The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Aldridge Commission press conference
It’s one thing for a group like the Aldridge Commission to recommend changing NASA, but it’s another thing entirely to carry out those changes. (credit: J. Foust)

The Dinkin Commission report (part 1)

<< page 1: building a robust space industry

Dealing with the old order

The report itself, despite my conditional support, is not all sweetness and light. There were some disquieting things there, as well, not the least of which is the overall tone of the publication.

There is still a lot of the “old order” laced throughout this document, beginning with the attitude that it’s somehow the government’s anointed role to help foster the creation of a new space industry in the first place. As we have been trying to tell these people for decades, the government didn’t create the railroad, automobile or commercial aviation industries—it merely greased the wheels already in progress with legislation, land grants, or “early adopter” purchases of services, particularly in aviation. The government may have “invented” the Internet, but it was entrepreneurs who made it pay. Commercial space enterprise should be treated the same way as those other sectors, as the team at Scaled Composites so aptly demonstrated June 21st. They should write some enabling legislation, then get out of the way.

As long as governments have been footing the bills for scientific research, we end up with factionalism, professional jealousies, and political infighting as a side benefit.

In the executive summary, while promoting private-sector solutions, the Commission left the door open for continued NASA hegemony “…where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity.” Presumably, one of those new independent oversight boards they recommend creating would be in charge of that decision. I know a lot of people, at the Cato Institute and elsewhere, who can make a great argument that there is ultimately no case that “only government” can perform a specific activity to the total exclusion of the private sector, including tax collection, prison management, and welfare services or package delivery. Why should delivery of some space services be an exception? Any fear that the private sector can’t handle the load should be mitigated by the knowledge there has been no private commercial launch industry “allowed” to flourish thus far. In the short run, I imagine the present contractors could begin to assume more independent authority over launches: after all they’ve been providing the current hardware for decades, and it won’t be a big stretch. But as innovation and true competition begins to lower launch costs significantly, more players will reach the field, and NASA will have many more options to choose from. The only justification for exclusive NASA involvement would be in the case of “national security” payloads, and perhaps even that would be limited to providing a secure launch facility for the military.

In the case of enabling technologies, the report still recommends the old top-down, NASA-hegemonic, one-best-way approach, by giving NASA sole responsibility for assessment, development of roadmaps, and final integration. Again, they should only be sending out RFPs to the private sector, based on defined mission requirements, not micromanaging the projects themselves.

As long as governments have been footing the bills for scientific research, we end up with factionalism, professional jealousies, and political infighting as a side benefit. Every year, at budget time, every publicly-funded research institution goes to great lengths to explain to Congressional science and budget committees why their pet projects should be funded, usually at the expense of somebody else’s pet projects. The Aldridge report, while setting a grand stage for making science happen effectively in our continued and expanded program of exploration, offers no discussion or recommendations as to how all that “science faction” will be made to disappear.

For example: a handful of researchers from both NASA’s Houghton Mars Project and the Mars Society descend upon remote Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic for a few weeks each summer. Yet it is common knowledge among most space advocates that there is little love (or respect) lost between the leaders of those groups, to the point where they will barely speak to each other up there. They won’t even share a meal, let alone facilities. If this kind of unfortunate thing can happen on Earth, how will researchers from diverse groups with differing goals share resources and facilities to really make real planetary exploration effective?

Their vision for improved education is, in my view, nothing more than a political bailout for a failing public school system, one that has been the subject of severe criticism and controversy for many years prior to this report. Teacher training is already a disgrace. Education itself needs to be reformed in this country from the ground up: “help” from NASA will, frankly, only confuse the issue and prolong the inevitable. It would be better to shift this task over to private space advocacy organizations, who will do a better job of inspiring the students themselves to demand more from their schools and teachers. A more results-oriented system with greater school choice at the local level would be a good start, but that is way beyond the purview of the Aldridge Commission, and a hot potato the political classes have been loathe to touch.

As far as a higher-ed “virtual space academy” is concerned, the online infrastructure is already in place in the private sector at the University of Phoenix and elsewhere. Why not save a lot of money by not reinventing the wheel and work with them on making that curriculum a reality?

Education itself needs to be reformed in this country from the ground up: “help” from NASA will, frankly, only confuse the issue and prolong the inevitable.

Industry and professional organizations have been “engaging the public” for decades on the virtues of space development, but with limited success. Many people see space as important, but few see it as “cool” or directly relevant to their lives, and that is what is needed, here. If we are going to task the media to better engage the public, we first have to engage the media themselves, who have been remarkably moribund, except when disasters occur. The media only received its first wake-up call on June 21st, with the successful flight of SpaceShipOne. In a couple of hours, Scaled Composites did more to make space “cool” than 25 years of NASA propaganda films. Yes, we do need to engage the public, but they need to be treated as more than just sidelined taxpayers applauding the space elitists, as they have been treated up to now. Better non-stick cookware won’t cut it; better imaging or GPS won’t cut it. What does cut it, however, almost every time, is the idea that the average citizen can realistically hope for a ride, even if only a suborbital ride for 20 minutes, at a price they could find a way to afford.

Budgets and economics

From a political perspective, here’s one thing the Aldridge Commission did right: they never mentioned a number. The last commission to do a study on our future in space, the writers of the “90-day report” for the first President Bush, said it would cost $450 billion in 1989 dollars over a 30-year period just to get to Mars. A sticker-shocked Congress declined to consider. (Ironically, we’ve spent about half that amount in space over the last 15 years anyway. At least having a goal might have helped.). The present commission sidesteps the issue by suggesting that we’re just reprioritizing resources already in use, and projected to have over the next decade or so, i.e., within the confines of NASA’s present and future budgets—“no new taxes”—improving the odds of political success for the initiative. But, rhetorically, the real issue is execution: can NASA pull it off, even if reorganized from the ground up?

There was even some humor in the document, if one can call muddled economic thinking “humorous”. In Section III, the first paragraph of the “Prizes” section ends: “It is estimated that over $400 million has been invested in developing technology by the X-Prize competitors that will vie for a $10 million prize—a 40 to 1 payoff for technology.” Only an unrepentant Keynesian could have written that statement. The authors are suggesting that there is a $40 return in technology for every $1 expended, but exactly the reverse is true: collectively, $40 has been spent by all the X Prize contestants in pursuit of $1 in return. Explain to me, please, how Wall Street or Sand Hill Road could possibly be interested in a ratio that dismal. Even if Scaled Composites does, indeed, win the X Prize, they will have, alone, expended approximately $2.50 for every $1 returned, which means the other collective $37.50, technically, received no return at all. So clearly, the X Prize is not about the immediate fiscal rewards: it’s about a positive, public demonstration of proof-of-concept technologies that may, afterward, inspire the public and attract more venture investment toward a truly viable commercial product. It is a “loss leader”, in the hopes of greater rewards down the road.

Many of the concepts developed for the X Prize will simply become dead-ends, and nothing more than an expensive learning experience for the rest of us. So to refer to this as a “40-to-1 payoff for technology” is absurd, as there are no guarantees that the technologies invested in by all 25 X Prize contenders, collectively, will actually find their way into profitable products and businesses—in fact, most of them will not. The Commission needs a clearer understanding of what prizes are really all about before committing NASA and the government to a particular course in this regard.

The Commission needs a clearer understanding of what prizes are really all about before committing NASA and the government to a particular course in this regard.

To sum up: The Aldridge Commission report is actually an incredible feat, considering it’s the product of an Administration-sponsored panel, stacked with a lot of career government insiders (frankly, I expected a lot less, as did many of my colleagues). Nevertheless, it also asks too much of our entrenched public institutions, education, media, and NASA itself, all of which will resist reform to varying degrees. The lobbying battles will be fiercer than ever. To make all these recommendations is one thing—execution is by far another thing entirely, and I have serious concerns in this regard, as the political class is easily distracted, and generally has no stomach for long-term strategic thought.

On the other hand, creating a private sector space industry, one that NASA would feel good about purchasing services from, would be a relatively easy feat, achievable in a single Congressional session. Write some enabling legislation, make some progress on property rights and liability issues (how about withdrawing from the Outer Space Treaty altogether?), and then just sit back and enjoy the ride.

But if they’re going to do that, they’d better hurry. Scaled Composites has already opened the door, and that door promises to be a floodgate. If the Congress and Administration don’t move, they may find themselves watching from the sidelines in a few years.