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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

selling space, part 1

It's funny how conversations can migrate from blog to blog. Over at Space Politics five days ago, Jeff Foust got the ball rolling by noting "that space ranks pretty low on the list of priorities of the general public (and, thus, fairly high on the list of government programs they would be willing to cut)". In the comments for that post, commentor James summarized why this is so:
Those who support the current lunar program often forget the opportunity costs. There are better ways to spend the same money on developing space. I’m 24 - with the current Constellation program plan, I’ll be in my mid 30s by the time we get back to the moon. If we operate the system for a decade or two after that, as is likely, all I can expect in my career is to see 4 people land on the moon twice a year. That is not exciting - nor is it worth the money. Maybe by the time I retire we’ll be looking at another "next generation system".

What’s the point of any of this for someone my age?
Then Jon Goff of Selenian Boondocks picked up on this point and expanded upon it further:
If our current approach to space development was actually putting in place the technology and infrastructure needed to make our civilization a spacefaring one, I’d be a lot more willing to support it. Wise investments in the future are a good thing, but NASA’s current approach is not a wise investment in the future. It’s aging hipsters trying to relive the glory days of their youth at my generation’s expense.

Patience is only a virtue when you’re headed in the right direction and doing the right thing. If Constellation was truly (as Marburger put it) making future operations cheaper, safer, and more capable, then I’d be all for patiently seeing it out.

While Constellation might possibly put some people on the moon, it won’t actually put us any closer to routine, affordable, and sustainable exploration and development. I have no problem with a long hard road, just so long as its the right one.
Now the conversation shifts to SpaceRef, where yesterday Dennis Wingo argued that NASA has done a terrible job at selling space to the American people for forty years:
There is a principle in the entrepreneurial world that if you present a business plan to an investor that does not meet their criterion for funding, you dont get funded. The same principle applies to government spending with the congress, executive branch and the people fulfilling the role of the investor. Our national space agency has been trying to sell a business plan to the American people for almost forty years that they have continually decided not to fund. The investor has continually given feedback to the NASA entrepreneur with little or no indication that NASA has listened.

...It is quite clear to those of us who have been involved with NASA since the beginning of the SEI era that its successor, the VSE is in trouble. The fact is that NASA ignored both the president and the executive branch organization (OSTP), that helped to come up with the VSE in the first place. The problem is not the rocket, it is the plan of what we do when we get to the Moon. While there are many who would strenuously argue that the transportation architecture represented by the ESAS study as implemented with billions of dollars of taxpayer money is the wrong one, in the end, this argument misses the greater point.

The point is that there is virtually no plan at all to carry out the truly remarkable plan to use resources derived from the Moon for further exploration. The epitome of the divergence from the vision as laid out by the president is the statement by the NASA administrator that all we need is a good map, to get back to the Moon. There are statements that encapsulate all the problems of a plan, and this statement is the one that made it clear that NASA has no interest in carrying out the VSE as envisioned by our elected leadership and why in the competition for federal resources, NASA is losing.
And this brings us to a piece written earlier today by Mark Whittington:
The main problem with Wingo's critique of the way VSE is being pursued is that it fails to understand the proper role of government in opening the space frontier. It is not the role of NASA to build the infrastructure that would take him, you, and me to the Moon and beyond, no more than it was the job of Lewis and [Clark] to build a transcontinental railroad. Government agencies are not very good at building transportation infrastructures. The history of the space shuttle should give pause, if nothing else, to those who think otherwise.

Instead it is one role of NASA to help to enable that infrastructure. How does VSE do that? The answer lays in a NASA program that Wingo fails to mention: the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) program. For a modest [sum], COTS seems on the verge of leveraging the ISS to enable the establishment of a true commercial Earth to Low Earth Orbit transportation industry. Companies like SpaceX, Orbital, and even Lockheed Martin are actually building space craft that will take cargo and people to and from LEO. Even the sub orbital barnstorming efforts (i.e. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, etc) are bending metal and testing actual hardware.

So, using the COTS model, it would seem very reasonable to suggest that ten or fifteen years later, someone would suggest a similar proposal for NASA's lunar base. If private industry by that time already has years of experience going to and from LEO, it would not be much of a stretch to suggest that we could shortly see private flights to and from the Moon.
Of course, with this kind of conversation going on I cannot help but to throw in my two cents.

First of all, I have to take exception to some of what Mark wrote. "Government agencies are not very good at building transportation infrastructures." The existence of the interstate highway system and the multitude of airports and shipyards across America and the streets and subways within cities, nearly all government-built, suggests that Mark is dead wrong on this. In Canada and many other countries the railroads were government-built, too. Transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance is one of the primary functions of governments at all levels throughout the world. This is done because such infrastructure is an economic necessity: without that infrastructure in place, the transportation of goods and people becomes prohibitively expensive and the economy simply cannot support itself. No transportation infrastructure means no economy which in turn means no tax base to operate the government in the first place. As much as I have railed against governments in the past, and as much as I would like to see an absolute minimum of government in any form, the existence of government-built transportation infrastructure is a fact which cannot be ignored, nor dismissed as Whittington has.

Secondly, I find Whittington's example of COTS to be disingenuous. SpaceX is taking advantage of COTS because the money is available to offset their development costs, however they were going to do what they are doing anyhow, regardless of COTS. They saw that there was a potential for a market in space transportation irrespective of NASA's plans. And when one really gets down to brass tacks, the existence of SpaceX is due to Elon Musk's personal dream of going to Mars. There's something in it for him personally.

And then to bring Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, who have nothing whatsoever to do with COTS or anything else that NASA is doing, into the mix is rubbish. Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are not developing suborbital spaceflight because of something of NASA is doing; they are doing it because they think that a market exists, of people who have spent most of their lives watching NASA and the Russians thoroughly explore low earth orbit while their own personal experience in space keeps getting pushed further off into future generations. Bezos and Branson and a lot of others have recognized that people want to go into space, even if only for a period of a few minutes, and they are looking to get in on that market. They have recognized that they can make viable businesses taking people to space - in short they can make money by providing a service that people want. For Bezos and Branson and Carmack and lots of others, there is something in it for them, and they are willing to gamble their personal fortunes based on that potential.

And this brings us back to the point raised by James in the comments at Space Politics. In all of the grand plans that NASA is putting forth, in their desire to maintain the huge Shuttle workforce by developing brand new rockets when adequate commercial alternatives already exist, in their plans to send a handful of people to the moon fifteen (or twenty? thirty? the schedule keeps slipping) years from now, whose goal would be apparently to merely to have repeated history but "on steroids", what is in it for the rest of us?

What compelling reason is there to even justify the continued existence of NASA beyond the fulfillment of the commitment to the international partners in the ISS? Why should American tax dollars go to pay for anything that NASA does? What can justify the opportunity costs if - after the completion of the ESAS implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration - we are no closer to being a spacefaring society than we were in 1972?

If NASA wants to receive yearly increases in their budget, even if only to keep pace with inflation, then what exactly are the advantages to the American taxpayer that NASA's plans provide? How does the expenditure over the next few decades improve anything for American society, in a way that an alternative expenditure of those same funds could not?

Of course, it is not enough for me to simply complain that NASA is doing it all wrong. There are things that NASA could be doing differently, to make themselves relevant and to show the American taxpayers that there is a benefit to the agency's expenditures that greatly exceed the opportunity costs, to show average people that there's something in it for us. However, this post is already excessively long, and so my solutions are going to have to wait for another blog post.

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