ARE DRASTIC budget increases and ultra-advanced technology necessary to revive the faltering U.S. space program? That's what NASA and the aerospace industry would like you to believe. But in fact the reverse is probably true.
Last year the National Commission on Space -- apparently oblivious to the words "Gramm-Rudman-Hollings" -- issued a report suggesting that megabucks be showered on nearly every project imaginable. Last week NASA released a report by astronaut Sally Ride that represents a step forward in common sense. Ride calls for initiatives to be pragmatic rather than sensational, deferring glamour goals such as a manned Mars landing until we have solutions to the mundane task of putting things in Earth orbit. But Ride stops short of challenging her sponsor's entrenched spending programs, and in the end essentially calls for more of the same.
Meanwhile, the White House has begun an internal review of space policy, searching for options that won't bust the budget. NASA likes to pretend there are no such options. But there are. What follows is a down-to-earth plan for restoring life to our space program without merely throwing money at it:
Don't waste $2.5 billion constructing a shuttle to replace Challenger.
So few future shuttle missions are projected that it's hard to imagine why another orbiter is needed, other than contractor make-work. An informed Reagan administration space official told me there was only one reason he could see for a new shuttle -- "the assumption that another one is going to blow up."
The four original shuttles were initially supposed to fly a total of about 50 times per year. Before Challenger, the goal had been trimmed to 24; now it's 16, not to be achieved until the 1990s. But the National Research Council recently said that even if all goes well, 12 launches a year is the most NASA can realistically achieve. That's four flights per year each for Columbia, Discovery and Atlantis, the three remaining shuttles. If they can't handle that, then the whole program is drowning in unreality.
Use reality numbers.
Space policy will never get down to earth until Congress can objectively evaluate what competing technologies actually cost. Yet NASA goes apoplectic when anyone tries to put a fix on shuttle expenditures. The agency recently told the General Accounting Office that a shuttle flight costs $78 million. But if the manned-flight-related share of NASA's budget for 1985, the last year of normal operations before Challenger, is divided by the nine shuttle flights that year, the result is about $550 million per mission. That's the reality number. NASA predicts that costs will plummet when the system becomes fully operational at some unspecified laterdate. In the wake of Challenger, it's not clear that will ever happen. Meanwhile the reality number is on its way up. NASA's budget is expected to grow by about 40 percent through the next three fiscal years, during which shuttle flights are unlikely to match the 1985 total.
(Reality numbers for the Air Force aren't much better. The military actually spends more on space -- about $20 billion per year, compared to about $10 billion for NASA -- and thus in some ways creates greater waste. Using the shuttle to launch military reconnaissance satellites, for example, is just as cost-ineffective as using it to launch NASA cargo, but the specifics are elaborately fudged by cross-agency accounting. The Air Force's new high-tech Titan 4 throwaway rocket costs about $200 million a shot, a contract that breezed through Congress without controversy. The Soviet Proton rocket, which has the same payload capacity but uses less sophisticated design, is priced at about $30 million. Another reality number is cost per pound of payload -- approximately $750 for the Proton, compared to $6,800 for the shuttle and $5,100 for the Titan 4.)
Drop all remaining plans to use the space shuttle for cargo launches.
Risking precious human lives and a multibillion-dollar investment merely to launch cargo is an idea that defies much more than gravity. There may be some causes in space that are worth dying for. Can delivering a satellite really be one of them?
Initial shuttle thinking called for a vehicle smaller than the current behemoth to be used primarily to carry crew. But in order to support its budgetary foot-in-the-door assertion that the shuttle would make rockets obsolete, NASA had to expand the design to accommodate large cargo. Now payload drives shuttle planning, and NASA is trying to re-rationalize the original rationalizations by devoting future missions to priority cargo such as spy satellites -- instead of converting the shuttle to a valid use. (See below.)
Nip in the bud the "Advanced Launch System" and the "Shuttle C."
The Advanced Launch System is a new unmanned rocket being contemplated by the Pentagon for Strategic Defense Initiative cargo launches, and the Shuttle C is a similar unmanned rocket based on shuttle components and being contemplated by NASA for space-station cargo launches.
That these programs are redundant is the least of their problems. NASA badly wants any new unmanned launcher to be "shuttle-derived" so that it will control the budgetary action. In addition, using max-tech components would ensure that any new booster is sufficiently expensive so as to create no uncomfortable comparisons for the shuttle itself. The ostensible goal of the Advanced Launch System project is to build, at last, a basic booster that could put weight into orbit cheaply. But since the project's name was recently changed from "heavy lifter," which had a bargain-hunter ring about it, to Advanced Launch System, observers have begun to fear that the design will acquire gold plating.
Develop a new generation of truly low-cost boosters employing unspectacular technology.
How can the Russians, with their ineffectual economy, afford to stage 10 times as many space shots per year as the United States.? (In 1986 the Soviets launched 91 space missions, 90 of which were successful; we were six for nine.) They do it by building rockets that use relatively simple components and cheap fuels like kerosene.
During the late 1960s there was a classified Air Force program, known as Big Dumb Booster, to build such low-cost rockets. In tests, "dumb" rocket components performed well. Air Force analysts projected that Big Dumb Boosters would cut payload cost to about $310 per pound in today's dollars -- roughly 5 percent of what the shuttle costs. A contemporary version of the Big Dumb Booster is sorely needed today.
Postpone the space station.
In 1984 NASA said the space station would cost $8 billion; now it admits to $16 billion. The NRC says $32 billion. And for what? Here's what astronauts might do aboard the space station: observe the earth and stars; conduct scientific and space-manufacturing experiments; carry on biomedical studies of themselves; and assemble the space station. The first can be done more cheaply and in most cases better technically by satellites; the second can be done with greater flexibility aboard the shuttle; the fourth is a circularity. Only the third is a valid purpose. But the Soviets are already doing it aboard their Mir mini-space station and publishing the results. So let them pay for it.
Convert the existing space shuttles into orbital workshops for space science and manufacturing. Launch them a few times per year, a reasonable rate.
Early in the Reagan administration, NASA had a relatively inexpensive program, championed by then-White House science advisor George Keyworth, to modify the space shuttle so that it could stay in orbit several weeks with the existing Spacelab mini-space station in its payload bay. This program -- effectively an instant space station -- was cancelled when NASA decided to request a large, autonomous space station on the pretext that it would cost only $8 billion.
Scientists working in a shuttle-based Spacelab would be able to accomplish 99 percent of what they could aboard an autonomous space station for perhaps 1 percent of the cost. Using shuttles primarily as workshops would keep U.S. astronauts in business; give the shuttle a valid mission that cannot be performed by throwaway rockets; and get the United States into the space-station business immediately, not in the late 1990s.
Use some of the money saved by the first seven steps to revive planetary and deep-space research.
Though space probes such as Voyager have been the most cost-effective NASA achievement, the United States hasn't launched one in a decade. All the money has gone into subsidies for operating the shuttle -- or, lately, into subsidies for not operating the shuttle.
Begin development of a small spaceplane for people and supplies only.
Since there are some occasions when men truly are needed in space, what makes sense for NASA is a vehicle designed to serve men, not a huge payload bay. This is the approach being taken by the Russian, French and Japanese small-spaceplane projects. It's basically the approach of NASA's "Shuttle 2" research initiative (not to be confused with Shuttle C), which envisions a much smaller machine than the current system.
It is definitely not the approach of the Pentagon's "aerospace plane" project, which has invested $450 million in studying a large, cargo-oriented space machine designed to take off from a runway. The aerospace plane is the shuttle mindset redux -- everything gambled on a handful of very costly vehicles in which technology is driven to the absolute limit. It's a formula for another fiasco.
Consider in contrast a recent proposal by the engineering firm Teledyne Brown for a small, crew-oriented spaceplane that would take off from the back of a modified 747 at a few miles of altitude. A fundamental axiom of rocketry is that the first minutes of flight, while the vehicle overcomes inertia and chugs through the thickest layers of atmospheric drag, are inefficient. That's why the "dumb" designs of most Russians rockets make engineering sense, particularly on the first stage: big, crude equipment for what's essentially a big, crude job. One reason the space shuttle is so expensive is that it uses sophisticated engines for its entire flight, presenting a "smart" answer to what's really a dumb question.
Other relatively low-cost spaceplanes have been proposed; all share the drawback that they cannot be made powerful enough to carry heavy cargo. But if the United States switched to Big Dumb Boosters for cargo launching, then a small spaceplane might be just the ticket. Reorienting the space program along those lines might break the earth-to-orbit cost barrier and render projects like the space station far more feasible.
Rethink our long-term space ambitions.
The two most frequently discussed are a permanent moon base and an expedition to Mars.
A moon base is the preference of most aerospace contractors and NASA factions. Contractors like the idea because it might have military applications and therefore open a new tap on the pot of gold otherwise known as the defense budget. NASA likes the idea because it would preserve staffing levels in the manned-flight divisions. The Ride report argues for a moon base; scientists outside NASA are nearly unanimous in their opposition to it.
A moon base would be expensive -- one unofficial NASA estimate put the price at $84 billion excluding launch costs -- and have no particular function other than housing astronauts, which could be done quite a bit more cheaply in a hotel. Moreover, the moon is "a pretty boring place," as Carl Sagan often says. If it were of pressing scientific interest, NASA would still be sending unmanned probes there. But NASA launched its last in 1968, and on its current wish-list there is only one new unmanned moon explorer.
So what about Mars? Any optimistic reading of the human potential says that travel to the red planet is inevitable. But is it sensible to start now? Obstacles are many times greater than they were for the Apollo project. The moon is three days' flight from earth; Mars, a year away.
Supporters point to mankind's inherent need to explore; quest is integral to the human spirit, and often leads to unexpected gains. But unlike many explorers of the past who took their risks from private resources, travelers to the Mars frontier would be 100 percent tax-subsidized. This means that abstract benefits would have to accrue in some rough proportion to social costs.
What would those costs be? The $32-billion figure for the space station covers construction of a few modules, power panels and associated service spacecraft for a facility about 200 miles from earth -- a facility without locomotion and which crosses no new technological threshold, such as a "closed" life support system in which food, oxygen and water regenerate. A Mars convoy would involve substantially more hardware; would have to be self-propelled and self-supporting; would require at least 2 million pounds of fuel; and would end up 48 million miles away, not 200. These factors dictate that with current technology the expedition would be breathtakingly expensive: impossible to justify in light of society's other needs.
Consider a joint U.S.-Soviet mission to Mars.
Because Mars travel would also bankrupt the Russians, recurrent rumors that the Soviet Union is preparing a manned mission are dismissed as propaganda within aerospace circles. But Soviet space planners have many unmanned Mars projects in the works, and have expressed interest in teaming up with the United States. The joint approach has been endorsed by the Planetary Society, an influential scientists' organization, and by some congressmen. The justification would be improved international relations -- a tangible social benefit -- with science the ancillary concern: If both governments were linked in a highly public human-interest project, they would be compelled to tone down the rhetoric of confrontation.
A joint Mars mission might be financed via a 1 percent bilateral assessment against both the U.S. and Soviet defense budgets, which would raise in the neighborhood of $6 billion (U.S. equivalent) per year. If the venture reduced superpower tensions, it would surely do more to enhance U.S. national security than 1 percent more weaponry.
Fund research seeking a propulsion breakthrough that would make space flight less impractical.
The most promising prospect now is nuclear rocket power, a tough sell politically. (Proponents of such engines call them by the euphemism "electric propulsion," hoping to avoid the naughty word "nuclear.") Fortunately non-nuclear propulsion advances, such as beaming energy to spaceships via lasers or microwaves and thereby cutting down the volume of fuel the ships must carry, may someday be available. But if no propulsion breakthrough is apparent by end of century, we should go to Mars jointly with the Soviets.
Within aerospace circles, current conventional wisdom says that what NASA needs is a bold new objective. But until we have cost-effective equipment for getting people and pounds into space, the bold objectives will stay tantalizingly beyond reach. Today, at a time when the United States can't even put routine satellites into orbit, what the space program needs most is an infusion of dull, practical ideas.
Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of Newsweek and of The Atlantic.