Friday, October 21, 2011

Nationalized Space

Ralph J. Cordiner on the cover of the January 12, 1959 Time magazine.

In his January 17, 1961 farewell address to the nation, President Dwight Eisenhower warned that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

That same year, General Electric Chairman and CEO Ralph J. Cordiner published an essay that to commercial space advocates could be considered as foreboding as Ike's warning.

Titled "Competitive Private Enterprise in Space," the essay appeared in a book titled Peacetime Uses of Outer Space, edited by Simon Ramo.

As we've been reminded many times fifty years later, the year 1961 was one of the most notable in the history of human space flight. The first human, Russian Yuri Gagarin, flew an orbit on April 12. The first American, Alan Shepard, flew a 15-minute suborbital flight on May 5. Twenty days later, President John F. Kennedy proposed the United Space land a man on the Moon before that decade was out, and return him safely to the Earth.

Congress approved Kennedy's proposal, which eventually became the Apollo program that placed astronauts on the Moon in 1969. But it came at a great cost. At its peak in 1965-1966, the NASA budget was over 4% of the federal budget. (Today it's less than 0.5%.) In current dollars, Apollo would have cost $150 billion.

Apollo also transformed NASA from a research and development agency as prescribed by law into a national jobs program justified by launching humans into space. To this day, nothing in the National Aeronautics and Space Act requires NASA to fly humans in space, to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets.

In those heady days where NASA was a front line in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, few would dare to question the consequences of Kennedy's proposal.

But Cordiner did.

Cordiner was a prominent and influential Republican who would be asked by Barry Goldwater to head the Republican Finance Committee during the 1964 presidential election.

Cordiner's General Electric stood to make a lot of money off Apollo. In fact, GE led one of the earliest Apollo design studies that was submitted ten days before Kennedy's speech.

But that didn't stop Cordiner from foreseeing — and warning about — the consequences of Apollo.

In his essay, Cordiner wrote:

Since the space effort will, for a long time, be primarily a research and development effort, this tendency could lead to an unexpected, and perhaps undesirable, build-up of government-controlled facilities. Looking to the future, when the space frontier has been explored and is ready for economic development, we might well find the area pre-empted by the government, which would then have most of the personnel and facilities available. This would leave the nation almost no choice except to settle for nationalized industry in space ...

As we step up our activities on the space frontier, many companies, universities, and individual citizens will become increasingly dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government. And if that drift continues without check, the United States may find itself becoming the very kind of society that it is struggling against — a regimented society whose people and institutions are dominated by a central government.

Cordiner wrote in an era where the United States viewed itself as competing for the hearts and minds of the Third World by demonstrating its economic system was superior to the Soviet Union. Kennedy, in fact, used the prestige argument as a primary justification for the Moon program.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Fifty years later, the Cold War is over. The United States and Russia are partners in space, jointly operating the International Space Station. American astronauts fly to the ISS on Russian Soyuz capsules, a decision made in 2004 by the Bush administration after the Columbia disaster.

But while Russia plans a new Vostochny Cosmodrome and leads the world in commercial launches, elements in the United States Congress and the space-industrial complex fight to keep NASA mired in a 1960s model that assures the government controls U.S. access to space — and doles out jobs to the districts of Congressional representatives on the space subcommittees.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver cited Cordiner in a speech she delivered October 20 at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. Image source: NASA via

According to MSNBC space correspondent Alan Boyle:

Garver referred specifically to this passage: "A certain percentage — perhaps as much as 5 percent — of the technical work of the space program is best done in government laboratories."

Garver bluntly told her audience that if Congress refuses to invest in commercial space today, it will only be more money going to Russia in the years ahead.

Boyle wrote:

Now NASA is getting ready for the next phase of the commercial crew vehicle development effort, and asking for $850 million to fund it. Congress is setting aside significantly less: $312 million in the House version, $500 million in the Senate version. During today's talk, Garver used an insurance salesman's strategy to argue for a higher figure.

If the full $850 million is provided, Garver said, "by 2016, certainly we will be able to end outsourcing of this capability from the Russians. If we don’t get full funding in 2012, this is at risk."

Each year of delay means that NASA will have to pay another $450 million to the Russians, she said. The implication was that paying U.S. companies an extra $350 million now (over the Senate's allotment) would be better than paying the Russians an extra $450 million in 2016. NASA would probably still be spending that $450 million per year in 2016 and beyond, but it would be going to U.S. companies rather than the Russian space effort.

Even if NASA gets the $850 million in 2012, that wouldn't be the end of the story. NASA projects that the cost of crew vehicle development will go up, going forward. "We have an analysis that says we believe we would require $6 billion over five years," Garver said. In the past, members of Congress have been resistant to approving that much money for commercial spaceship-builders.

One wonders what Cordiner would think of today's Republicans in Congress who refuse to properly fund commercial space while mandating the government's Space Launch System that has neither a mission or a destination. The Republicans are certainly not alone in their porkery — Florida Democrat Bill Nelson is one of the senators who dictated the SLS design to NASA. But for a party that claims to support small government and oppose "socialist" programs, I suspect that if he were alive today Cordiner would align himself philosophically with the Obama administration's space policy rather than with the behavior of many within his own party.

UPDATE October 25, 2011 — NASA has posted Lori Garver's prepared remarks at the Symposium.

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