What Is NASA's Purpose?
Tired of Disney, Sea World, those noisy Caribbean casinos? How about a trip to outer space -- coming soon to a travel agent near you? Space buffs from Houston to Washington chuckled over reports of the May 16 shuttle launch carrying Coca-Cola's experiment -- its second -- in zero-gravity, soda-mix dynamics. Noting rival Pepsi's product placement deal with the Russian Mir space station crew, Seth Borenstein of The Orlando Sentinel penned an arched-brow story about the coming "cola wars" in space, calculating that the Coke experiment would cost taxpayers $3.5 million. It was an amusing piece, fitting into the pantheon of $200 hammers and $5,000 toilet seats. But beyond the "Just for the Waste of It" slogan is a pivotal moment in the U.S. space program. Long after the Coke jokes are forgotten, historians may look back to 1996 as the year NASA gave way to the wholesale privatization of space in a quest for lower costs, higher profits and, perhaps most strangely, the fullest flowering so far of the Strategic Defense Initiative -- Star Wars. How will privatized "thrill rides" and hotels come to dominate Earth's low orbits? How, when and why will NASA fade into the background of space travel? How the hell does Coke in space relate to death rays and "brilliant pebbles"? To understand these connections, one must plumb the mind of an American space hero such as Buzz Aldrin. One must understand the economics of space flight and military contracting. And one must look inside the skull of Newt Gingrich, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. "I'll bet anybody," Gingrich told an audience last year, "that if we're doing enough, by the year 2015, a major profit center in space will be operating a hotel."Two days after the shuttle Endeavor rocketed into space with its Coke experiment on board, Peter H. Diamandis stood at the St. Louis Science Center and announced a $10 million award for the first private group to build a spaceship that can shoot a person 100 kilometers high and then be re-used. With a marketing instinct much closer to that of Coke than NASA, Diamandis calls his award The X Prize. It is serious business.Diamandis' non-profit foundation is backed by the Aerospace States Association, the U.S. Space Foundation, the National Space Society and NASA itself. In a full page ad May 7 in The New York Times, the foundation announced its intent by evoking the Spirit of St. Louis and the century's early aviation pioneers, many of whom lusted after the cash prizes made available by industrialists as much as the fame extant in being the first to go the farthest. But while the X Prize only recently went public, it has been big news in space-buff circles for months. Indeed, it represents just one facet of a dizzying array of space-policy changes. * NASA is shifting unprecedented resources into space privatization efforts. * NASA has joined with a consortium of companies to explore the feasibility of space tourism. * As budgets shrink, space buffs and multinational aerospace firms have begun a drive for de-regulation, including tax breaks for private exploration and "reforms" of liability law. Driving this process is a mix of hype and manifest destiny exemplified by the Gingrich-Toffler brand of gee-whiz futurism. The philosophy begins with some fundamental facts and quickly spins off into an interesting -- if somewhat unsettling -- world view. Begin with this premise: NASA is over. Since the Apollo era the space program -- from Skylab's tumble to the Challenger explosion to last month's satellite tether debacle -- has been foundering in search of a mission. What is required is a newer and bigger vision. "NASA needs a major central objective like it had in the '60s," says Robert Zubrin, chairman of the executive committee of the National Space Society, a 27,000-member buff's association with 80 chapters. "At that time, [the objective] was the moon. At this point in history, it has to be Mars."Zubrin has good reason for his partisanship. A few years ago, shortly after George Bush gave the go-ahead for NASA to plan such a mission, Zubrin drew a scenario at Martin Marietta, where he was then an engineer. He came up with a plan called "Mars direct," which involves shipping an unmanned space ship/fuel factory to the red planet, to be followed by a crew. "We built a working demo that could make methane-oxygen rocket fuel on Mars," he says. "With this, they could fly out to Mars -- not in this big Battlestar Galactica -- they fly out to Mars in a tuna can." He says his project could fly in 10 years for about $40 billion. "That's what Clinton gave to Mexico in an afternoon!" he says. So how did NASA let such a great plan slip through its fingers? In 1989, "NASA decided the Mars program was a sure bet, and they used it as a Christmas tree. They hung on it all the technical programs they could." Cost estimate: $400 billion. Today the Mars mission is dead. Also gone are programs to develop nuclear power in space and a Mach 25 space plane, plus new heavy-lift vehicles for interplanetary travel. NASA's 1993 budget was $15 billion. Today it has dropped to $13.8 billion, on its way to $11 billion. And since 1990, half of the space industry's personnel have been laid off. To counter this trend, the NSS later this month will launch a nationwide campaign of space hype, including a slideshow presentation for the group's members to take to Rotary Clubs and Boy Scout meetings, a petition titled "Open the Space Frontier" to be presented to Congress, and a plan to blitz talk-radio shows with a "yak attack," according to Zubrin, that will "take this medium away from the militia and turn it into a forum on space." In an era of falling expectations, NASA needs the boost. But those fans are also the agency's harshest critics, decrying the bureaucratic caution and lack of vision. Gone are the days of big government and big science working together to create superheroes. The new deal will be more akin to the barnstorming era of aviation, when mad flyboys made daredevil cross-country runs in rickety biplanes. That pioneering spirit -- and damn the insurance premiums -- is the new paradigm. "What is space about? It's not about satellites," says Zubrin. "It's not about crystals at zero G or Coke machines at zero G. It's about opening up the frontiers of space for humans. If we don't do that, if we just retire into ourselves and concentrate on balancing a budget and providing health insurance for all, then we've turned our back on our own greatness." Beyond this vision is the belief that the world will end if people do not find new places to colonize. In the January-February issue of The Futurist, author B. Alexander Howerton proposes a big space program on economic and ecological grounds. "Conservation is a noble cause, but it is ultimately a losing proposition. We merely delay the inevitable day of our own destruction." He adds, "The only way to expand the economy infinitely is to expand our resource base infinitely." Howerton isn't as far out as one might presume. The March-April issue of Ad Astra, the journal of the National Space Society, is devoted to "space tourism" and the policy changes necessary to make your space vacation dreams real. The first step in the process is commercialization of space; the first step in that process is to clear away all these pesky government safety concerns and liability issues now blocking bold entrepreneurs. The trouble now, according to Lawrence Roberts (a member of the NSS policy committee and chair of the American Bar Association's committee on international aerospace law), is a classic catch-22 that affects all emerging technologies. Put simply, there are no markets until the cost of launching comes down, and there'll be no significant cost reductions until the economies of scale available with vast markets are realized. "A number of potential commercial markets, tourism in particular, hold out the possibility of overcoming this dilemma," Roberts writes.To jump-start this process, U.S. Rep. Robert Walker (R-Penn.) has proposed the Space Business Incentives Act, which would offer tax breaks of up to $100,000 for long-term space investments, exempt a space company's capital gains and bond issues, and exclude any income generated from space-manufactured products from the corporate gross income tax. The bill is awaiting action in a House subcommittee. The bill is not the show-stopper of Gingrich's Contract With America, but it's on the same track. Roberts would push it a little further. "If tourism is to become a vital part of the commercial space equation," he writes, "limits on liability for the owners and operators of space facilities and vehicles will be a necessity." Sound far-fetched? Buzz Aldrin thinks it'll work. He's even authored a work of fiction that sets the scenario, with a private space tourism company financed by high fliers and raffle tickets that builds from sub-orbital flights to moon landings. Aldrin envisions annoying government regulators and journalists attacking the grand scheme. But his fictional business hero's base of operations is in Brazil -- right where it needs to be for technical reasons. "The fact that they hardly ever inspected anything or asked any questions was an unmentioned additional advantage," Aldrin writes. All of this sounds familiar to Alex Roland, chair of Duke University's history department and a noted space historian. The space shuttle was originally pitched as a cheaper way to get into space. It didn't work, so the Air Force stepped in and claimed Star Wars would lead the way. Now the mantra is privatization. "You can't do it," Roland says. "For 25 years nature has told them that, and it's time for NASA to admit it." Fat chance. NASA has not yet reached the point of total irrelevance, and in its sloth-like way it has been pushing the privatization envelope. Jim Cast, of NASA's Office of Space Access and Technology, says his division has some 11 centers offering various industries a way to get into space. And despite NASA's falling budget, expenses in this area have increased from $641 million this year to a projected $725 million sought for next year. It is almost impossible to break out the private industry benefits from NASA's budget, according to NASA comptroller Mal Peterson. But one indication of the trend is found in the agency's "advanced space transportation categories," including the X-33 and X-34 programs to create a supersonic "space plane" and the push for a "Delta Clipper" rocket capable of vertical take-off and landing. The budget for advanced space transportation grew from $126 million last year to $189 million this year, with $325 million sought for next year. NASA has budgeted some $900 million for the X-33 prototype. The work, now under way at Rockwell, Lockheed-Martin and McDonnell Douglas/Boeing, is designed to reduce the per-pound cost of space flight by two-thirds, to something under $3,000 per pound. The plane is scheduled for testing in 1999; the plan already is for the X-33 to be a private, commercial transport. Meanwhile, NSS thinkers see an early thrill ride costing about $150,000 for a 15-minute glide from 15 miles up. "Everybody's hope is that one day we'll be able to go to space and go to orbit for pleasure, the enjoyment, the experience and the unbeatable view," said Antonio Elias, an engineer for Orbital Sciences, a company working on X-34.Last September, NASA joined with the Space Transportation Association -- a consortium of the country's top aerospace companies -- to study space tourism and hopes to unveil results late this summer. "These things are not new," says Barbara Stone of NASA's Advanced Concepts office. "Conrad Hilton presented a paper proposing a hotel in space in 1967."Actually, NASA began the public access push in 1982, with its most famous component being the teacher-in-space program, Stone says. "And you know how that ended up." Indeed, if it weren't for the Challenger unpleasantness 10 years ago, space tourism might already be just another option vying for your attention from Florida billboards. The "adventure travel" boom is managed by companies that have long shown an interest in space tourism. In fact, says Stone, in the early 1980s Society Expeditions, a Seattle company that organizes Antarctic tours, proposed a module that would carry people aloft in the space shuttle's cargo bay. Just before the Challenger explosion, NASA decided it was unsafe to allow passengers anywhere but the crew compartment and nixed the proposal. But the module became Spacehab -- the big tin can that NASA leases for such things as, ahem, the Fluid Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus for the Coke experiment. The NSS and its allies have already begun marketing studies -- and found last year that 60 percent of U.S. and Canadian residents would like to visit space. A similar poll in Japan three years ago tallied 80 percent. And more than 10 percent of North American respondents said they would pay up to a year's salary to do so. "We think what you'd be willing to pay to go to space is what you'd be willing to pay for a car," says Eric Stallmer, assistant director of the Space Transportation Association. The association's people are shooting for trips in the $25,000 range, assuming a per-pound cost of $500 -- a bit on the optimistic side. But the race to lower these costs is not predicated on opening the final frontier to all comers. Until his death in January, Gen. Dan Graham chaired that association. Graham is a former deputy CIA director and a director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was a prime mover behind the "Star Wars" missile defense initiative. The current push for public space travel was "spawned from the idea of the Strategic Defense Initiative," says Stallmer. "If we're going to have these 'brilliant pebbles' in space, we'll need this infrastructure. Then we need to get the cost of launch down." Space tourism, he says, can begin to generate the economies of scale necessary to do that. The association has an advisory panel to consider the problems and potential of space travel for the masses -- or at least, for a somewhat broader elite. "We have people from Disney, the entertainment industry, Wall Street, science fiction writers, Sen. Jake Garn [an early astronaut who also took a shuttle trip]. What we're trying to do is a comprehensive study," says Stallmer. He declines to name the members of the panel. This recent Endeavor mission has been touted as the last before the "space station era" begins -- the final payoff in which the shuttle finally does what it was designed to do in the 1970s. From now on, says John Logsdon, a George Washington University space policy expert and NASA advisor, seven of eight missions a year through 2003 will be space station-related. Just last fall, NASA and the European Space Agency came to an agreement on funding the station, with the ESA chipping in $3.5 billion to the project. Asked if things like the Coke experiment represented the commercialized future of the space agency, Logsdon scoffed. Such tacky tack-ons are "incidental" to NASA's mission, he said. "It's a false premise that gimmicky experiments are the future." As NASA's concentrates on the space station, though, larger forces seem poised to gallop past into the deeper reaches, carrying at the very least ex-generals and corporate raiders, bond traders and movie stars. And maybe tiny bottles of Stoli. Companies are already planning commercial "space ports" in New Mexico, Virginia, Alaska and Florida -- plus several locations offshore. No word as yet on Brazil. "We would hope it would become like an airline program," says Stallmer. Coffee, tea or ... Coke?