At the end of the day, I have a big soft spot for NASA
, you gotta love landing on the moon, their space probes, Voyager
s, Apollo 11
, Apollo 13
and so on. Atleast I do. Even the Space Shuttle is a technical tour de force
. All totally amazing. All cutting edge technology, high profile, high glamour, excellent showcases for American know-how and economic successes.
The big problems come in when you think about NASA is funded. To a significant degree NASA is a pork barrel job creation organisation run by the American Government, with the aim of pouring money into aerospace industries. I like NASA; no I mean it, I really do. But let's not overglamorise it. NASAs job is to ensure that the various politicians get voted back into office. The politicians get voted back into office by ensuring that they spend large sums of money in their voting districts and various companies. NASAs job is to spend the money by building white elephants; or something useful if they want to, provided it involves lots of money in these voting districts. I think you can argue that that is a form of corruption; but it certainly isn't illegal, so it's not corruption in a legal sense.
NASA generally does things pretty well, but not cheaply. Cheap isn't in the NASA vocabulary. Reliable, yes. High tech yes. Cheap no. Unreliable hurts. It hurts the politicians, it hurts NASA, it hurts public confidence. It hurts space. Low tech hurts too. I mean where's the glamour in low tech, where's the expensive equipment for the aerospace companies? No glamour, low costs, no votes.
Let's take the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle costs more than $500 million to launch, and makes no profit. The Russians, whose engineers wages are about 1/10 of those in the west, can launch a similar payload for about 1/30 of those costs. They charge about $85 million, of which about $60 million would be profit. Yeah profit- the Russians. By contrast the space shuttle's main tank costs $100 million; just the tank; the bit they throw away; and oh yeah there's no profit, except for the aerospace companies that build it; you can't sell launches, you have to give most of it away because no one can pay that much.
The trouble is; NASA itself is hurting the space launch business by its very existence. If you think about it, it is/was a government subsidised monopoly (atleast in the US, it's cheaper elsewhere- but don't get any ideas about buying launch services elsewhere, it's very difficult to get agreement from the government to do that, and yes, US citizens do legally require permission.)
If a private company was to seriously look like it was going to get to be big in space, without pumping lots of money into the voting districts; then theoretically, NASA has to act right? Well, we don't have to theorise. It actually happened with Beal Aerospace run by a billionaire. They had set up shop way off the beaten track. NASA told them to stop or they would crush them flat. Andrew Beale thought they could and would; personally I'm not so convinced, but you never know. Beal Aerospace closed.
Anyway, if this all sounds like sour grapes, think again. I don't work in the aerospace industry, and have never done so. But don't let that make you think I don't understand what is happening. I genuinely think that NASA has done and does do some good things, much of their research is of excellent quality; but the time has come for NASA to make way for private industry. They've paved the way, now it's time for the space equivalent of the Ford motor company to drive on those paved roads.
But I still think there is a place for NASA. I think NASA needs to aim for the bit above launching to low earth orbit, to aim for Mars and the asteroids; to do deep space work. The frontier has moved on, NASA should be manning it.