Where’s My Spinning Space Hotel?

Professor Reynolds has a column on space policy at Tech Central Station today. Fortunately, it’s a subject with which he’s more familiar than what constitutes a good college fight song (“Rocky Top, my grandmother’s pajamas,” he said, eyes rolling heavenward).

(Now, speaking as an erstwhile bluegrass guitar picker, as a good ‘ol bluegrass tune, “Rocky Top” is great.

But c’mon…there may be a few college fight songs that “Rocky Top” is better than, but I doubt if they’re from any colleges in America, and “Hail To The Victors” is most certainly not among them. Sheesh!

Besides, our stadium is still bigger than yours…)

Anyway, I basically agree with the editorial, but it needs a little elaboration.

…The civilian commercial space industry has been booming in terms of revenue. But the technology of getting into space hasn?t progressed much since the 1960s (some would say that the balky, expensive space shuttle is actually a step backward), industry concentration is even worse, and there?s no prospect of any improvement.

This was a deliberate consolidation forced by NASA (and Dan Goldin), based on the socialistic principle that competition is inefficient (which is a subject for another column, about NASA’s disastrous “Centers of Excellence” policy). From a manned-space standpoint, there is now only one major aerospace contractor, because though Boeing and Lockheed Martin (“Lockmart”) are separate companies, they are joined at the hip through the United Space Alliance, which operates the Shuttle under contract to NASA. This is a result of a shotgun wedding at Dan Goldin’s insistence. Step one of a rediversification of the industry would be to allow USA its independence from both its parents as part of an overall Shuttle/ISS privatization deal.


Speak of the devil. Aviation Now has an article today on just that subject which, if it were actually news (at least to me), would have superheated steam coming out of my ears.

JSC is worried about “safety.” Of course, their concerns have nothing to do with the fact that their cozy little empire might get broken up…

Do they seriously believe that if a private contractor took over the system that they would risk irreplaceable billion-dollar assets (i.e., the Orbiter fleet) to cut a few corners? Only governments, who can always go back to the taxpayer for more money (as they did in 1986) do that.

From the article:

The report says asset “transfer mechanisms that could be used include a facility contract, government-owned contractor-operated arrangement, lease, sale, license–or ‘gift.'” Congress is likely to frown on the “gift” option for turning over shuttle assets, while potential corporate bidders might cringe at the Johnson report’s assessment of commercial principles. “Shuttle privatization implementation needs to redirect the profit motive, allowing it to be a factor, but not the decisive influencing criteria,” the report said.


It is not profitable to destroy irreplaceable assets on which your business is dependent. But of course the writers of the report, who have never had to actually meet a payroll, wouldn’t know that. The profit motive is both necessary and sufficient to ensure crew safety.

“Existing contracts are structured such that contract length and terms significantly influence the contractor to make short-term profit-motivated decisions. An overemphasis on profit can result in program weakness with a reduction of critical skills,” the report said. “Short-term cost reduction at the expense of long-term health will not be acceptable.”

Astronauts strapped into any privatized shuttle would certainly agree with that.

Uh, sorry guys, but whatever happened to the astronauts of “The Right Stuff”? You know, the ones who went to funerals every week for their comrades lost in test flights? Well, don’t worry. Regardless of how concerned we are about your safety (frankly, if they don’t like the risks, they should go get another job–there’s a long line of people who would love to go in their place, are perfectly competent to do so, and will take the risk), you’re probably safe because it would be stupid to lose another Orbiter. The factory and tooling for building them doesn’t exist any more, and it would require several billion dollars to replace it. The money would be much better spent on a modern launch vehicle.

[End Update]

[3 PM Update]

UPI columnist Jim Bennett suggests that the FAA might properly take umbrage at the notion that they can’t properly license launches to ensure safety. That is exactly the implication of the notion that “…Shuttle privatization implementation needs to redirect the profit motive, allowing it to be a factor, but not the decisive influencing criteria.” They are saying that the FAA will not properly do its job in regulating a private Shuttle operator. FAA/AST (the entity that licenses commercial launch) should provide a formal response to this report.

[End Update]

Overall, Glenn has a good set of policy recommendations, but one major thing is lacking–a definition of a goal. What do we, as a nation, want to accomplish in space? We have not had a national debate on this subject since, well, Sputnik. Back then we decided that we wanted to beat the Russkies and not go to sleep under a communist moon. To achieve that goal, we set up a socialist space program, and have never looked back, at least as a country.

Until we can define our new goals, it’s pointless to detemine how to achieve them, and reform will be difficult, because we won’t know how to measure whether or not it’s working, and it will be all too easy to continue funding the status quo, because it creates “jobs” (even as it destroys, or at least prevents the creation of, wealth) and promotes “international cooperation” (though the notion that this somehow advances us in space endeavors remains an unproven shibboleth). As the Chesire Cat said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” That’s where we are with space policy right now.

Here’s my goal:

Let’s make space into a real frontier (hint–frontiers are places that everyday people go to live, work and play–not PhDs). It will be measured by the numbers of people (in hundreds, thousands, millions, as opposed to the few at a time envisioned by our visionary space agency) leaving the planet with their own resources. (If they happen to return as well, that’s fine, but it doesn’t need to be measured). If they’re doing it with their own money, by definition, that means there must be something worth doing up there. Let’s do it with a minimal input of taxpayer dollars (i.e., less than NASA’s current budget).

The achievement of such a goal would require a total redirection and reorganization of not just NASA, but of our entire federal space policy apparatus, including DoD, Department of Commerce, and the FAA/DOT. But since our current space policy remains mired in a Cold-War mentality (and the Cold War has been over for over a decade now) it would be appropriate, indeed overdue, to overhaul the policy now. Mr. O’Keefe will be bringing a clean broom to the agency. Let’s hope that the Administration will have a little imagination.