experimental airplane up to the time that he actually flies into space, at which point he'll have to get a launch license.

Though it will still be necessary to pass the legislation, and I continue to encourage people to get their representatives to sponsor it, this administrative change may go a long way in itself toward getting investor funds to flow into these new startup companies that hold so much promise for our future in space.

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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