by Rod D. Martin
August 26, 2005

How many problems does it take for “one of the most sophisticated systems ever produced by man” to become just another white elephant?

A lot of people have been asking that about the Space Shuttle lately.  But the Space Shuttle’s downward spiral started long, long ago.  In fact, it started in the Nixon Administration.

In the days of triumph which were Apollo, NASA — still capable of bold vision — laid out a plan to explore and settle the Solar System.  Among its more prominent features were a series of follow-on Moon missions which more resembled Lewis and Clark (or even John Smith) than the “space shots” of the 1960s.  A Mars mission was on tap for the early 1980s, and an entire infrastructure was planned for near-Earth space, tasked with constructing spacecraft, facilitating private industry and supporting genuine settlement.  Barron Hilton even proposed expanding his hotel chain to orbit and to the surface of the Moon itself.

To make all of this fly, NASA knew it needed to get beyond expendable rockets and tiny capsules.  They needed the heavy-lift capability of the Saturn V, but they needed it in a reusable form.  And they needed to make spaceflight truly routine:  an airline, not a crap-shoot.

And so the Space Shuttle was born.  But not the Shuttle we know.

Richard Nixon and Congressional Democrats had very different ideas for the future.  Quickly shelved were plans to make America’s enormous investment in space pay off:  in fact, three whole Apollo missions for which the equipment had been built — all that was needed was the fuel — were cancelled, their rockets spread around the country as museum pieces.  Space went overnight from “the way of the future” to a budgetary “necessary evil”.

And so it has been ever since.

Before it was a white elephant, the Shuttle became a camel: “a horse designed by committee.”  And as feature after feature got compromised away, it went from truly revolutionary to somewhat adequate to barely competent.  Key among its stated requirements was to launch every two weeks.  At closer to once every three months when NASA’s lucky (and on no vaguely predictable schedule), the “Space Transportation System” which didn’t even get color computer monitors until two years ago saw its all-important cost per pound to orbit, well, skyrocket; and what remained of America’s space dreams crashed like Challenger and Columbia.

This is the way of government planning, no different from Soviet steel mills or the equally botched Space Station.  And the Space Elephant is finally meeting its gazelle:  the free market.

Two weeks ago, Arlington, VA-based Space Adventures announced it will commence tourist flights to the Moon.  They won’t land, but two passengers — paying $100 million each — and one cosmonaut will soon fly around the Moon, the first humans to do so in three decades.  To put that in perspective — and remember, Space Adventures plans to make a profit — the Apollo program cost $235 billion; and one Space Shuttle launch — to low Earth orbit — costs around $1 billion and turns no profit at all.

And if that weren’t enough, how about going to that Space Hilton?  Sir Richard Branson, Paul Allen and Burt Rutan will get you there, on Virgin Atlantic Airlines’ new division, Virgin Galactic.  The team has already proven its mettle by winning the Ansari X Prize, $10 million for building and flying a fully-private space plane twice in two weeks last year.  Branson’s plans are bigger, with regularly scheduled service to space planned for 2007.  Despite an initial ticket price of $100,000, all of Virgin’s planned flights have already sold out.

So who needs NASA?  Certainly government has an essential role in space (one George Bush has articulated very well), from Lewis and Clark-style expeditions to developing vital technologies — like scramjets — with military application.  And over time, as in the Old West, that need will surely grow.

But it’s long past time that the routine stuff — the lion’s share of NASA’s budget — got passed to a deregulated, empowered private sector.  As with the Post Office’s decision in the 1920s to contract out airmail delivery, such an arrangement will spark an explosion of new technologies, new industries, and in our time, a new frontier.

But most of all, it will get government out of the way, in this case of the future.  White elephants have no business flying.  But mankind does, all the way to the stars.


Editor’s Note: This op-ed from Rod D. Martin originally appeared in World Magazine.