RE: "NASA and the Future of Space Exploration--was NASA Ends Project Intended to Replace Shuttle"

From: Greg Burch (
Date: Sat Mar 10 2001 - 08:05:24 MST

On march 4, 2001, John Marlow wrote:

>Interesting, but I gotta say, manned exploration is the ticket. When
>people ask me why, I say: If you gotta ask why, there's really no
>explaining it to you.

I share this sentiment, and in 1969, it had real force in the world of politics.
 Unfortunately, today the evidence is that the community that finds this
kind of “for it’s own sake” rationale for manned space exploration and development
compelling is small and lacks real influence. Having been a very close
observer of the field for 35 years, I reach this conclusion sadly, but now
without real doubt. The lack of any significant outcry at the Bush NASA
budget proposal is the most recent current evidence supporting this view.

>Robotic stuff is great, but limited and far less likely to draw
>widespread support.

I agree, but the point of my post was to make the statement that the community
of space researchers and developers has to come to terms with this fact
and learn to live with and prosper after that realization. This means they
have to give up the idea that governments will be convinced to commit long-term,
reliable streams of funding in the billions of dollars (much less tens of
billions) based on a rationale that boils down to “because it’s so COOL!”
 The days when that worked are over and we just have to get over it.

>Private industry must see concrete profitable motivations for this
>stuff. NASA never needed that, and shouldn't

Again, I think you have to take a historical view. NASA’s predecessor,
NACA, was a small, pure-research arm of the US federal government whose
mandate was to undertake a few items of technologically strategic work as
a seed to further development by the military and private industry. NACA’s
transformation into NASA, and the addition of a mandate to undertake major
DEVELOPMENT and then OPERATIONAL work, was PURELY a function of a unique
mix of factors arising out of the Cold War in the mid- to late-1950s.

In a laudably opportunistic fashion, three generations of space scientists
managed to piggyback some amazingly fruitful work onto the momentum imparted
by NASA’s core Cold War mandate. Out of sheer institutional inertia and
a couple of transitory diplomatic opportunities (most notably, the perceived
need to employ the former Soviet ballistic missile industry in service of
the ISS program, rather than as an exporter of ICBM technology), NASA has
managed to coast into its current set of programs. But, again, the current
“epilogue” period seems to now be drawing to a close and the space community
must be prepared for the residual funding of NASA in the annual multi-billion
dollar range to come to a halt in a more or less smooth fashion.

As for “private industry” as it is currently oriented to space development,
there is one and only one current vital economic opportunity to be exploited
through space technology and that is LEO commsats, with a very slight secondary
market for private earth-observation capabilities. All attempts to articulate
and fund development of other market opportunities over the last 30 years
have been – to be brutally honest – pathetic failures.

> --though they're now
>forming some very interesting partnerships and spreading their
>activities over many more states (this latter presumably for greater
>political support). NASA says every $1 into the program generates
>$14, however.

The X-33 was the flagship of NASA’s “public-private partnership” initiative.
 Its recent fate speaks volumes about the success of that idea. Beyond
that, NASA HAS been quite adept at insinuating itself into as many congressional
districts as possible and playing the pork barrel game as astutely as any
federal agency, perhaps a residual legacy of its first great sponsor, the
Machiavellian Lyndon Johnson. But pork is pork and is utterly exposed to
the regular pressures of electoral and party politics. This year’s prize
federal program becomes next year’s bargaining chip as each legislative
supporter of NASA’s budget negotiates his own course through the on-going
political squall of Washington deal-making.

Finally, the “spinoff payback” may or may not be true, but is the kind of
calculus that is very dependent on a lot of assumptions about what would
NOT have been done without NASA spending as a “pump-priming” mechanism.
 Once again, that kind of rationale for space development spending is very
ad-hoc and requires maintenance of a constant, on-going political effort
at “selling” NASA in Congress. Politicians are mainly lawyers and grow
up professionally knowing a contrived, after-the-fact argument for what
it is. It’s not hard for me to imagine the kind of cynical sneer that most
Congressmen must wear when they are presented with the “$14 for $1 payback”

>As to industry developing an independent space infrastructure--the
>cost is staggering. The United States ill afford to duplicate the
>NASA infrastructure today.

I’m not sure I know what you mean, but I do agree that nobody could start
from scratch now and rebuild in their present form, say, JPL, KSC and JSC,
the three crown jewels of the US space facility, much less the myriad secondary
facilities like Goddard, Huntsville and Dryden.

>There is a wildcard I don't believe you've considered: James Cameron.
>He's moving forward on several space projects which are bound to have
>an impact on public perceptions. I actually spoke with him briefly on
>this, and plan to publish his comments. He wants us on Mars. I
>believe it possible his projects could reinvigorate the manned space

I HAVE considered Cameron and others who suggest that media feed from a
Mars mission, or a robotic lunar rover or whatnot might finance the undertaking.
 I’ve also read “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. For a very good recent revisitation
of the idea, read Greg Benford’s “The Martian Race”, a fictionlization of
a Cameron-type character’s implementation of a Zubrin-like Mars mission.

I’m afraid that a media-fueled space program would be even more subject
to the passing fancy of public attention and enthusiasm than a government-funded
one. So we get a one-season spurt in viewers of a “Let’s Go to Mars” “reality
TV” program. What happens next year when “America’s Funniest Home Videos”
starts broadcasting feed from fly-bot cameras in Madonna’s clothes closet?

Again, it’s not my intention to simply be pessimistic about space development.
 Rather, I think it’s important to be REALISTIC. Until the community of
committed space enthusiasts can do it on their own, I think we’re in for
a period of contraction. Realizing that now and planning for it will be
much more fruitful than grasping at straws and chasing the echoes of past

       Greg Burch -
     Attorney::Vice President, Extropy Institute

    "We never stop investigating. We are never
      satisfied that we know enough to get by.
   Every question we answer leads on to another
      question. This has become the greatest
          survival trick of our species."
                -- Desmond Morris

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