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Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?
November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
Then came 1986 and the Challenger disaster. It put the shuttle out of service for nearly three years. President Reagan responded with a new space policy, declaring that the shuttle no longer would serve all potential users. Instead it would be treated as a rare and valuable commodity, flying only on major missions of national concern. Commercial users in particular, with their communications satellites, would be welcome to fly their craft aboard expendables. Those old launchers—Delta, Atlas, and Titan—thus gained a new lease on life and a base of customers for which they could compete. But NASA’s long infatuation with the shuttle had so weakened them as to leave Europe with a sizable advantage. During 1989 and 1990 some thirty-five commercial payloads were scheduled for launch. Ten would ride aboard U.S. expendables; virtually all the rest would fly on Ariane.
Where, then, does the shuttle stand today? Far from flying sixty or even thirty times a year, the best it has done has been to make nine flights, in 1985. Its promise of low cost has also gone aglimmering. In 1989 the Office of Technology Assessment estimated that shuttle launch costs “are likely to range between $250 and $500 million, depending on the actual number of flights per year.” Commercial launches on expendables, by contrast, were costing $40 to $60 million.
Has the shuttle advanced the national interest by supporting Air Force activities? Even before the loss of Challenger, the Air Force—over strenuous NASA objections—announced plans to renew its purchases of Titan-class expendables. Since then it has made a maior commitment to the Titan IV, which offers a payload of thirty-nine thousand pounds. The shuttle lifts forty-seven thousand, down from its originally advertised sixty-five thousand.
Has NASA succeeded in pursuing a vigorous unmanned program, in addition to its manned activities? To the contrary, its leaders have repeatedly slighted the unmanned efforts, starving them for support to free up funds for the shuttle. During the mid-1970s, for instance, the agency successfully landed two unmanned craft on the surface of Mars, which searched for life within that planet’s soil and sent back oanoramic views of their surroundings. NASA might have sent more, but the money wasn’t there. And despite repeated requests from senior scientists, NASA declined to pursue any type of major initiative in building spacecraft for studies of the earth’s surface.
The notorious Hubble space telescope represented another instance of nearsightedness, and not only in its improperly shaped mirror. The idea for a large telescope in orbit dated from the mid-1960s and had broad support among astronomers. They knew that turbulence within the earth’s atmosphere, which causes stars to twinkle, blurs and smears their images in conventional telescopes. An orbiting instrument, high above the air, could return images of unprecedented sharpness. But amid the financial demands of the shuttle, the space-telescope effort experienced repeated delays and reductions in program goals. These stringencies discouraged testing of components, which is why the mirror’s misshape went undetected until the telescope was already in orbit.
Has manned flight nevertheless attracted its own base of people, who rely on it to do useful work? The answer is the contrary: Virtually every manned flight undertaken or planned has served the internal interests of NASA proper. It is true that the shuttle launched several commercial spacecraft, prior to 1986. But those launches stemmed from NASA’s use of subsidy and monopoly to boost artificially the demand for shuttle flights. The subsidies undercut the expendables by making the shuttle less costly—NASA was in effect telling clients that they could have any launcher they liked, as long as it was the shuttle. It is little wonder that a growing stream of these clients sought an alternative in Ariane.
Few shuttle flights have specifically relied on the skills of astronauts. The 1990 recovery of the Long Duration Exposure Facility, an orbiting lab, is about the only one. A 1992 recovery and relaunch of a communications satellite was largely a costly exercise in public relations. Expendable rockets are so much cheaper than the shuttle that the user could have saved money by simply launching a replacement—if NASA hadn’t charged only $93 million for its service, even though the true cost was over half a billion dollars.
NASA also has pursued Spacelab, a research center carried in the shuttle’s payload bay that features a pressurized module, but Spacelab flew only four manned missions prior to 1992, for durations of about a week, and only once between 1985 and 1992. The reason is simple: Spacelab looked like a low-cost alternative to the space station, and here too NASA sought no competition.
How, overall, do U.S. space activities compare with those of Europe? Ariane itself has had problems: it was out of service for several months in 1990 as a result of one of its own launch failures. But in 1989 the total European effort cost some $3 billion and put up ten satellites. The combined U.S. space program, Air Force and NASA together, spent $30 billion and launched 24. By this measure the American program is a fraction as costeffective as Europe’s.