Dear NASA: Let the Market Decide.

Saturn Stage SIV-B sleeve jettison
It’s pretty obvious to those who know me either through the words here or in person that I’m a fairly staunch progressive/liberal. I believe, for instance, in rights. Hey, fancy that.

Fiscally, though, it’s a mixed bag. Too much market freedom (as I believe we have at the moment) will yield the way to corruption, consumer exploitation, corporate greed, and general mayhem. Too much regulation, though, and you run the dangerous risk of stifling entrepreneurship and innovation. Of all these potential evils, the one I fear the most (and sadly the one that comes to pass with the greatest ease) is the intrusion of the private sector into the government through corruption, and so I lean towards increased regulation. Once again, I point my finger at recent events.

So on one hand, I support the de-privatization of the healthcare industry.

On the other hand, though, it becomes clear at some points where the government needs to cut back. In this particular instance, I’d like to focus on NASA.

Overview

I’m a big fan of NASA. Were I to single out the greatest and most awe-inspiring technical achievement of mankind thus far, it would be far and away the Saturn V “Moon rocket.” And, technical nightmares aside, no space organization has yet to create a spacecraft as elegant as the Space Shuttle. However, as media excitement and public interest over the International Space Station begins to wane, people are beginning to wonder what the next step for manned space exploration is.

NASA’s Purpose of Being

Having run out of options, the Bush administration and NASA got together and answered, “Moon base and Mars.” Here we run into the first problem. NASA’s overarching goal was to further the advancement of human society and improve human life through space exploration. This included, explicitly, the external probing of the Earth from outer space. It seems that NASA realizes that a base on a large rock we’ve thoroughly explored has absolutely no bearing on these goals, and so as of 2006 it changed its official mission statement to “pioneer[ing] the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.” Ah, now they have a legitimate argument for a Moon base! We haven’t built a base on a rock besides the Earth before, so this is pioneering space exploration! Sadly, the Moon is just a rock, and so any base wouldn’t be able to sustain itself, requiring supplies to be sent to it at both literally and figuratively astronomical cost, and to little scientific benefit.

And at what further costs? It was reported around the same time that all these other changes were made that NASA was drastically cutting its budget on general climate studies programs directed at our on precious planet. What will be the point of exploring Mars for life if we don’t even understand our own planet, and cut off our primary means of studying it as a whole? NASA science director Alan Stern has been responsible recently for fighting back at the cutbacks in critical science-related areas and pushing for more useful and relatively inexpensive unmanned science to be done; he’s been trying to get NASA back to its roots of benefiting mankind as a whole. His reward? He was gently pressured out of the organization by current NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

But whatever, this is past history and we’re going to the Moon and Mars whether I like it or not. Let us examine how NASA intends to deliver that goal.

Ares

Computer concept render of Ares I launch
NASA’s new project is Ares, which comes in three configurations at the moment: the Ares I will provide manned crew support for the CSM-derived Orion, the Ares IV will provide combined cargo/manned crew lift support, and the Ares V will be the heavy lifter for cargo, primarily for Earth-orbit rendezvous purposes. The goal behind the Ares project is to reuse as much of the technology developed for the Space Shuttle program as possible — this is referred to as “Shuttle-derived launch architecture.” In theory, the reuse of Shuttle technology will expedite the development process and lower costs, in addition to preserving the jobs of those technicians currently working on the Space Shuttles.

However, it seems that none of these purported advantages have panned out. NASA has become increasingly conservative in its estimated date of launch, currently placing a 65% chance that a mission will launch by 2015. Until then and after we phase out the Space Shuttle in the next two years, we will have to utilize Russia’s Soyuz launch and spacecraft hardware. In addition, NASA has remained suspiciously mum on exactly how much each launch will cost, while the Ares program as a whole has already cost $7 billion.

Furthermore, there have been accusations that the so-called “shuttle-derived launch architecture” isn’t even close to as shuttle-derived as possible. In fact, a proposed alternative, headed by NASA employees on their spare time, called DIRECT was a proposal which would have drastically reduce the amount of engineering required to put NASA back in orbit, in addition to significantly reducing costs. NASA, however, pushed the proposal aside, calling Ares the “right set of rockets for the mission.”

When it rains, though, it pours, and it’s telling how many NASA engineers are skeptical enough to develop solutions on their free time. Another set of engineers has been working on another alternative, known currently as Jupiter. The alternative rocket would be simpler technologically, which generally leads to safer and more economical operation. Indeed, the development savings alone could total $35 billion. Once again, NASA pushed the proposal aside for not meeting some critieria or another, but is this not why the scientific community exists? To collectively work to solve problems? Surely, these alternative solutions, all crafted by NASA engineers themselves, aren’t completely infeasible? And, given the amazingly tangible immediate benefits these designs offer, why is NASA not at least working with these groups to improve their designs?

The Private Sector

SpaceX's Falcon I launch vehicle
The private space sector is great. For the sake of profitability, any private space company must not only ensure rock-solid reliability from launch one, it must constantly innovate and optimize to improve costs and performance to compete in an ever-widening market. Gone are the delusions that the government will absorb the fiscal blow of a failure in the name of the progress of mankind.

That being said, NASA’s short-sightedness does not apply solely to its own hard-working engineers. Eagle-eyed observers will note the similarity of the Ares family’s specifications to those of the Atlas rockets and particularly the current Boeing-built Delta family of rockets. These are private-sector solutions that have proven themselves over time commercially and are available today. NASA’s valid concern that manned spacecraft require triple-redundancy is, as noted in the reference linked, no reason not to attempt the retrofit process.

In addition, PayPal founder Elon Musk never ceases to impress with his leadership in Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and SpaceX. SpaceX’s rise to the forefront of the private sector space scene has been meteoric and remarkable. Relying only on in-house technology developed from scratch with simplicity and pragmatism in mind, the fledgling company will very soon have a full lineup of rockets comparable to the Ares or Atlas rockets. In addition, SpaceX’s manned space program, called Dragon, has been absolutely tearing through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, passing many performance and technical NASA reviews in one try, while other companies struggle for months at each milestone for a green light to proceed. Clearly, then, it meets technical specifications for manned spaceflight. In addition, SpaceX is currently aiming for a 2009 launch window for the Dragon. They could delay for 7 years and still have a 65% chance at beating NASA to space!

How does a 400 person company founded 6 years ago create not only a commercially competitive full lineup of rockets and a manned space capsule capable of a full line of work from scratch while NASA’s thousands of engineers and contractors burn through billions of our hard-earned money?

Conclusion

SpaceX's Dragon crew vehicle
It might be time that NASA stood aside. Not completely, of course. But, when it comes to a pure technological standpoint, it has become clear that NASA’s leadership and prowess is rapidly fading. When it comes to repeated hardware such as launch vehicles, it’s now more than proven that NASA simply cannot compete with a private sector which is constantly and rapidly developing in order to compete with itself. There is no need to waste hundreds of billions of government dollars when private companies are already investing their own money into developing solutions. If NASA were to adopt this mantra, it could use those suddenly-freed billions to study meaningful things, such as our own planet, or the further reaches of our own solar system. We could build a proper replacement to the Hubble telescope, whose imagery has delighted and inspired many a child and whose success has brought much positive attention to NASA.

The time for massive government development of technology is long past. Let other fools waste their own money, NASA. Stop wasting ours.

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