IEEE Editorial Calls For Disbanding NASA

It’s time for the Obama administration to make NASA a facilitator of private space ventures

By G. Pascal Zachary / November 2011

Who knows the best way to explore space—the government or the market?

To listen to President Obama, the answer is NASA. The U.S. government’s space agency remains a favorite of the political class, despite decades of disappointment, high costs, and low ambitions. Although Obama allowed NASA’s 30-year-old shuttle program to end and canceled its replacement, Constellation, he has maintained the agency’s US $19 billion budget (give or take a few hundred million) and reaffirmed its central position in space exploration.

The president’s policy is mistaken, because space exploration is inexorably democratizing. Boeing is building a promising spacecraft. Bigelow Aerospace is developing a private space station and plans to train astronauts from countries without any formal space programs. Virgin Galactic is working on suborbital space flights for the paying public and, led by the British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is trying to marry entertainment values with space commerce. And Orbital Sciences Corp. has methodically mastered launch technology, sending 129 satellites into orbit over the past 20 years.

Probably the most exciting private effort is Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX. Since its inception, SpaceX has spent barely $800 million, which covers the costs of development for a launch vehicle, a spacecraft, and even the costs of building launch sites. By contrast, NASA spent about $13 billion on the now-canceled Constellation exploration program.

With the boom in private space technologies, what’s the proper role of government? Put simply, it should provide funds to others even as NASA surrenders control of how the money is spent. That might be a controversial position, but even NASA’s chief administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., says the agency must “get out of the business of owning and operating low Earth orbit transportation systems and hand that off to the private sector.”

The change is already working. Thanks to about $800 million in public funding, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are each on track to deliver new rockets and spacecraft next year.

But promising indicators won’t end doubts about whether NASA can transform itself into an honest and effective dispenser of funds to others. It also must not fall prey to the urge to protect its own role by unfairly limiting private actors and pursuing its own high-cost projects for seemingly no other reason than to generate large spending bills that satisfy the pork-barrel instincts of individual lawmakers.

NASA, long dominated by a not-invented-here mentality, has problems that eerily resemble those of the U.S. Postal Service—so much money is required merely to keep the past alive. Given its desire to maintain large and overlapping centers of excellence in Alabama, California, Florida, and Texas, NASA might never become an honest broker between competing private actors, mostly because agency bureaucrats still have too many of their own projects in the game and because members of Congress, bent on benefiting their own political constituencies, remain too willing to warp NASA’s policies and priorities.

One fresh example of NASA’s attraction to costly esoterica is the agency’s proposal to maintain filling stations, or “propellant depots,” in space. NASA insists that fueling in space will get spacecraft to land on an asteroid sooner, but doing so would also vastly increase the cost and complexity of such missions by requiring 11 to 17 launches instead of 4. The decision by NASA to keep a critical report on the program secret for some time shocked Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-Cal.), who wants a more economical approach to human flight.

Private space companies are already concerned that NASA lacks the discipline to serve an “open source” world. If NASA takes “a traditional approach,” said a Bigelow executive recently, “you’re going to get the traditional result, which is broken budgets and no flight hardware.”

The worry is that the Obama administration, by increasing funding to the private sector, is cynically trying to deflect criticism of NASA and allow the government to defend its space monopoly for years to come. A frontline NASA official, one of several in charge of setting smooth rules for private space contractors, insists that “we really have been thinking outside the box.”

One way to demonstrate that the United States is genuinely entering a new space age is for NASA to privatize its operations in Houston, Huntsville, Cape Canaveral, and Pasadena, turning them into nonprofit, independent labs that would at first wholly depend on government subventions but gradually become self-sustaining by providing services to both private space companies and covert national-security agencies, which have their own space needs. The death of NASA as a whole would permit its strongest pieces to thrive, albeit in a new organizational form.

Whether or not NASA can survive the accelerating shift to a market-driven space exploration, the government should avoid the temptation to justify continued public funding as a means of countering China’s space ambitions. President Obama recognized as much in his April 2010 speech on the future of the space program in which he admitted, “We’re no longer racing against an adversary.” Obama’s realization is a great start for peering into space more clearly.

A correction to this article was made 16 November 2011 to clarify that NASA’s shuttle program ended under Obama’s term.
About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (The Free Press, 1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (MIT Press, 1999), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.


AIAA 2011 Awards – Phoenix Section

AIAA The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics made several awards to the Phoenix Section for 2011. Section Awards are for sections ranging from Very Small to Very Large. Phoenix is a Large Section. The press release and two awards for Phoenix are noted below:

Awards Honor Outstanding Section Programming in a Variety of Categories

September 21, 2011 – Reston, Va. – The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has announced its 2010–2011 Section Award winners. The Section Awards annually honor particularly notable achievements made by member sections in offering activities that fulfill the Institute’s mission in a wide range of fields. The Institute believes that vital, active sections are essential to the Institute’s health and mission.

Section awards are made annually in five categories based on size of membership. Each winning section receives a certificate and a cash award – $500 for first place, $200 for second, and $100 for third. The award period covered is June 1, 2010 through May 31, 2011.

Sections winning first-place awards will be honored at the AIAA awards luncheon on January 10, 2012, as part of the 50th AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting, held January 9–12, 2012 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, Nashville, Tenn.

The Outstanding Section Award is presented to sections based upon their overall activities and contributions through the year.

Large: First Place: Phoenix, Ryan Carlblom, section chair

The Outstanding Activity Award allows the Institute to acknowledge sections that held an outstanding activity deserving of additional recognition.

Large: Phoenix, Ryan Carlblom, section chair. 2011 Celebration of Space Exploration and Yuri’s Night Celebration. The Phoenix aerospace community hosted two events on Saturday, April 9, 2011 in conjunction with the global Yuri’s Night celebrations. The first was a morning symposium open to the public, with speakers on the past, present, and future of space exploration. Entitled “A Celebration of Space Exploration,” and attended by about 150 people, the program included a look back fifty years at Gagarin’s historic flight and the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, presented by Michael Mackowski, an aerospace engineer and long-time advocate of space exploration and development; a first-hand account of a Space Shuttle mission, by former shuttle astronaut Bill Gregory; a look at the past and future of the exploration of Mars, by Jim Bell, an astronomer and planetary scientist from Arizona State University; and a description of the educational programs available at the Challenger Space Center in Peoria, Arizona, by Kari Sliva, Executive Director. The second event was an evening party, held in conjunction with the annual Space Access Conference at the Grace Inn in Phoenix, that featured a space photo identification contest produced by AIAA member Maura Mackowski, a historian. The party attracted about 50 people, including members of many local space organizations as well as quite a few conference attendees.

Michael Mackowski is also a member of the Phoenix Chapter of the National Space Society. Congratulations to the Phoenix Section of the AIAA.

Opportunity Arrives at Endeavour

Spirit Point
Endeavour Crater taken by the Mars Rover Opportunity at Spirit Point
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU

The Mars Rover Opportunity has arrived at Spirit Point on the edge of the Endeavour Crater. It has been a three year journey from Victoria crater, covering 12 kilometers.

Endeavour is 22 kilometers in diameter, and exposes much deeper and ancient Martian geology than anything explored so far.

Below is a closeup from the panorama showing the small crater “Odyssey” on the rim of Endeavour.

Odyssey crater on the rim of Endeavour crater
Odyssey crater on the rim of Endeavour crater at Spirit Point
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU

Arizona State University Astronomy Open House

Arizona State University Astronomy Open House

Friday, March 25, 8-10 pm

Location: Bateman Physical Sciences Building H-wing Main Entrance (click here for a map of ASU showing the H- wing)

Free Parking (after 7pm): Tyler Street Parking Garage; From parking garage go West along University Dr sidewalk (toward campus) until you see signs leading you to the entrance. (click here for a map of ASU showing the location)

This Month’s Theme: STARS

  • Come see the winter sky! Take our Astronomy Quiz!
  • View exciting celestial objects through our telescopes!
  • Learn about rocks with the GEO Club!
  • Want to see a rock from Space? Stop by the meteorite table!
  • View our out-of-this-world poster display!
  • Have a question about the universe? Ask an Astronomer!
  • For information about the moon, stop by the LROC table!

Planetarium show: TBD

Talk: Stars in our Galaxy

Contact Information:

Star Comparison
Comparison of Star Size – Our Sun is the Smallest Dot and Antares is the Big Dude
Image Credit: ASU

ASU Astronomy Open House

This coming Friday, 3 December 2010 from 8 to 10 PM, the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration is hosting an Open House at the Bateman Physical Sciences Building. Use the Main Entrance at the H-wing.

There is free Parking (after 7pm) at the Tyler Street Parking Garage. From the parking garage, go East along University Dr sidewalk (toward campus) until you see signs leading you to the entrance.

This Month:

  • Come see the early winter sky! Take our Astronomy Quiz!
  • View exciting celestial objects through our telescopes!
  • Learn about rocks with the GEO Club!
  • Want to see a rock from Space? Stop by the meteorite table!
  • View our out-of-this-world poster display!
  • Have a question about the universe? Ask an Astronomer!

Contact Information:

1959 – Twelve Men On The Moon

Copernicus, Eratosthenes and Project Horizon
Image Credit: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team recently released this image featuring the famous crater Copernicus with its ejecta splashed across much of the face of the Moon. Copernicus and the crater Eratosthenes lie just south of Mare Imbrium. To the east of Copernicus and south of Eratosthenes lies the nearly featureless plain called Sinus Aestuum. Here, just southeast of Eratosthenes lies the location of a proposed Moon Base. In addition to the scientific value of this area, the rich ores of the Rima Bode regional dark mantling deposit lie nearby.

On 20 March 1959, Arthur G. Trudeau, Chief of Research and Development for the U.S. Army, submitted a request for the study to place a lunar outpost on the Moon. The result was Project Horizon, a plan (dated 9 June 1959) to place a military base with 10-20 men on the surface of the Moon by 1965. Full details are in Vol. I and Vol. II (pdf).

The introduction to the proposal stated that the establishment of a lunar base would:

  • Demonstrate the United States scientific leadership in outer space
  • Support scientific explorations and investigations
  • Extend and improve space reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities and control of space
  • Extend and improve communications and serve as a communications relay station
  • Provide a basic and supporting research laboratory for space research and development activity
  • Develop a stable, low-gravity outpost for use as a launch site for deep space exploration
  • Provide an opportunity for scientific exploration and development of a space mapping and survey system
  • Provide an emergency staging area, rescue capability or navigational aid for other space activity

It further stated the following, prescient about the Soviet manned capability, but extremely optimistic about the timetable for the Moon Base:

Advances in propulsion, electronics, space medicine and other astronautical sciences are taking place at an explosive rate. As recently as 1949, the first penetration of space war accomplished by the US when a two-stage V-2 rocket reached the then unbelievable altitude of 250 miles. In 1957, the Soviet Union placed the first man-made satellite in orbit. Since early l958, when the first US earth satellite was launched, both the US and USSR have launched additional satellites, moon probes, and successfully recovered animals sent into space in missiles. In 1960, and thereafter, there will be other deep space probes by the US and the USSR, with the US planning to place the first man into space with a REDSTONE missile, followed in 1961 with the first man in orbit. However, the Soviets could very well place a man in space before we do. In addition, instrumented lunar landings probably will be accomplished by 1964 by both the United States and the USSR. As will be indicated in the technical discussions of this report, the first US manned lunar landing could be accomplished by 1965. Thus, it appears that the establishment of an outpost on the moon is a capability which can be accomplished.

Underlying all of this was the traditional von Braun team approach:

paramount to successful major systems design is a conservative approach which requires that no item be more “advanced” than required to do the job. It recognizes that an unsophisticated success is of vastly greater importance than a series of advanced and highly sophisticated failures that “almost worked. “

The proposal discusses the ongoing development of the Saturn I by ARPA, expecting it would be fully operational by 1963. The Saturn I stood more than 200 feet tall, and would be superseded by the Saturn II in 1964, standing 304 feet tall. By the end of 1964, a total of 72 Saturn I rockets would have been launched on various programs of discovery, including 40 to support the manned lunar base. In order to support the full complement of 12 men, 61 Saturn I and 88 Saturn II launches would be required by the end of 1966, landing 490,000 pounds of cargo on the lunar surface. 64 launches were scheduled for 1967, landing an additional 266,000 pounds of supplies. The total cost of the eight and one-half year program was estimated to be $6 Billion.

The von Braun team thought very large indeed.

Lunar Base
Project Horizon – Lunar Base 1965
Image Credit: US Army

Project Horizon – Rockets
Image Credit: US Army

Orbital Trajectories
Image Credit: US Army

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.

Image Credit: Astronauts4Hire
Astronauts4Hire wants to create the first pool of private astronauts to support the emerging suborbital research industry.

A commercial spaceflight revolution is underway. Within a few years, private companies will provide routine access to space. Besides wealthy tourists, scientists are among those poised to benefit since they can use the new spacecraft as platforms to perform research in microgravity. The demand for skilled commercial scientist-astronauts to aid in this new industry is growing rapidly. Astronauts4Hire wants to create the first pool of private astronauts to fill this need. In doing so, we hope to demonstrate that space is accessible by anyone and inspire the next generation to pursue careers in space.

From their website, we have the following related stories and sources:

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