Past Perfect, Future Misleading

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report was released on Tuesday.

I haven't read it in its entirety, but I've skimmed the whole thing.

The Gehman Commission (search) is to be commended. They've pulled few punches and provided a lot of useful guidance to NASA to get the shuttle flying again -- if not completely safely, at least much more so. I also recommend reading the sections on history and space policy to anyone interested in those subjects. They provide very good insight into how we got into the mess we're in, which is to say that they've dealt very well with describing the past.

There's one area that they get tragically wrong, however--in their recommendations for the future of manned space transport.

From page 111 of the report:

In 2000, as the agency ran into increasing problems with the X-33, NASA initiated the Space Launch Initiative, a $4.5 billion multi-year effort to develop new space launch technologies. By 2002, after spending nearly $800 million, NASA again changed course. The Space Launch Initiative failed to find technologies that could revolutionize space launch, forcing NASA to shift its focus to an Orbital Space Plane, developed with existing technology, that would complement the Shuttle by carrying crew, but not cargo, to and from orbit.

These words are very misleading, because they seemingly accept the (false, in my opinion) premise that the problem with space launch is simply one of having the right "technologies." In fact, the main problem is the incentive structure, but pretending that it's about technology allows NASA to continue, self servingly, to claim that it's "hard" and that they need more money, and that there's no way the private sector could satisfy their manned spaceflight requirements. I'm disappointed in the board for buying into this.

But my real concern with their recommendations isn't about this interim solution, but their long-term recommendations, which can be found two pages later, on 211:

NASA plans to make continuing investments in “next generation launch technology,” with the hope that those investments will enable a decision by the end of this decade on what that next generation launch vehicle should be. This is a worthy goal, and should be pursued.


It is not a worthy goal. It should not be pursued.

The board continues to assume that it is the role of the U.S. government to develop manned launch systems, and to dictate their design. They assume that, despite all of the market research and surveys, there is no demand for human spaceflight except to send NASA astronauts.

Moreover, they assume that there will be a single shuttle replacement. If that comes to pass, it will put us back into the same boat, regardless of the generosity of the development funding.

These assumptions ignore the potential of private vehicles for private markets, even as the X-Prize competitors continue to aim for flights this year and next, and put together plans for eventual orbital passenger systems.

Monocultures are fragile. Launch systems designed for the government, of the government and by the government will be doomed to the same failure and fragility as shuttle. We have to have a diversity of means of getting people into orbit, and we have to expand the market beyond NASA in order to get the economies of scale without which we will never get low costs or reliability.

Let's read the final paragraph on that page, and the last one in the chapter on future transportation.

The Board's perspective assumes, of course, that the United States wants to retain a continuing capability to send people into space, whether to Earth orbit or beyond. The Board's work over the past seven months has been motivated by the desire to honor the STS-107 crew by understanding the cause of the accident in which they died, and to help the United States and indeed all spacefaring countries to minimize the risks of future loss of lives in the exploration of space. The United States should continue with a Human Space Flight Program consistent with the resolve voiced by President George W. Bush on February 1, 2003: “Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."

Lofty words. The question is, what do they mean?

Is it possible for the United States to "retain a continuing capability to send people into space" without NASA being in charge of that? The question is neither asked, nor answered.

But the United States is a big country. We manage to have a continuing capability to get people into the air without a single government-developed airplane. We manage to have a continuing capability to get people across the country in cars, trucks and buses without the government operating them.

And what is a "Human Space Flight Program"? Is it a government program in which NASA develops a shuttle replacement and continues to monopolize human spaceflight, and continues to scare off investors with the implicit threat to use taxpayer dollars to compete with private alternatives, and puts out a fog of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about the "incredible lack of technology"?

Or can it be an initiative that finally harnesses competion and free enterprise to the problem, creating access to space for, as the old ad goes, "the rest of us"? Couldn't that serve equally well, or better, to satisfy the president's resolve?

The commission doesn't say, but almost everyone reading this report will assume that it's the former, rather than the latter.

We need to tell our representatives, never again.

No more shuttles. No more "national space transportation system."

We want, and need, a space transport industry, and it will never occur as long as NASA remains in charge of developing manned launch systems. It will only happen when we put incentives in place (such as government-funded prizes for performance, or guaranteed markets, or targeted tax breaks) and remove existing disincentives (e.g., uncertain and onerous regulations, fear of liability, concern about government competition.)

If we're truly going to free ourselves of fragile systems, and assure affordable access to orbit, space transportation has to become like any other kind of transportation. The Cold War (search) is over. Let's start a new space age based on the American values of competition and individualism, rather than European (or even Soviet) ones of monopoly and bureaucracy.

If that new vision arises from the broken pieces of Columbia on the plains and deserts of the American west, then the sacrifice won't have been in vain.

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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