Fool Me Once...
by Jim Davidson
Treasurer, Houston Space Society
Special to the Libertarian Enterprise
There is an old saying, attributed variously to the Scottish, the Native Americans, and the Chinese, which goes, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Nearly thirty years ago, inveterate bureaucrats and the easy-money hungry government contractor community hatched a scam. And today, they are at it again.
Space enthusiasts, and many in the general public were fooled once, because we believed. We ignored the signs and warnings, because we wanted to believe. Intellectual pigmies the likes of Walter Mondale said it was a bad idea, and we ignored them because we had to have what we wanted to believe could come true.
Who were these inveterate bureaucrats? These were the men and women of NASA who were convinced that the only way to get into space was the government way, that the only good space program was a government-funded one, and that, having proved that they could get us to the Moon, they deserved whatever budget they ordained.
Who were the easy-money hungry government contractors? The usual suspects at Lockheed (now Lockheed-Martin), McDonnell Douglas, and Rockwell International. What did they want? As much money as they could get the government to fork over for the least amount of effort on their part.
What scheme did they hatch? Simple, really. "Mothball the existing fleet of Saturn V launch vehicles," the bureaucrats and contractors said, from 1968 and through 1972, "and fund our studies for a fully reusable launch system." Why stop production on the fleet of operational vehicles? How else could they justify spending money on the really high margin labor of engineering design.
In 1972, with the last two men walking on the Moon, Congress caved in and agreed to fund the shuttle program. NASA trotted out an allegedly competitive request for proposals, the usual suspects (Rockwell, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas) were awarded multi-million-dollar contracts for studies, and eventually a shuttle was born. Originally designed to be fully reusable, it was scaled back and redesigned repeatedly, ostensibly because of budget constraints.
The shuttle promised much and delivered little. It was to cut launch costs by an order of magnitude from $1,000 per pound to orbit down to $100 per pound "or even less" in the words of one optimistic bureaucrat. But a funny thing happened on the way to the launch pad.
Before the first shuttle could fly, it was redesigned and re-re-designed until billions had been spent. Technology that was supposed to provide extra capabilities proved costly and ineffective. Finally, with CBS News running a special report on the "Fourteen Billion Dollar Question Mark" NASA was finally ready for a first flight in April 1981.
Did it fly 100 times a year? No, it hasn't been flown more than a dozen times a year. Did it bring launch costs down? No, launch costs are currently at least $10,000 per pound, even more if you count all the money actually spent on developing the shuttle and not just current-year expenditures. Was it possible to "mass-produce" a fleet of 10 vehicles for "rapid turnaround" with days between flights, as promised? No, flights are still very rare, take months of planning, and require tens of thousands of workers to accomplish. And the aerospace contractors sit back and rake in billions with guaranteed profits. Year, after year, after year, after year.
But space enthusiasts dreamed the dream, so we fought the fight. For my own case, in 1977 at a mere 14 I called my Congress critters, I wrote them letters, I asked the president to help, I sat in shopping malls with petitions, I went to conferences, I joined many different groups, I staged demonstrations at the major party political conventions, helped draft legislation, and did many other things. For over 10 years, I supported everything NASA ever asked for, and pushed for more. Many thousands of others like me did as much, and hundreds of thousands expressed casual support through letters or subscriptions.
Now, the same jerks are up to it again. Having insisted for almost 30 years that the shuttle was the only thing worth funding, and having done everything in their power to kill off any possible competition, the boys from the Beltway and their cronies in the contractor community have hatched...The same scam!
Here it is from the 12 May 1996 Houston Chronicle: "For the past year, Rockwell International, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed Martin, using $7 million each in NASA seed money, have been preparing competitive proposals for an X-33 and a development scheme for an SSTO." There's a competition! NASA pays them to prepare their proposals.
And the X-33, what does it promise? "A fully reusable, one-stage rocket by 2008," and "100 orbital missions, simplified ground operations...to drop the cost of delivering cargo to orbit from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound, or less," the Chronicle tells us.
The smell becomes intolerable when reads Lori Garver, the executive directrix of the National Space Society (more accurately, the National Socialists for Space ) quip, "There have been several other attempts with the Department of Defense that took a stab at a new vehicle. All have failed." Oddly, she doesn't mention that her aerospace contractor friends worked diligently to prevent success in these other programs (notably Strategic Defense Initiative's DC-X which succeeded in all of its objectives in spaite of such efforts).
NASA's director of advanced transportation, Gary Payton, says "We are changing the rules of the game....Everything is brand new." As Shakespeare might say, 'tis new to thee, Gary. Payton explains that the shuttle embarked on full-scale development before it had key technologies ready, without mentioning the absence of appropriate propellant tanks, adequate sensor systems, or sufficient rocket engines for X-33.
So, where do you suppose this is heading? Will NASA spend $1 billion over 3 years to develop X-33? Will NASA hem and haw and bemoan budget cuts and end up spending $5 billion over 8 years? Or will they pull the kind of game they played with space station and spend $10 billion over 12 years? Will we have a reusable launch vehicle when the money is gone and the time wasted?
I don't know. Maybe we will. Then again, do we have the fully reusable, $100 per pound, 100-flights-a-year kind of shuttle we were promised? Do we have the 12-man space station we were promised within a decade for $8 billion? Or do we have nothing but delays and cost overruns?
The habit of space enthusiasts of supporting every thing NASA dreams up has got to be curbed. To look at us behave, you would think we believe in the motto, "Fool me once. Fool me twice. What the hell, fool me thrice!"
There is a way to get into space for $100 per pound, fly hundreds of vehicles to orbit a year, and do so cost effectively. But economic success and operational achievement are not associated with government activities. Space enthusiasts must stop asking the government to do everything in space and demand that they do nothing. Only by removing the government from the business environment can we have rapid commercial development.
With over a million pounds of cargo to orbit launched each year, there is clearly a market. With a small fraction of the space tourism market, that could easily increase by another 80 million pounds of passengers and their luggage, representing only 100,000 passengers or one-hundredth of one percent of the known market for space tourist flights. The market is huge, but the commercial developers are all suffering terribly. And it is all the fault of the usual suspects: NASA and their crony contractors.
So, if you like space activities and want to fly in space someday, do something different this time. When NASA asks for help, sit on your hands.
Jim Davidson has always been a liberty minded individualist, but got very serious about it after the state shut down his space tourism company, Space Travel Services, in 1991. Jim has a bachelor's in history from Columbia (1985), an MBA in marketing from Rice (1987), has worked in aerospace, software, banking, real estate, and is currently Chief Operating Officer of a $3 million revenues medical company. Among his other interests, Jim has been president of the Houston Space Society and scubas whenever he can.
Did you like this issue? Let us know. Send your comments and suggestions to the Managing Editor, with the word "Comments" in the title of your message.
Next to advance to the next article, or Previous to return to the previous article, or Index to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 9, June, 1996.