A recent op-ed in Space News by Jim Cantrell makes an interesting point in regard to the ongoing change in (read: decline of) the American civil space program. Postulating that the government-funded aerospace industrial complex developed to fight and win World War II and the Cold War (an institution long criticized by leftist commentators) is now obsolete, he sees future space endeavors powered by private sector companies (somehow) collectively moving humanity into the Solar System. Interestingly, although the author seems to think that this is a positive development, he does not deny that the current program leaves something to be desired, describing the current state of the American aerospace industry as in a “malaise.”
The wedding of science and technology to warfare was not new when America entered the Second World War. Technology has always found its way into (as well as come out of) military uses and has included the successful participation of such past geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton. The industrial infrastructure America developed and used to win the war was kept after Germany and Japan were defeated, primarily because of the threat from a well-armed and expansively belligerent Soviet Union. It was this technical and industrial base that was mobilized during the 1960’s “Space Race” – one that allowed us to rapidly advance new and uncertain technologies to operational status. This involved technologies that at the time had little commercial application but were needed to master the skills to venture off-planet.
In effect, the weapons of war gave us the Space Age (and with it, the driver of much of our economy and expanding tech industry). While experimental rocket engines had been built and flown on a small scale before the war, it required the societal impetus of military necessity to develop the V-2, the technical forerunner for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Whether it might have been developed otherwise is an interesting historical counter-factual, but I have seen no evidence to suggest that the industrial and human capital needed to make this technological leap could have been marshaled by the private sector alone, at least on the time-scales with which we are familiar. Similarly, human orbital flight (long known to be possible in theory) did not spontaneously arise from the IR&D efforts of a Boeing or a McDonnell-Douglas. It required a specific national imperative to be developed, politically recognized and funded as part of a broader effort to maintain a national strategic posture.
The need for this industrial capability continued throughout the Cold War. Long before the Cold War ended, some recognized this capability would dissipate in the absence of an evident strategic goal. To some, this was good news. The so-called “peace dividend” (money anticipated to become available after the collapse of the Soviet Union) was spent many times over in the minds of politicians whose power depends on increasing the budgets of new entitlement programs. On the other hand, responsible leaders recognized that the world remained a dangerous place and that America’s safety depended upon our ability to counter technological threats as well as mount an effective response to new threats not yet envisioned.
In part, I believe that the proposed 1989 Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) of President George H.W. Bush (Bush-41) reflected this calculus. With the end of the Cold War in sight, Bush (having lived recent history) understood that any drift toward a deterioration of our technical infrastructure would leave our nation exposed – unable to mount an effective response to future aggression. Students of history understand this well – scientists and engineers were already being laid-off and our technical, industrial sector was shrinking. The space program (long a proving ground for new technology and skill sets) was tapped to protect and keep these national capabilities operative and engaged.
SEI first faltered when NASA came up with an implementation that was deemed “unaffordable” (it wasn’t, although the architecture could have been improved upon and made cheaper). SEI died when Bill Clinton won the election of 1992 and the “Bush initiative” was considered politically obsolete. The space program was already shrinking when two new developments intervened. First, it was claimed that fossil bacteria had been found in a Mars meteorite, suggesting the possibility of ancient life on that planet. This claim re-oriented the robotic spaceflight program into a non-stop series of Mars orbiters, landers and rovers dedicated to the “Quest for Life Elsewhere.” Second, the troubled Space Station Freedom project was re-designed into a techno-political partnership between the USA and the former Soviet Union. The idea behind this initiative was to keep unemployed Soviet bomb-makers engaged with building a new space station. That “WPA in space” program survives to this day, although its great potential as an engineering research facility in space was (and in my opinion, still is) largely unrecognized.
Now, according to Cantrell, our aerospace industry is in a “malaise.” But if the “privatization” of the space program is such a success and the old World War II industrial model is now in the “dustbin of history,” why should this be? Part of the problem is that the so-called private sector space program is not really private, but rather, is a disguised and drastically scaled-down version of the “old” business ways. Most of the New Space companies take government funding, either through outright contracting, subsidy or via the award of “prizes” for innovation. Promoters have attempted to re-define the English language to encompass this new system of government funding – now, if you have any private funds invested in your business, you are “private and commercial” even if government funds more than 80% of your capitalization.
For all the propaganda about New Space being more “efficient” than government, almost 10 years after the winning of the Ansari X-Prize in 2004, we have yet to see the private sector launch a single human into space. Human flights to low Earth orbit, even those paid for by government, are said to be “imminent,” yet no one can provide a firm projected date for such. The common excuse for this uncertainty is that the tyranny of the “human-rating” requirements imposed by government for their space transportation systems causes endless delay and extra unnecessary expense. OK, let’s grant that. Why then are there no private flights to orbit? Advocates of prizes for innovation often cite their efficacy in generating new capabilities. Inflatable space station builder Bob Bigelow offered a prize in 2004 called “America’s Space Prize” that promised $50 million to the first company to develop a space transportation system capable of sending and returning a human crew to and from low Earth orbit. The prize offer quietly expired in 2010 –without a single attempt to win it.
The simple fact is, we live in a dangerous world. America needs a strong space program to project power, to protect its citizens and to maintain and advance its technological edge. The mindset that nurtured our technical industrial base since the end of World War II made a lot of sense – for a minimal investment (especially when balanced against the astronomical fiscal and human costs of the entitlement state), we have protected ourselves and the free world for more than 60 years. By attempting difficult but achievable goals in space, we maintained a collective capability that was, and is, vital to our national survival. By abandoning a reachable, long-range strategic goal in space (a human Mars mission – at least 30 years into the future – does not qualify), America has abandoned that capability and left our technical infrastructure to flounder about without purpose.
Random developments make progress, but not necessarily in directions that are optimum or with the utility for common needs. New Space is now in the place our civil space program was 50 years ago. They have yet to launch a human into orbit. And the hyped cost-effectiveness of their approach is dishonestly presented with accounting tricks that make it seem that they are “private” when in fact, they are simply government contractors in disguise. One day, we shall regret our turn down this “new” path, one that turns its back on the “old” path. By then though, it may be too late to do anything about it.