Fat Steve's Blatherings

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Why Our Space Program Failed

      From Jerry Pournelle's web site letter write Bill Haynes reportss:
      But I said: "There is one area in which NASA has failed utterly, and that is in developing safe, reliable and economical access to low Earth orbit". I said that per lb. costs to orbit have hardly come down, adjusted from inflation since Saturn V, and seem stuck at around $10,000/lb. Then I mentioned Elon Musk, Burt Rutan and Robert Bigelow as examples of private entrepreneurs who will solve that problem.

      Well, Goldin clearly was taken aback by this and responded vigorously, citing that although Rutan was "one of the greatest engineers of his generation", his vehicle barely made Mach three after being launched from a carrier at 50,000 ft. "Think how far that is from orbital speed"!

      Then he said something that I find extremely illuminating ... that "it was not NASA's job to reduce launch costs" !!! Afterwards we were all at a banquet and I seized the chance to talk with him some more. I mentioned X-33/Venture Star, and that I had had a chance to speak with the Test Director at Palmdale after it was cancelled. Goldin broke in and dropped another bombshell, saying it had been grossly underfunded!

      I could not stand that and said: "It would have failed at five times the budget"! He cited the composite tank as the failure cause, and that they should have made it out of metal. I said the real reason for failure was horizontal landing, at which point he refused to discuss it with me further. This is going into my archives as yet another unique insight into some history making events, and people.

      Jerry observes:
      X-33 grew directly out of the DC/X program, and I suppose I had as much to do with its funding as anyone.

      What we wanted -- we being the pro-SDI community as well as at least my branch of the pro-space community -- was DC/Y or even a full fledged SSX: a ship we could fly often and learn a lot about flying, not something that would go directly to orbit first shot. Lockheed had a different notion. And, after all, they were Lockheed; who were we with our Citizen's Advisory Council? As you'll recall since you were part of it.

      I thought we had persuaded Goldin that the incremental approach == build a ship and fly it a lot and learn a lot about SAVABLE reusable ships == was the right one, but the Lockheed people had convinced themselves that all they needed was some money for aerospike, after which they would just go to orbit in one whack. Naturally the very existence of this huge program took the heart out of the private space movement.

      X-33 was the last program I had the political clout to get funded -- or to kill. I could have killed it and given the way the "competition" for it went, it was clear to me that it would never work and I ought to kill it -- but if I had done so, it would have been me, us, the Citizens Advisory Council, that killed the dream since, if it had never been built, of course it would have worked perfectly; or so the legend would be. Lead, follow, or get out of the way; I got out of the way.

      In retrospect I am still not sure I was wrong. But we don't get Mulligans in the space business.

      Goldin believed he knew what he was doing, but he had no political clout -- a Republican holdover technocrat in the Clinton administration -- and Lockheed ate his lunch for him.

      At one point we had Goldin convinced that a NASA contract for 1,000 RL-10 engines at $300,000 each would change the world. "What would we do with them?" he asked me.

      "Throw them away. Give them to universities. Give them to high schools. The important point is that if you do that, then the civilian price of engine #1001 will be about $100,000 and a LOT of people will be able to get into the space game."

      Well, it didn't happen, but I thought I might be able to get something like that done, and it really would have changed the world.

      It is not in NASA's mission statement to reduce the cost of launching.



  • Words fail me! But if that truly represents his thinking then I am glad he's no longer a part of NASA. ^_^;

    By Blogger Towering Barbarian, at 3:06 PM  

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