Viewpoint: Priesthood of Space


The key to the exploitation of space is low-cost, reliable space transportation. Competition in this arena has become intense, dominated by government-developed space vehicles such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Shuttle and its major rival, the European Ariane rocket. Now, attempts are being made by private industry to enter the fray.

Central to all this recently has been a heated battle in the halls of government over Shuttle pricing policies. Proposed prices range from $42 million to over $150 million for a full Shuttle payload bay (subsidized by the taxpayer—the true cost of a single Shuttle flight has been estimated at nearly $250 million).

NASA is attempting to keep the Space Shuttle's customer prices as low as possible to remain competitive. The agency is supported in this by existing and potential Shuttle customers.

On the other hand, US companies attempting to privatize government-developed expendable launch vehicles (such as Transpace Carriers, Inc., which is privatizing the Delta launcher) are pressing for higher prices, blaming NASA's "predatory" pricing policies for a lack of customers for their systems.

Waiting in the wings are other private entrepreneurs with new concepts for future reusable space vehicles. These concepts (such as Third Millennium, Inc.'s winged Space Van or Pacific American Launch Systems' Phoenix launch vehicle) represent a promising source of low-cost space transportation. Yet these entrepreneurs have been largely unsuccessful in finding investment capital, and like the expendable launch vehicle companies, some have placed the blame on NASA's artificially low prices.

Although NASA is doing all it can to protect its Shuttle from competition, pricing policy is not what's keeping these proposed new space systems from leaving the drawing board. A quick look at prices shows this.

The (subsidized) price that a customer would pay to place a typical 5,000-lb. payload into Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle is about $1,000 per pound. The same payload, flying on a Space Van, would cost the customer only about $300 per pound. Launching it on a Phoenix vehicle would bring the price down to less than $50 per pound!

If all three systems were competing on the open market, the most profitable thing to do with the Space Shuttle would be to tow it into Los Angeles and make a restaurant out of it. If prices are not the main issue, then what is preventing long-term investment in new launch concepts?

NASA's main weapon against possible competition is its position as an "authority" on space. Investors, often unfamiliar with the space field and seeking outside opinions on new launch systems, almost invariably gravitate toward the only recognized group of "experts": NASA and the contractors who build NASA's systems. Needless to say, the new ideas do not receive glowing reports.

This happened in the computer industry several years ago, when established companies were convinced that no market existed for personal computers and told many entrepreneurs and investors so. Space transportation, however, is a special case for a couple of reasons.

First, a frustrated computer entrepreneur can stalk off to his garage, build his machine with proceeds from selling his car, and market it himself. The rocket entrepreneur has a tougher go. The amount of money required to develop launch systems in the private sector is immense. Not only is such financing out of the reach of the typical entrepreneur, but the sources of this kind of money are noted for their conservatism.

A second factor is that NASA has encouraged the attitude that space activities are in some way beyond the realm of normal human activity and can be accomplished only by the sort of technological "priesthood" that NASA represents. This aura of mystery around space is enhanced by complex rituals surrounding even the simplest space activity, by the arcane, acronym-studded language of the priesthood, and by complex, unknowable machines, plated with gold like ancient idols.

This "priesthood" syndrome is common in a government that sets itself and its representatives up as the wellspring of all human virtues. (For example, the federal departments concerned with health and welfare declare themselves the fountainhead of compassion, without which the private sector would presumably decay into a rapacious orgy of predation on the weak.) Still, NASA has been more successful than many other government departments in this role.

How envious the more mundane federal agencies must be as NASA produces spectacular launches, wondrous pictures of the planets, and live television from the moon! (As with any other priesthood, the occasional miracle never hurts.) To bring up funding in the same breath seems almost crass.

So effective is NASA's priesthood that many space enthusiasts of a liberal bent, who look with disdain at the spending habits of the Department of Defense, hold only admiration for the way in which NASA disposes of its funds. Faced with the NASA mystique, is it any wonder that conservative investors are easily cowed?

This distorted worldview cannot be dealt with as easily as can the issue of unfair price subsidies. It can only be dealt with by educating people that experts should be judged by facts, and not by the vestments they wear or the language they speak.

Tom Brosz is editor of Commercial Space Report newsletter.