In a telling article in a recent Newsweek magazine, Fred Guterl and Eve Conant write about NASA's retirement of its aging shuttle fleet, as well arguing that NASA's plan to privatize trips to space is a plan to make massive cost savings.
Unlike Fred and Eve, I don't write for a magazine. I work for a private, non-profit research firm that specializes in getting government contracts. Here's how it works:
1. Government realizes that it would be expensive to do R&D.
2. Government solicits for contracts from private firms, expecting to save money.
3. Private companies submit high-ball offers, padding their numbers with as much as 2.5X multiplier to their actual projected costs.
4. Lobbyists from Private Company X get busy.
5. Senator from area of Private Company X pulls rank, changes solicitation to "sole-source" request.
6. Private Company X gets contract at huge profit, then makes even more profit through add-services and engineering change orders.
7. Government has to set up oversight committee to monitor activity of Private Company X. Hires retired employee of Private Company X to chair committee.
8. Government is now paying for a ballooning private contract, an oversight group, and deadlines, unsurprisingly, are not met.
Of course, the company I work for is a non-profit, so none of the above applies. We rely on our raw awesomeness to get government contracts, and abhor lobbying. We also steer clear of NASA.
In any case, there are plenty of examples of this, in various industries. It was recently announced that bad oversight had led to the disappearance of millions of dollars in the rebuilding effort in Iraq. The US Postal Service, privatized to "save money" runs a consistent budget shortfall, and raises postage rates nearly annually...and then relies on government handouts to keep their books black.
But let's look at what Guterl and Conant say specifically:
The International Space Station, for instance, built and maintained at a cost that by some estimates approaches $100 billion, houses six astronauts. The commission headed by Lockheed Martin chairman Norm Augustine that has spent much of the past year deliberating on NASA's human spaceflight program has found that the agency's $18 billion annual budget isn't enough to meet its goal of returning to the moon by 2020, or to keep the ISS aloft beyond 2015, even though ending this program would send NASA's international partners into apoplexy. More embarrassing, with NASA's space shuttle due to be mothballed in 2010, and its cheaper replacement, the Orion capsule, not due to fly until 2012, the partners face a two year gap in which they will have to rely on Russia's Soyuz ships to commute to the space station.It sounds like Fred and Eve have been reading my blog!
Nevertheless, they make a blunder:
What NASA needs most is money, lots of it.This is precisely what NASA doesn't need.
Hey North Dakota, for every dollar your state earns, NASA gets 75 cents! How's that for making you feel inconsequential?! And NASA needs more! And the entire country of Chad makes a pathetic 89 cents for every dollar NASA gets. But by all means, get NASA more money!
What NASA really needs isn't more money, but better "dollar utilization." A huge part of NASA's budget go to researching things like "astrobiology" and "fruit fly behavior in microgravity" (no joke, here's the link).
Now, I understand that learning about neural systems development in microgravity is important to somebody, but the problem is that no one on Earth will ever see a benefit from that research. As I have argued before, we will never leave Earth in adult form; the only possible way to leave this planet will be as frozen embryoes.
Does anyone ever wonder what they do all day up on the I.S.S.? They recently complete adding parts to increase the staff of the ISS to a potential 13 astronauts (not the six Guterl and Conant suggest)...what do they do up there? Most ISS residents stay for a period of several months. It is not like they are developing space lasers in a secret lab up there (or are they? be a lot cooler if they were), no they are mostly doing life science research and physics research on behalf of scientists down on the planet who can't achieve microgravity in their own labs.
In any case, I think it is about time I take a stand on this: NASA needs to shut down the I.S.S. Of course, this is a "too little too late" argument, because I have watched and laughed while they continued to build more parts on to it.
So maybe I should readdress my stance: NASA needs to better utilize the I.S.S. Perhaps what they need is to do research on simulated gravity, by spinning the I.S.S. at high speed. Or they could turn the I.S.S. into a biosphere, to test the ability of humans to survive in space without a tether to Earth. I'm getting way off topic...
What really bothers me about Peter and Eve's analogy to space being the next frontier like The West is that this is the equivalent of the settlers moving west without the cavalry to protect them.
I am talking, of course, about Space Indians. As anyone who is acquainted with American history knows, one of the major threats to settlers moving across the Great Plains was attacks by the Native Americans already there. Many wagon trains were lost to Indian raids. It became necessary for the U.S. Cavalry to set up Forts (Like Fort Dodge) and bases along major routes like the Oregon and Sante Fe Trails. These acted as a deterrent for the Indians, as the Cavalry possessed greater manpower and weapons.
So it worries me that NASA will be cutting their own cord on space travel and leaving it to the private companies. Who will protect the settlers of space from the space indians? NASA should abandon their moon-mission dreams, open up space to private companies, and start building a new fleet of space shuttles...armed with guns and missiles. Consider me the Space Wyatt Earp.