Over at The Space Review today, Dan Lester says we won’t make any progress unless we end our Apollo-driven focus on destinations, and pay more attention to capabilities (as I’ve been preaching for years). I found this interesting:
…how do we get taxpayers to buy into that grand goal of being able to leave, which is a truly unarguable and completely unique justification for human spaceflight? It’s not a matter of just telling NASA to do it. The Space Act that defines the agency says nothing about species preservation, and actually doesn’t even say anything about human spaceflight!
I’m working on a book, and this is an excerpt from the first chapter, a history of the early years:
When it was first formed in 1958, nothing in the NASA charter required that the new agency do more [than the NACA], except to extend the process to space technology development.
And in fact, in light of that, it’s interesting to do something that few (including space enthusiasts) have ever done – to go back and read it. Note that it actually bears little resemblance to the agency that was suddenly morphed into the manned-space behemoth that it became in the wake of the decision to race the Soviets to the moon:
(a) The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.
(b) The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities.
The Congress further declares that such activities shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, a civilian agency exercising control over aeronautical and space activities sponsored by the United States, except that activities peculiar to or primarily associated with the development of weapons systems, military operations, or the defense of the United States (including the research and development necessary to make effective provision for the defense of the United States) shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, the Department of Defense; and that determination as to which such agency has responsibility for and direction of any such activity shall be made by the President in conformity with section 2471(e).
(c)The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.
(d) The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:
(1) The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
(6) The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
(7) Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
(8) The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment; and
(9) The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes.
The emphases are mine. Note that nothing whatsoever about Apollo either sought or encouraged to even a minimum extent, let alone the maximum one possible, commercial use of space.
Note also that while (d)(3) authorized the agency to “develop and operate” vehicles carrying “living organisms” (including humans) through space, it says nothing about how they get there. The development of the giant Saturn V was not driven by the NASA charter – it was driven by the need to kick up lunar dust before the Russians did. And take away that clause, and there is little difference between NASA’s charter and what its predecessor, the NACA, did, other than the addition of “space” to aeronautics. The 1961 Apollo decision, in a very profound way, perverted the original intent of the founding of the agency two years earlier. And it’s interesting to point out that the controversial policy change of the Obama administration in early 2010 – to have astronauts delivered to low earth orbit (LEO) on commercial launchers while NASA focused its resources on the “development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space” is nothing more than returning the agency to its original charter of half a century before (and prior to the wrong turn taken with Apollo).
It could have continued on in the NACA model, with private industry developing space vehicles to provide services, for government or commercial markets, and the new agency providing it with the key basic technologies to make it successful. But that approach, while more in keeping with our nation’s successful history of affordable technology development, wouldn’t have achieved the president’s stated objective, or at least couldn’t be relied upon for it.
So with the new rush to get humans to the moon and back, decision makers relied on their own recent experience from the war, in which there had been a massive crash government effort funded by the taxpayer to achieve a critical national goal: the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Given the perceived urgency of the space race in an existential Cold War, it seemed appropriate to set up a similar centralized command structure to achieve this new stretch technological objective. As a result, in essence, we established our own state socialist enterprise to compete with that of the Soviets.
We need to break out of that trap in which we’ve been stuck for the past half century.