The gatecrashers: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.
arine Major General Charles F. Bolden has made a career of taking on daunting assignments. After growing up black in segregated South Carolina, Bolden spent his teenage years badgering congressmen into helping him gain admittance to the nearly all-white U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Shipped out to Southeast Asia in 1972, he flew more than a hundred missions over Vietnam and Laos. After the war he spent a few years test-flying experimental aircraft, then—why not?—became an astronaut. When the space shuttle Columbia blasted off from Cape Canaveral in January 1986, sixteen days before the Challenger explosion, Bolden was in the pilot’s seat. So when President Barack Obama was looking to fill the top job at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration last May, the ex-astronaut, then sixty-two and retired, seemed a natural choice. NASA was four years into its most ambitious project since Apollo, a plan to send American astronauts back to the moon and, in time, on to Mars. It needed a leader equal to the challenge.
Nine months later, however, Bolden received an assignment even tougher than overseeing the mission: getting rid of it.
Under the budget released by the Obama administration in February, NASA was to get out of the business of human spaceflight altogether, at least for the near future—no more space shuttle or rockets, no capsules or moon-landing apparatus. In their place, NASA would oversee something very different: a $6 billion, five-year contract for a handful of private companies to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station—to operate a fleet of space taxis, more or less. Human spaceflight, the province of national identity and aspiration since Yuri Gagarin first hurtled into orbit, was going to be outsourced.
So it was that Bolden found himself, on a Wednesday in late February, sitting alone at a witness table on Capitol Hill—in the same Senate hearing room where he had been lavished with praise during his confirmation the previous summer—facing a panel of livid senators. "I absolutely believe," Louisiana Republican David Vitter declared, "that this budget and the vision it represents would end our human spaceflight program as we know it, and would surrender—at least for our lifetime, perhaps forever—our world leadership in the area." Others railed about the more parochial concerns that accompany the cancellation of giant government programs. "Those seven thousand folks directly in Florida and maybe fourteen thousand others who are impacted—what are we going to say to them?" demanded Senator George LeMieux, Republican of Florida, whose Space Coast depended on NASA and its contractors for jobs. Even Robert "Hoot" Gibson, the commander on Bolden’s first shuttle mission, was called to testify against the plan. "This abrupt change in NASA’s exploration approach has no clear path," he told the panel. "No destination. No milestones. No program focus."
Bolden’s wiry five-foot-seven frame, already diminished by a big-around-the-shoulders suit jacket, seemed to shrink further as the speeches and interrogations wore on—they weren’t so much questions to be answered as questions to be endured, and the administrator gamely endured them for an hour and a half. "I—I really do look forward to continuing to work with you all," he said as he finally stood up to leave. "We’ll get it right."
In the hallway a scrum of half a dozen reporters was waiting. "Mr. Administrator—" one of them called out, but Bolden just nodded politely and kept walking, the soles of his shoes clopping against the marble. The scrum followed, shouting questions: What exactly was the plan? Did NASA still intend to go to Mars? When? How? The administrator’s brisk walk now bordered on a jog. Just before the pack spilled into the rotunda at the end of the hall, an Associated Press correspondent managed to plant himself in front of Bolden. "Mr. Administrator," he said, panting, "what is your vision? When are you going to have a vision?" Bolden stopped and looked up at him, a plaintive note in his voice. "I think I have a vision," he said.
The Vision: It is constantly invoked at NASA, at once the government’s most relentlessly technical and most airily mystical agency. (The Office of Housing and Urban Development does not talk about the Vision.) NASA’s goals and ambitions have never been particularly justifiable in any concrete sense; when Wernher von Braun, the ex-Nazi rocket scientist who designed the Apollo program’s Saturn rockets, was asked what the purpose of going to the moon was, he replied, "What is the purpose of a newborn baby? We find out in time." You could get away with that in NASA’s 1960s glory days, when the agency’s accomplishments were splashed across newspapers’ front pages and its mantra, posted on the walls of its contractors’ rocket factories, was "Waste anything but time."
But once the space race was won and Americans’ attentions returned to the planet they lived on, NASA’s focus gradually shifted away from the Vision and toward the goal of every aging bureaucracy: survival. The space agency has spent decades in a holding pattern, sinking billions of dollars into projects of questionable usefulness and limited popularity—the space shuttle and the International Space Station—that have kept astronauts and engineers occupied, but have also left the agency even less able to pay for the frontier-expanding ventures that were once its hallmark. One administration after another has struggled to find its way out of this conundrum, announcing Mars missions, lunar bases, and plans for exotic new spacecraft. But these projects have almost always failed to pan out, leaving the agency more cash-strapped than it was before, at which point NASA quietly goes back to the old shuttle routine and hopes that no one really notices. "The agency has been sort of wandering in the desert for forty years," says Scott Horowitz, a former astronaut and Bush-era NASA associate administrator.
What is different now is that for the first time, the old routine is no longer an option. The shuttle is slated to make its final flight next year—the production lines for its fuel tanks have already been shut down—and the agency has nothing ready to take its place. This means that NASA won’t have a vehicle to reach the International Space Station it has spent eleven years and $48.5 billion building—and will find its knowledge of how to pull off human spaceflight atrophying rapidly. It’s a hell of a bind: NASA must choose between spending a heap of money continuing to meet the obligations of the present—the space station missions and other activities in earth’s orbit—and directing its resources toward the ambitions of the future, new exploratory missions that might be decades away from happening and are hardly guaranteed to even happen at all. In the midst of a recession, it can’t do both.
The Obama administration’s NASA plan is an attempt to escape this fix. While the details have yet to be hammered out, and still await passage by an inevitably hostile Congress, the idea in a nutshell is this: if NASA helps commercial companies get their rockets onto the launch pad, and those companies find a market for their services beyond NASA, the agency’s human spaceflight program will finally be free of its expensive obligations to maintain its rudimentary orbit-oriented activities. Instead of spending billions a year on shuttle launches, the agency can simply book astronauts on commercial flights for $20 million or so a pop. With the money it saves, NASA can redouble its research and development efforts to acquire the technology it needs to push the boundaries of exploration once again. It’s this potential for the expeditions of the future—and aerospace jobs in the present—that Obama emphasized in a speech at Cape Canaveral in April aimed at stemming a growing political backlash against his new policy. But for this to happen, the other part of the plan has to work—low-earth-orbit space travel has to go from being a resource-sucking government program to an efficient business.
The best reason to think this idea is not completely crazy is because something like it has happened before. In 1925, when air travel was still in its infancy, Congress passed the Kelly Airmail Act, which allowed commercial airlines to bid on U.S. Postal Service delivery contracts. The government backing allowed the fledgling airlines to expand their routes and service offerings; demand for cargo service increased, and, as flight got cheaper and came to be viewed as a normal and non-death-defying means of getting places, passenger service increased, too. Through a combination of private-sector ingenuity and government seed money, a new industry was willed into existence.
But even the earliest, most rickety commercial airlines at least enjoyed the advantage of traveling between places where people lived; it was easy enough to think of things that needed to go from point A to point B, and could stand to get there faster. Commercial spaceflight, by contrast, has to contend with the fact that there aren’t many things that actually need to be done in space. In effect, the rocket builders don’t just have to figure out how to serve a market—they have to create one. The plan is risky in more serious ways, too: NASA is gambling that private corporations, some of them as yet untested in spaceflight, can carry astronauts to the space station more safely than the space shuttle, even as the agency exercises less safety oversight over them—a plan that runs counter to the recommendations of every major accident investigation NASA has conducted.
That NASA is willing to put all its chips on a bet as dubious seeming as this one is a testament to the uncomfortable straits in which the agency finds itself as it settles into middle age. One of the government’s last great throwbacks to the Cold War, NASA’s human spaceflight program has finally reached a point where it can no longer ignore the looming question of what it is, exactly, we’re doing in space. And it’s hoping that its new commercial partners can figure out the answer.
he agency that has landed a dozen men on the moon, photographed the birth of distant stars, and (if you believe the most dramatic of the astronaut-penned op-eds) will find us a way off the only planet our species has ever known once we pollute it out of habitability, operates out of a Washington office space that is more modest than the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’. To be fair, the mind-bending stuff mostly happens elsewhere—the sprawling launch complex at Cape Canaveral, the research centers in California and Alabama—but still, if it weren’t for the flags, from the outside you could mistake the place for a law firm. One forlorn space suit—Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman’s—sits in a display case in the lobby; the security guards have to semiregularly inform perplexed tourists that if they wish to see more of them, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum is four blocks away.
The headquarters befit a perennially beleaguered organization, one tasked with carrying out what may be the most absurd mandate in the federal government. Every year NASA is asked to do things that border on the impossible, but is given only $18.7 billion to do them—about what we spend annually on farm subsidies, and a rounding error in the $708.3 billion Pentagon budget. The military spends as much on combat-simulation video games each year as NASA spends on the space shuttle.
Still, NASA’s budget would probably be adequate for the scientifically path-breaking work that the agency, and nobody else, does: the probes and telescopes charting near and distant corners of the universe, the satellite-based cosmology experiments, the earth observation missions that untangle the complexities of the planet’s climate and weather. The problem is that most people don’t care about those things. Not long ago, NASA commissioned a study of Americans’ attitudes toward the space program by the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a market research think tank that had previously worked for the Six Flags amusement park chain and the National Alliance for Musical Theater. The forty-six-page report the group delivered provides an elegant summation of the agency’s bind. "In the mind of the public," it concludes, "human exploration is NASA’s brand. The space quest is a human equation, not just a technical mission." The further NASA got from that mission, the more the agency shifted in taxpayers’ eyes "from a household item to a luxury item"—the sort of thing that would be nice to have, but not necessarily if money is tight. NASA’s two manned ventures, the space shuttle and the International Space Station, didn’t really count—what really galvanized Americans were firsts, missions that pushed the boundary of known experience. But those missions were massively expensive, and it was unclear whether the country could muster the will to finance anything like them again. "Failure of NASA’s vision to resonate with the American public to the point where it inspires action is a reflection of a larger problem," the analysts write: "the U.S. currently has no larger shared vision into which NASA’s vision can fit."
The space agency’s last great bid to figure a way out of this spot began on January 14, 2004, with George W. Bush. In a speech at NASA headquarters just shy of the one-year anniversary of Columbia’s immolation upon reentry over Texas, Bush laid out a new direction for the agency: he would send astronauts back to the moon for the first time since 1972, he declared, no later than 2020. And the moon was only the beginning—from there they would go to Mars, the grand ambition of space travel since the early twentieth century. "Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea," Bush said. "We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit." The speech was a fantastically odd moment—Bush had never before evinced much interest in space exploration, and, indeed, the NASA speech was the first and last time he spoke publicly of his vision. The task of filling in the details ultimately fell to Michael Griffin, who took over as NASA administrator the following year.
A brilliant and imperious engineer with half a dozen advanced degrees to his name, Griffin was seen by his admirers as perhaps the closest that NASA could get to another Wernher von Braun, the defining visionary of the Apollo years. There was little doubt that Griffin saw this in himself, too; in his last days in office, NASA spent $57,000 publishing a handsome bound volume of his collected speeches, entitled Leadership in Space. If Bush had set the goal, it was Griffin who fleshed out not just the means of attaining it, but also the argument for doing so. In a speech delivered to an industry group in California early in his tenure, he warned that if the United States were to fall behind Russia and China in the quest to expand the frontier of human spaceflight, it would translate into diminished greatness and influence back on earth. "We must think carefully," he said, "about what the world of tomorrow will look like if the United States is not the preeminent spacefaring nation."
Coming from the top of an agency that had grown accustomed to justifying human spaceflight with diplomacy and science, Griffin’s blunt nationalism was unabashedly retro—and the plan he had for NASA’s next step was no less so. Called Constellation, it consisted of a family of rockets named Ares, a gumdrop-shaped crew module named Orion, and a lunar lander named Altair. Griffin joked that it was "Apollo on steroids," and indeed, the artist’s renderings of the components looked like they could have come off von Braun’s drafting table. After a quarter century of the space shuttle, here again was the sleek white pillar, twice the height of the shuttle on the launch pad, topped with a nub of a capsule that would carry the astronauts back to the frontiers they had abandoned when "American Pie" still ruled the pop charts.
When he announced his plan, Bush had laid out one hard-and-fast rule: the new mission had to be accomplished within NASA’s existing budget, with modest increases to keep pace with inflation. The order suggested just how unserious the president was about the project. Apollo, which aimed to accomplish the same moon shot on a comparable timeline, had at its peak eaten up more than 5 percent of the federal budget, nearly ten times NASA’s share in 2004. The space station, a more modest undertaking, was projected to cost the space agency as much as $96 billion over the life of the project; honest outside estimates of a Mars journey pegged its likely cost at five times that.
But in fact, Bush’s budget was even more inadequate than it looked at first blush. The official plan was to use the money from the soon-to-be-canceled shuttle program to fuel Constellation’s growth. But the administration had ignored the fact that about half the shuttle’s budget was tied up in fixed costs that wouldn’t disappear with the craft itself, things like test facilities and Mission Control operations. It was magical thinking masquerading as fiscal responsibility.
The short-sightedness of the administration’s accounting became clear when Constellation started running into technical problems, as new NASA programs inevitably do. As the Ares rockets began to take shape, engineers realized that the solid-fuel boosters they had adapted from the space shuttle caused a number of problems in the new design. Most critically, they found that when the first stage burned out, the engine could loose violent vibrations up the shaft to the capsule that housed the astronauts, shaking them so badly they would be unable to read the instrument panels. Mitigating the problem would require years of testing, and billions of dollars—which, of course, Constellation didn’t have.
Searching for funding within the zero-sum confines of the NASA budget, Griffin began dipping into other projects’ accounts. Soon Constellation was not only behind schedule, but forcing the cancellation of more useful NASA research and technology development programs. By 2009 Ares’s first flight was optimistically projected for 2015 and realistically years after that, and the estimated cost of building the rockets had grown from $14.4 billion to $35 billion. The moon base, to say nothing of Mars, receded into the distant future. What had begun as an audacious bid for NASA’s past glory was quickly becoming a very expensive means of continuing the dull obligations of the present, the perfunctory trips to and from the International Space Station—something Griffin had long scoffed at as a waste of time and resources. And even that wouldn’t be possible until years after the space shuttle was scheduled to be retired, meaning that American astronauts who wanted to get to the station would be reduced to paying to hitch rides with the Russians, whose Soyuz rocket and capsule would be the only means of getting into orbit.
Desperate for something to show for their work, Constellation’s engineers eventually cobbled together a rocket, the Ares I-X, for an October 2009 test flight. But it was really just a mock-up of the still-nonexistent real thing—assembled from a spare shuttle booster and preexisting military rocket electronics, with a fake upper stage and capsule, it resembled Griffin’s original vision in shape alone.
Preoccupied with his ambitions, Griffin had made the classic engineer’s error: in drawing up his grand designs, he had simply assumed the money he needed to make them happen would be there. As a result, he left his successors with a far bigger mess than he had inherited. If there was one thing his NASA tenure proved, it was that the human spaceflight program’s problem wasn’t a lack of ambition—it was getting someone to pay for it. In trying to figure their way out of the same box, his successors would steer a course in the opposite direction.
lthough the Obama administration and NASA have remained relentlessly mum about who exactly charted NASA’s new course, both its supporters and its detractors tend to believe that its most novel element—the outsourcing of human spaceflight—bears the fingerprints of the agency’s new deputy administrator, Lori Garver, rather than Charles Bolden. Garver was Obama’s space policy adviser during the campaign, the head of his NASA transition team, and a long-standing champion of commercial space travel. And there’s not much on her superior’s resume that suggests a desire to upend NASA’s status quo—in fact, during the administrator search Bolden had been championed by Constellation supporters like Florida Senator Bill Nelson because he seemed the candidate least likely to scrap it.
Garver landed in space policy more or less accidentally, after working on former astronaut John Glenn’s 1984 presidential campaign during her first year out of college. "I definitely fell into it," she told me when I visited her in her Washington office this spring. With her bright lemon-yellow jacket and her chestnut hair pulled into a loose bun, Garver looked less like the archetypal NASA bureaucrat than she did a well-heeled fortysomething suburban lawyer, and she spoke with a conversational ease uncommon in an agency full of engineers and retired military officers. After the Glenn campaign, Garver went on to spend thirteen years at the National Space Society, an advocacy organization aimed at shoring up public and congressional support for space exploration, followed by five years at NASA during the Clinton administration. Her closest brush with spaceflight occurred in 2002, when she was working as a private aerospace consultant. A client of hers, a wealthy CEO and aspiring space tourist, abruptly backed out of his plans to fly to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. Desperate to fill the vacancy in the capsule, the Russians dropped the price of the seat, and it occurred to Garver that, with enough sponsorships, she might be able to make the trip herself.
Garver (who had two young sons at the time) dubbed herself the "Astromom," and a deal with the Discovery Channel was soon in the offing. She traveled to the Russian cosmonaut training facility of Star City for medical testing, and went so far as to have her gall bladder removed to meet the physical requirements for the trip. But fate intervened again, and even more bizarrely, in the form of Lance Bass, a member of the boy band N*SYNC, who announced he was also interested in the ticket. Bass and Garver held a surreal joint press conference in Moscow, but by then it was clear that the preteen idol would be able to put together the money for the trip first. Garver returned to Washington, and politics, working on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry in 2004 and both Hillary Clinton and Obama in 2008.
This background—long on politics, minor celebrity, and commerce, short on science, engineering, and government or military service—is unusual for NASA, and it explains part of why Garver has attracted considerable controversy at her new post. During the presidential transition in December 2008, Griffin (who declined to comment for this story) stonewalled Garver, refusing to hand over documentation of the Constellation project to her transition team. When the two bumped into each other at a book party shortly before Christmas, Garver confronted him about it. "Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is," she said, according to witnesses who described the incident to the Orlando Sentinel. "We are just trying to look under the hood."
"If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar," Griffin shot back. "Because it means you don’t trust what I say is under the hood." (Garver smiled when I asked her about the confrontation. "Transitions are tense times," she said, "and not everyone handles them well.")
When I talked with other veterans of the Griffin era, many of whom professed to have known and liked Garver for years, they spoke of her rise to influence the way a concert violinist would speak of a kid juggling an eighteenth-century Stradivarius next to a fireplace. Their grand fear is that the new NASA plan amounts to the twilight of the heroic engineer: that an agency that seemed poised to reclaim the greatness of its heyday will now be reduced to aimless tinkering. "Constellation got off to a false start, but there was a goal," says Scott Horowitz, the ex-astronaut and NASA official, who worked under Griffin at the agency. "This new budget basically throws out any government ability to provide human spaceflight for the foreseeable future."
Garver, naturally, sees it differently. "This is an attempt to utilize the best the industry has to offer," she told me. "They’ve all been telling us, ‘Government is too hands-on, you’re not providing value added.’ It’s a way for them to lean forward more, us to back off more, and do the harder things." The theory is that the agency can extract itself from the expensive, time-consuming, and not particularly useful business of low-earth-orbit travel—as opposed to long hauls to the moon or beyond—that has defined human spaceflight since the end of Apollo, and free up NASA’s relatively limited resources for the research and development it needs to undertake before it can send astronauts further out into the solar system. Maintaining shuttle service to the International Space Station eats up a third of NASA’s annual budget, and for years NASA hasn’t really been able to convincingly explain why we’re spending the money. The best justification the agency has mustered for the space station—which in truth isn’t of much use for scientific research—is that without it, the space shuttle doesn’t really have anywhere to go. The main reasoning for continuing the shuttle program, and for coming up with a successor to it, is that otherwise we don’t have a means of getting to the space station.
By outsourcing its routine space transportation needs, the agency is essentially throwing the question of what it is we’re trying to accomplish by going to space to the private sector. (In April, the Obama administration tried to compromise with Constellation’s defenders by proposing keeping the Orion capsule part of the project, but only as an emergency escape vehicle—a kind of lifeboat—for the space station, not a means of transporting astronauts to it.) The ideological contortions involved here attest to just what a strange corner of politics it is that the space program occupies. Republican politicians and conservative pundits have beaten up on Obama for ending one of the most inefficient, government-dominated ventures in history—the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer called the decision "a constricted inward-looking call to retreat"—in favor of something bordering on galactic Milton Friedmanism: the administration is gambling that in the post-post–Cold War era, the market has a better idea of what’s worth doing in orbit than the government does. "It’s hard to swallow from a national pride standpoint, but I don’t know why it should be," says Marco Caceres, an analyst with the Teal Group, an aerospace market research firm. "The potential is there to grow new industries, to grow our economy. China can put a flag on the moon, but so what? We’ll be sending people into low earth orbit, and building whole new businesses. If we let private industry take the lead, it’ll be private companies that figure out what’s actually worth doing."
he companies the government is trusting to solve this existential riddle are a mix of familiar contractors and would-be gatecrashers, all of which are offering elements of a rocket-and-capsule design which, like Constellation, harkens back to the pre-shuttle space program. One of the two particularly serious contenders is Orbital Sciences, a veteran Pentagon contractor that has been launching military satellites for years. The other is Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, a wildly ambitious start-up launched in 2002 by PayPal cofounder Elon Musk with the intention of building a fleet of commercial rockets that could be launched into orbit at a fraction of the currently available price. Musk is the closest thing the nascent commercial spaceflight industry has to a Howard Hughes, a brilliant polymath with an apparently endless appetite for plowing his own considerable fortune into world-changing endeavors (he is also the founder of the electric carmaker Tesla). Although his company is still in its infancy, SpaceX managed to build a rocket from scratch and loft a satellite into orbit in just six years. That’s something that most countries, let alone companies, couldn’t pull off.
The biggest hurdle Musk and others have to clear, however, isn’t technical. After all, aerospace companies have known how to build rockets for half a century—they just haven’t found people to pay for them. Although its plans are still unsettled, NASA is unlikely to need more than a few flights a year to bring astronauts to the International Space Station, and a few more to bring cargo there. A single commercial launch company, however, needs more—possibly many more—launches than that each year to stay in the black. That means it will have to find other customers.
What else could these rockets do besides fly stuff to the space station? The only option that really exists today is satellites. The market for launching them is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion, but it’s barely growing. "It’s a very, very conservative market," Caceres says. "It’s not one you can say is going to double or triple a few years from now." To grow demand, a start-up would have to offer something radically cheaper than what’s available today—for instance, the price of launching a small satellite, Caceres says, would have to fall from the going rate of about $10 million to something on the order of $6 to $8 million—something no aspiring commercial provider can seriously promise.
If the new providers can’t offer the bargain-basement prices necessary to expand the satellite market, they’ll be stuck trying to undercut the existing players—which isn’t much easier. The market is dominated by foreign companies that are subsidized, in fact or in practice, by foreign governments. And because satellites are expensive and there are reliable operators available to send them heavenward, few of their owners are willing to stick with a newcomer through the steep learning curve of its early years—which invariably involve blowing up a lot of rockets—unless it’s really cheap. (Three of the five Falcon 1 rockets that SpaceX has launched to date have crashed into the ocean—including one that was carrying the ashes of James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty on Star Trek.) Sea Launch, a Boeing spinoff that succeeded briefly as a freestanding commercial enterprise, filed for bankruptcy protection last summer, after the cost of its rockets increased and one of them blew up on the launch pad. Customers fled en masse.
Aside from satellites, the other option is the holy grail of the commercial spaceflight industry: flying people to space. But beyond the taxi trips to the space station, the pickings are pretty slim, and mostly theoretical. It’s possible that other countries’ astronauts would want to buy seats on flights to the space station, but NASA hasn’t gauged the extent of the interest. Another option is space tourism. This notion has generated enthusiasm among entrepreneurs; a company called Bigelow Aerospace wants to launch its own inflatable space modules into orbit, which could function as zero-gravity laboratories or even space hotels. And there are inklings of a market here: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has done a brisk business selling tickets on future flights aboard the sleek, otherworldly space plane the company has in development.
The problem, though, is that the experience Branson is offering tourists is far cheaper and simpler than the sort of thing that the companies hoping to contract with NASA will be doing with their rockets. Virgin Galactic’s aircraft will travel sixty-some miles to the edge of the atmosphere and back, what’s known as suborbital flight—it technically qualifies as space travel, but it’s orders of magnitude less difficult and expensive than reaching orbit, a several-hundred-mile proposition requiring forty times the energy of Branson’s day trips. Seats on a Virgin Galactic flight go for $200,000, sailing-around-the-world-on-a-yacht money. But a slot on a commercial flight to the space station would cost $20 million. In fact, you can already fly there at that price the way that Lori Garver intended to, with the Russian Federal Space Agency—space tour packages have been available for a decade, and so far there have been only eight takers.
If other customers fail to materialize for the companies that NASA is betting on, the agency finds itself in an awkward spot. The whole point of paying for launch services, rather than bankrolling contractors’ ever-metastasizing costs for entire projects, is that it’s supposed to be cheaper. But if a company can’t find other work, it has to spread its costs out over fewer launches to make its budget—which means the individual launches become more expensive. And if NASA wants to send anything into orbit at all, it has to pay the new prices, whatever they are.
That was how events played out for the Department of Defense fifteen years ago, when it embarked on a strategy similar to NASA’s. The military was in the market for a new fleet of rockets to launch defense satellites, to replace its aging Titan IV. At the time, analysts were projecting a huge boom in the demand for commercial satellites, largely driven by an anticipated explosion in the satellite phone market. The Pentagon figured that if it awarded start-up grants to the most promising companies, it could hasten the arrival of a bona fide commercial launch business in the United States; once the rocket builders were up and running, they would have hordes of new customers from the satellite phone industry, and the military could buy their services on a per-launch basis at a reasonable price. Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas (which was acquired by Boeing shortly thereafter) won the contract, and were handed $2.5 billion over the first three years of the project to get the job done.
Over the following years, however, cellular phone companies, the satellite phone providers’ rivals in the mobile phone market, began extending the reach of their signals with cheap and easy-to-build repeating towers. The market for cell phones began to grow exponentially, while the one for the far pricier satellite phones all but vanished—along with the demand for satellites. By the time Boeing and Lockheed Martin had actual rockets ready for testing, no one required their services but the military. "The lesson that we learned is that there’s market risk, technical risk, and operational risk," says Michael Gass, the president and chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance, the Boeing–Lockheed Martin joint venture that completed the contract. "The companies are good at the technical and operational risks. The market side is something that might be too hard to forecast."
Because the Pentagon needed the rockets, it had no choice but to cover the rocket builders’ expenses, which soon grew enormous. The projected cost of a launch jumped 77 percent from 2002 to 2003 alone, and another 29 percent the following year—an increase so great that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had to formally vouch for the program’s necessity to national defense just to make it kosher with defense contracting laws. In 2005 the Defense Department called a spade a spade and quietly redrew the program as the standard cost-plus contracting arrangement that in practice it had already become, and later changed its status to make it subject to fewer budgetary oversight requirements. As of late 2008 the Government Accountability Office calculated its total price tag to date at $8.2 billion—and the rockets were still in the test-launching stage. Even without considering the cost of program development, the price per launch, originally budgeted at a little under $73 million, had grown to $170 million.
If there’s a lesson to be drawn from this saga it’s that the difference between a government contractor and a commercial company whose only customer is the government is academic at best. And in fact, the Pentagon’s experience is already repeating itself at NASA, which in 2006 began a similarly structured $500 million program to commission rockets that could deliver cargo to the space station. SpaceX, the contract recipient that is furthest along in development, was supposed to have tested three Falcon 9 rockets by last September; as of this writing, it was about to test its first. NASA, meanwhile, is asking for an extra $312 million for the companies in its fiscal year 2011 budget to speed things along. And in spite of the risk the agency faces if its launch companies can’t find other customers, the agency hasn’t commissioned any studies of the potential market for their services—instead, it’s relied on the predictions of the companies themselves.
ocket makers also face a whole new challenge if they want to go from launching satellites and cargo to launching people: namely, not killing them. NASA has said that whatever the next vehicle it entrusts with astronauts’ lives is, it should have less than a one in a thousand chance of a fatal accident (the odds on a round-trip space shuttle mission are about one in eighty-five). Commercial providers claim that they can do this without intrusive or expensive NASA oversight. But the fact is that for decades NASA has been experimenting with letting contractors monitor themselves, and the results haven’t been good.
The reason for this is that while most rocket-building expertise resides in the private sector—12,000 companies were involved in Apollo 11 alone—most of the institutional knowledge of how to pull off a manned spaceflight safely remains inside NASA. The less the two overlap, the more crucial information falls through the cracks. Both the Challenger and Columbia disasters were the result of seemingly minor technical problems whose significance wasn’t appreciated up the shuttle program’s chain of command. In both cases investigators pinned the blame in part on communication failures between NASA and its contractors, and NASA’s diminished oversight over them. Put simply, NASA knew too little about the spacecraft it was flying.
The panel investigating the Challenger accident recommended "the total combination of NASA and contractor organizations, working more effectively on a coordinated basis at all levels" in order to avoid repeating the tragedy. At first NASA heeded the investigators’ advice, but the inquiry into the subsequent Columbia disaster found that once budget pressures reasserted themselves, the shuttle program had gone back to cutting corners. "The change was cost-efficient," the Columbia investigators wrote, "but personnel cuts reduced oversight of contractors at the same time that the agency’s dependence upon contractor engineering judgment increased." Miscommunication between an oversight-deprived NASA and its contractors has also been blamed for less tragic, more farcical failures. In 1999, the agency lost a $125 million unmanned Mars probe somewhere in the Red Planet’s atmosphere due to a navigational failure. The problem, it turned out, was that the contractor, Lockheed Martin, had given NASA all of its data on the program in Imperial units. The space agency used the metric system.
Safely overseeing the development of a commercial venture’s human-ready vehicle is possible, of course, but it costs money. How much, exactly, is the multibillion-dollar question. Would-be taxi providers have thrown out numbers, ranging from a highly unlikely low end of $300 million to an only slightly less unlikely high end of $1.5 billion. But the truth is that no one really knows—NASA hasn’t figured out yet what its requirements will be. The agency has spoken of doing less oversight and more "insight"—that is, working with the commercial ventures to come up with a safety code and trusting them to follow it. But it’s not hard to see the huge problem that this sets up: would you trust a company whose business is entirely dependent on fixed-price government contracts not to cut corners when nobody’s looking?
There’s also the question of liability: if something does happen, who’s on the hook? Recovering the remnants of Columbia and investigating its last flight cost $454 million—enough to sink a fledgling company, which would almost certainly have to put its operations on hold throughout a lengthy investigation. Similarly, a serious problem with the space station could obliterate a company’s customer base for months or years. Would-be commercial providers say they wouldn’t even get into the business unless the government provided an assurance of bailing them out in the event of a disaster.
All in all, these are not terms that make investors salivate: initial capital in the high hundreds of millions, wildly unpredictable long-term costs, an unproven and possibly nonexistent market, the threat of gargantuan liabilities, and reliance on a single customer that is subject to the whims of Congress and the White House, and might not need the services for more than the next ten years—after all, there’s no guarantee that the International Space Station will stay in orbit beyond 2020. Which may be why, for all of NASA’s optimism, the people who are willing to sink money into commercial spaceflight are the same as they’ve always been: existing contractors assured of government backing, and idealistic billionaires. SpaceX, the only serious contender that aspires to be a true freestanding commercial venture, is supported almost entirely by NASA and Musk’s own money—although the company is privately held, it lists just two outside investors (including a fund run by Musk’s PayPal cofounders), and press reports have pegged their stake in the company at about $35 million, about a tenth of what NASA and Musk are collectively betting on the venture.
n March, while the brouhaha over the new NASA plans was in full swing on Capitol Hill and at Cape Canaveral, a less politically charged bit of news from the agency was mostly lost in the shuffle. Researchers at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported that they had successfully uploaded new software to Opportunity, one of the two rovers NASA had landed on Mars six years earlier. With the upgrade the rover would be able to use its onboard camera to scan swaths of the Martian landscape in search of rocks of shapes and sizes that suggested scientific interest, and focus on them—to see and think for itself, in a narrow sense.
It was another milestone for one of NASA’s most successful endeavors in recent memory. Over the six years they have spent roaming the Red Planet, Opportunity and its sibling, Spirit, have mined rock samples, charted craters and mountains, and found evidence suggesting the existence of long-evaporated seas on the planet. The rovers have sent back a stream of fascinating photographs: windswept panoramas, microscopic mineral formations, even an eerily moving picture of a sunset, the familiar star appearing from Mars’s greater distance as a wan pinpoint of light dropping toward an alien horizon. And they have done all of it for less than a fifth of the budget that the space shuttle program chews up in a single year.
For all the chest-thumping nationalism and science-fiction fantasy that attends human spaceflight, the fact is that most of the truly astonishing things that NASA has accomplished since Apollo have been done not by astronauts in orbit, but by engineers and researchers in labs much closer to home, operating unmanned machines like the Mars rovers and the Hubble telescope. In the years that the shuttle program has burned through upwards of $170 billion—and fourteen crew members’ lives—to perform research on subjects like the effects of weightlessness on spiders, earthbound researchers working with a fraction of those resources have discovered hundreds of planets beyond our own solar system, found cosmic evidence of the Big Bang, and begun to pinpoint the age of the Universe. By the time the first astronaut sets foot on Mars—by even the most optimistic estimates—probes and robots will have scoured the planet’s atmosphere and surface for half a century.
In turning away from the Bush-era NASA’s ambitions, the Obama administration has tacitly acknowledged that human spaceflight, as it has been practiced for half a century, has become something anachronistic and difficult to justify. "We’re not trying to rebuild that system," Garver told me. "It was overbuilt." But in betting taxpayer money on the nascent commercial spaceflight industry’s promises of an orbiting free market waiting to be born, the agency has shown that it hasn’t fully cut itself loose from its old gambler’s impulses: the belief that the next paradigm of manned space exploration, the thing that will make all of this worthwhile, is just around the corner. And if not—well, space is a lonely and expensive place.
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Charles Homans is an editor of the WashingtonMonthly.