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Mission Out of Control

Following the Moon landing, NASA went through a postpartum depression on a grand scale.

NASA/Getty Images

Why NASA's space shots don't reach for the stars.

While Neil Armstrong was taking his giant step for mankind on the Moon in 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was soaring back on Earth. By meeting President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the Moon within the decade, NASA had proven communism was no match for American knowhow and the American way of life. A decade of race riots, assassinations and war culminated with the stars and stripes planted in the Sea of Tranquility.

But following the Moon landing, NASA went through a postpartum depression on a grand scale. Employment in the space program, once 420,000, declined to 160,000 by 1971. Laboratories closed. NASA’s budget, once nearly $6 billion, dropped to slightly more than half that amount. After enjoying high status, the excitement of working on a top-priority challenge, and all the money it needed, NASA was faced with the question: Now what?

The agency responded by asking for the moon. In 1970 and 1971 NASA requested money for a reusable space shuttle to carry cargo to space cheaply, and for a 100-man orbiting space station by 1980, and for a $24 billion manned mission to Mars, and for a commitment to a lunar base. To fill in what it thought would be a gap in manned space flight between the last Apollo mission and the start of the shuttle, NASA even proposed a mini-shuttle, which it admitted had limited use.

In short, NASA had gotten hooked on the size and glamour of manned programs. It’s easy to see why. NASA was—and still is—convinced that only manned missions can focus public interest in space and persuade Congress to fund NASA’s programs. “Supporting astronomy is like supporting ballet,” says Alexander Dessler, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “There’s no clear, immediate benefit.” But by showing Americans performing dangerous missions in space, NASA captured public attention with a human drama. NASA has always understood the P.R. value of human derring-do. When choosing astronauts for its first manned program. Mercury, NASA tried to find candidates who fit the public’s conception of clean-living All-Americans who could represent the United States in its race with the Russians. Once the astronauts were chosen. Life magazine airbrushed their lives, and NASA changed their role from passenger to the more heroic job of pilot. Astronauts can also make speeches and testify before Congress—a skill no satellite will ever master.

But public attention is not the only advantage NASA gets from manned programs. “It’s difficult to know where the public interest in seeing man in space stops, and NASA’s inclination to keep people employed starts,” says a Senate staffer. No. 1 on NASA’s current list of eight goals is “maintain the institution.”

If NASA wants to keep its scientists and engineers busy, the best way is through manned programs. Manned spacecraft are larger, more expensive, and more time consuming to build than unmanned vehicles because they require food, water, oxygen, and back-up systems that are not needed for unmanned vehicles. Manned vehicles need to bring astronauts safely back to Earth, which necessitates more tests, longer trips, and re-entry hardware such as heat shields. Most important, a manned program, unlike a scientific program, usually implies a commitment to multiple launches and ambitious space goals.

NASA not only worries about employing its own personnel, it also looks out for the aerospace industry. As with the Pentagon, the line between government and industry blurs when the two work together on twenty year projects. “We work so closely together that we jokingly call ourselves ‘partners-in-crime,’ “ says Peter Eaton of NASA’s Expendable Launch Vehicle office, speaking of NASA and the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, which makes the Delta rocket. It is commonplace for NASA to recruit industry engineers and for NASA officials to leave the agency to work for a contractor.

Although NASA had asked in the early 1970s for funds for just about every manned project imaginable, Congress and President Nixon did not comply. With his budget stretched by the Vietnam War, Nixon approved only the project NASA touted as a money-saver: the space shuttle. The shuttle, it was claimed, was a kind of cheap, efficient truck that would haul materials and satellites into orbit. It would be less expensive than expendable rockets because while it would need a new fuel tank and refurbished booster rockets for each mission, the airplane shaped orbiter would be reusable. At a development cost set for $5 billion and a much lower operating cost than disposable rockets, the shuttle would lower the cost of commuting to space and therefore of all future space missions.

From the beginning the shuttle proved balky. Scheduled to launch in 1977, it didn’t make its first test until April 1981 and wasn’t operational until November 1982. By the time the shuttle was open for business, development costs had ballooned from $5 billion to S15.5 billion. NASA is still ironing out minor problems, but the shuttle’s real flaw won’t go away: it’s no cheaper to operate than NASA’s old Chevy, the Delta rocket.

At first glance, the shuttle does look cheaper than launching the same payload with the Delta. Let’s say your commercial firm wants to launch four communications satellites in 1986 into geostationary orbit (G.S.O.) 2,000 miles above the equator. At G.S.O. a satellite rotates with the Earth—a satellite placed over Quito, Ecuador, stays over Quito, Ecuador. With the Delta, each launch will cost $25 million. Total price for launching four satellites: $100 million.

The shuttle can carry four times the Delta payload, but it requires a two-stage trip because it orbits a mere 350 miles up, practically skimming the Earth’s surface. To kick your satellite up to G.S.O., you need a Payload Assist Module, or PAM. (The PAM is the part that malfunctioned two flights ago and flung two satellites into the wrong orbit in the process.) Each PAM will cost $4 to $5 million, for a cost of about $18 million for four. From 1986 through 1988, you can book the whole shuttle—enough for your four satellites—for $79.4 million. So for your 1986 shuttle mission to G.S.O., you will pay a total of $97.4 million. You save all of $2.6 million over the cost of Delta rockets.

But what’s important to recognize about the shuttle is that price to customers has no relation to the actual cost of the shuttle. “For realistic missions during the next twenty years or so, the shuttle system is actually more expensive than are conventional, expendable boosters,” Dr. James A. Van Alien, professor of astronomy at the University of Iowa wrote in 1982. The shuttle looks cheaper because NASA subsidizes its missions.

It wasn’t meant to be that way. Shuttle prices were set in 1972, when NASA predicted there would be 572 flights. The problem is that the shuttle won’t fly 572 missions; NASA now estimates only 234 missions before the machine is ready for the Smithsonian. That gives NASA fewer flights over which to amortize the cost of building the shuttles and a shorter time in which to learn to operate more efficiently. As a result, costs have soared—this year, each shuttle launch costs $200 million. NASA had planned to raise the price of post-1988 missions to recoup the money it is losing now but NASA has changed its mind. NASA senior staff engineer Barbara Stone says that by 1988, the shuttle will still cost over $100 million per flight—too much for NASA to charge and stay competitive. “I don’t think we’ll recover those cost underruns,” Stone says.

NASA claims the shuttle can save money another way, by repairing and redeploying ailing satellites. In April, shuttle astronauts repaired the Solar Maximum observatory. But the shuttle can only reach satellites in or near low Earth orbit, which is where Solar Max was stationed. The vast majority of satellites are in G.S.O., a good 21,650 miles beyond the shuttle’s reach. And what NASA does not mention is that there was no reason to build the shuttle to host satellite repair missions. Expendable rockets can do the same job, and they can travel to G.S.O. According to Arthur Koski, spokesman for the Martin-Marietta Corporation, which worked with NASA to repair Solar Max, the only reason rockets can’t do repair missions is that we don’t have any. “Our only manned spacecraft is the shuttle,” says Koski. “And at this point it wouldn’t make much sense to build rockets.”

NASA’s last commercial Delta launch is scheduled for the end of this year. By getting rid of the Delta program NASA will no longer steal business from itself. But the shuttle still faces competition from emerging for-profit rocket companies. NASA is putting the finishing touches on an agreement with a private company, Transpace Carriers Inc., to take over existing contracts for the Delta. The company plans to make its first launch in 1985 or 1986. NASA already has competition from the European Space Agency’s Ariane rocket. Arianespace has one model, the Ariane 3, that can throw half the shuttle payload (or two Delta payloads) into G.S.O. for $25 million, including the boosters. Total cost of a shuttle-sized payload: $50 million. And because Ariane is out to make money, that is not a subsidized price. Western Union, GTE, and INTELSAT among others have launched satellites on Ariane.

Why can Ariane deliver at half the shuttle’s price? “We’re not a man-rated vehicle,” explains Jean Michel Eid, assistant manager of Arianespace in America. It’s people and the life support and safety systems they require that keep the shuttle from lowering the cost of space travel.

Now that the shuttle is working, NASA is at another critical point: the decision of what to do next. Keeping in mind the advantages NASA reaps from manned programs, agency administrator James M. Beggs chose the space station. When he first asked for funds he ran into a wall. The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences said a space station had no scientific purpose. The Pentagon said it had no military purpose. David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, thought it was too expensive, and the science adviser to the President, George Keyworth, thought it was too boring to generate the kind of excitement the Apollo mission had created. Fortunately for NASA, Beggs found a believer in President Reagan, who endorsed a permanently manned space station in his State of the Union Address and put seed money for it in his 1985 budget.


Beggs convinced Reagan of what has become NASA’s guiding vision: a modern version of manifest destiny that sees Americans living and working in space. This philosophy is almost devoid of any idea about what we will do there. Being there, apparently, is enough. At a November 1983 Congressional hearing, T. F. Rogers of the Office of Technology Assessment testified, “To our knowledge, there is no comprehensive and thoughtful list of goals.” On NASA’s twenty-fifth anniversary in the fall of 1983, Beggs wrote, “1 believe that a space station, is, indeed, an idea whose time has come. Sooner or later, this country is going to take the next logical step in space and will build one. And the sooner we do so, the better it will be for us, because a space station is essential if we are to maintain our preeminence. 1 see a space station as an essential stepping-stone to the future.”

NASA has what seems to be an enlightened attitude toward space, a place where poets and painters as well as scientists can work. “I’m not prejudiced,” says Hans Mark, deputy administrator of NASA. “I see a future where people doing things not associated with space will go there. It is the obligation of any great civilization to support the arts.”

If you happen to be the poet or pioneer chosen to live in space, this idea is exciting and romantic. If you’re the taxpayer signing the lease for this high-rent suburb, however, its appeal pales somewhat. Cost is something space visionaries never seem to think about. Never mind that settling the Sahara would cost far less than housing a large number of people in orbit. Never mind that you could keep thousands of artists from starving on Earth for the price of putting one a little bit closer to the stars. The idea of a space colony allows NASA to view manned missions as their own justification, at the expense of commerce, science, and exploration.

Space travel has never quite lived up to its billing as a technological bonanza, The science and engineering feats it encourages have only limited use here on Earth. Trickle-down technology is not an efficient way to regain our competitive economic edge. And the spin-offs space has given us such as hand-held calculators, digital watches, phone calls via satellite, improved computers—just about everything except Tang—have come from programs that have one thing in common: they were unmanned. “There’s an inverse relationship between the payoff of a mission and the importance of man,” says Wallace A. Berger, staff director of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA. “An overemphasis on manned missions forecloses advancing science or producing something of commercial value.”

This is because building new ways to carry men in space offers little of value to earthlings. The shuttle’s efficient engines that burn super-cold hydrogen and oxygen, for example, have no other use except in the dubious cause of the MX missile. In contrast, unmanned planetary probes have spawned new ways to send information and pictures over very long distances, the basis for new communications technologies. Moreover, designing missions for men creates less technological innovation than creating an automated mission to do the same tasks. If an astronaut is around to change the film in an observatory camera, there is no reason to develop the robotics to do it automatically.

Recently, speculation about the commercial benefits of space has centered on taking advantage of space’s zero gravity and near-perfect vacuum to process new metal alloys and pure chemicals. NASA sees the space station as a space factory. But just as with the shuttle, the manned space station faces competition from cheaper, easier to build, unmanned space manufacturing platforms, the key to economically viable space manufacturing is doing the job more cheaply than on Earth. That means robotics. While manned work might be prohibitively expensive, an automated mission at one-twentieth the cost could make space processing profitable. The Fairchild Corporation is developing an unmanned space platform called Leasecraft which it hopes to launch in 1987—about seven years before NASA’s space station is supposed to be ready.

One of the first tests of Leasecraft’s commercial potential will be electrophoresis, a gravity-free way to make pure Pharmaceuticals, developed jointly by Johnson & Johnson and McDonnell Douglas. Electrophoresis is the best-developed space manufacturing process, and manned space station supporters invariably mention it as a project that they could put in orbit. But far from needing a manned space station, electrophoresis is fully automated, needing only periodic human tending—and there is a good chance its manufacturers will sign with Leasecraft, (It’s no surprise that NASA is now exploring the idea of launching an unmanned space platform.)

Instead of encouraging cost-effective automatic work, the space station will subsidize an inefficient method of processing. “It’s like buying an expensive car, pretending it didn’t cost you anything, and comparing it to the cost of taking a taxi,” says Richard Garwin, former science adviser to President Carter, “When you offer free passage, people will take you up on it.” And just as with the shuttle, if NASA stops subsidizing industry and charges prices that reflect the space station’s true costs, it will lose the price war with unmanned platforms.

More harmful than the manned program’s effect on commercial industries is its impact on space science. The space station just won’t support an adequate scientific laboratory. The first problem is that the space station must stay in low Earth orbit, too low for many experiments. For example, the space station can’t do experiments on the solar wind (vast currents of ions that affect the weather and telecommunications) because it can’t reach the solar wind. But more crippling, it is manned. “All experiments and observations can be done equally well or better by instruments than by men,” says Dr. Thomas Gold, a Cornell University physicist. “For observations, the presence of a man is a disaster. He can’t keep still enough.” The advantage of having a telescope where no atmosphere distorts light is lost if there are humans tromping around literally rocking the boat.

There are, of course, experiments you need men for: experiments on men. But that’s about all. Communications and robotics have become sophisticated enough so that experiments can be tended by remote control from Earth about as well as by men in a capsule. Ask scientists what kind of missions they would choose to do their experiments, and they will say small, unmanned (and cheaper) go-anywhere capsules built to the specifications of particular experiments.

The debilitating impact of the shuttle and the space station is even greater where exploration is concerned. Because of the moon shot, the public has come to confuse “exploration” with “manned exploration,” a mistake NASA does little to correct. In fact, unmanned exploration is the best way to expand our space horizons. Take one of NASA’s most ambitious goals, a manned expedition to Mars. Thanks to the Viking Mars lander we have charted Mars’ weather, atmosphere, soil, and volcanoes. For almost any space mission, unmanned probes with cameras and scientific equipment can find as much about a new surface or atmosphere as a man can learn. It’s not the next best thing to being there—it is being there. “Instead of seeing the surface directly, you’d see it through a TV camera,” says NASA’s Dessler. There are only two differences between manned and mechanical exploration. One is that manned missions cost twenty to thirty times more than unmanned missions; Sally Ride on Mars would be nothing more than a $100 billion flag-planter. The other is that to most places we want to go, such as Venus or Jupiter, we can send instruments—and we can’t send men.

The most lofty justification for manned space travel is that it satisfies, as all “Star Trek” fans know, the urge “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” But a mission to Mars would be timidly revisiting a place we went years ago. As an expression of the human spirit, manned space exploration is rather complacent. Preferring a lunar base to real exploration is like Columbus saying to Queen Isabella, “I’ll pass on the ships but why don’t you give me some money to take a Mediterranean cruise?”

Even if we do want to prepare for future manned missions, the space station is the wrong first step. We already know how to acclimate humans to space life, and we know how to build rockets in space. Our challenge is to find a sufficiently powerful propulsion method to travel throughout the solar system. A space station can only launch deep space travel after that problem is solved.

The real Ninas and Pintas today are unmanned observatories and planetary probes. And the cost overruns of the shuttle drained money from their important missions; the space station is threatening to do the same. Because of the shuttle, the United States is not launching a probe to sail through the tail of Halley’s comet in 1986 and gather samples, as the Soviets and Europeans are doing. NASA canceled the Mars Rover, which would have scooted around Mars’ surface and brought back samples from many sites. It canceled the Grand Tour, a satellite mission that would have taken advantage of an alignment of all the outer planets that won’t occur again at least until the year 2110. It canceled the Mariner mission to study the mysteries of Jupiter’s atmosphere and to give us a first glimpse at the moons of Uranus. The United States has withdrawn our satellite from the International Solar Polar Mission leaving just one European probe to fly past regions of the sun which we have never seen before. NASA has also abandoned the Sun Blazer, a proposed craft that would have flown within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface.

Ten years and $20 billion from now, when the space station is operating, what can we expect? Almost certainly, NASA will ask for that manned Mars mission or lunar base, invoking words like “American preeminence” and “fulfilling our destiny.” But what NASA will not talk about is how little its projects will capture the wonder and romance of true space exploration.