Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?


Has the shuttle supported manned ventures like a space station? Quite to the contrary; it has taken away funds that might have underwritten such a project. As early as 1973 the three-man Skylab was in orbit and operational, representing a station larger than the Soviets have ever launched. A second Skylab station was also built, along with the Saturn V that could have launched it. But (or lack of funds, Skylab II went off to the Air and Space Museum, and the Saturn V wound up on display at the Johnson Space Center. Owls have been known to roost in it.


Since 1984 a major new NASA initiative has indeed pursued a space station. It currently stands as a four-person design, with an advertised cost of $30 billion, though William Broad of The New York Times notes that with its shuttle-supported operations the total cost will top $100 billion. From the perspective of Skylab this new project amounts to an attempt to do in the year 2000, at enormous cost, what we disdained to do in 1975 with equipment that was already in hand.

The shuttle nevertheless is not without advantages. It carries more astronauts than the Apollo spacecraft. It can indeed carry Spacelab within its cargo bay. It also can retrieve a spacecraft from orbit, and in 1993 it is to undertake a mission that could install new equipment in the Hubble Space Telescope, to make amends for the misshapen main mirror. But achieving these new capabilities has cost much time and treasure. It is hard today to avoid concluding that we have gone forty ways around Katy’s barn and wound up with not nearly as much space capability as we had in 1970.

In that year, in the wake of Apollo, NASA lacked a mandate to proceed with the manned adventures that had become its stock in trade. But with Skylab it had abundant opportunity to pursue a manned program that would rely on existing equipment, carrying out missions of long duration. Its fleet of expendables could launch anything from small science experiments to full-blown space stations, and many potential users were eager to build spacecraft that would fly aboard these rockets. NASA could have consolidated its activities with a policy of giving vigorous support to such users, offering the nation a space enterprise that would be both brilliant and daring. Instead it gave us the shuttle.

Eisenhower, with his support of both expendables and unmanned spacecraft, planted a sturdy tree that could grow to serve the nation. Kennedy’s Project Apollo, by contrast, was a hothouse plant that would wither as soon as the nourishing flows of money dried up. Yet even Apollo brought the prospect of long-term advantage, in the rockets and spacecraft that developed under its aegis. The shuttle, by contrast, has proven to be a trap, a trap born of NASA’s following the false star of manned flight.

Manned space flight was a technology much in vogue in Washington but in no demand elsewhere. NASA didn’t impose on itself the discipline of supporting the people who wanted unmanned flights; the agency took the easy way out: subsidies, monopoly. It received little criticism from a public that admired its astronauts, and not much more from Presidents and Congresses that valued it as a high-tech jobs program. With this the space agency fell prey to the classic ills that can afflict any unfettered government organ: sclerosis, loss of integrity, empire building. The conquest of space was a beautiful dream, but so was socialism.

The View from the Future