Brief Review


Space Enterprise: Beyond NASA, by David P. Gump, New York: Praeger, 220 pages, $19.95

David Gump, founder of Space Business News, a leading trade publication, insists that space ventures do not have to be expensive. The massive plume of exploding fuels we see when a space shuttle takes off, for example, accounts for only 1 percent of shuttle costs. "The bloated expense of NASA's space shuttle," Gump writes, "stems from huge payrolls and overly complicated equipment." NASA and its contractors have assigned some 24,000 people to the shuttle.

Gump compares the progress of aircraft development with that of spacecraft development. Sixteen years after the Wright Brothers' first successful flight, commercial passenger service from London to Paris began. In 1928, just 25 years after the flight at Kitty Hawk, Boeing was selling commercial airplanes. Yet beginning in 1975,16 years after the first space flight, the U.S. fleet was grounded for six years between Apollo and the space shuttle. And in 1986, the date Boeing should have been marketing a commercial spacecraft, the Challenger exploded and brought America's entire civilian space effort to a halt.

Airplane development relied on private capital, engineering, manufacturing, and management. The thrust of these efforts was to move quickly from research and development into commercial production.

Spacecraft development has relied upon public-sector funding and management. Engineering and manufacturing have been carried out in a research-and development atmosphere in which there is little incentive to keep costs down. Gump illustrates the trade-off NASA officials must make between technical and political risk:

"Only a 30-billion dollar version [of the space station] was offered to Congress.…A less risky approach would have started with a small module that NASA could use as a test-bed for later stations. NASA didn't offer this option for fear Congress might decide the prototype was good enough and refuse to pay for the full-scale version.…The technical risk is higher, but the political risk of being stuck with the interim version forever is eliminated."

Gump notes that the military's desire for a space fighter/bomber/spy plane will long delay development of a straightforward space plane. But the root problem with all the futuristic new space vehicles—the British HOTOL, the West German Sanger Spaceplane, the European Space Agency's Hermes—is that they are bound by the political realities that have hobbled the shuttle.

By contrast, the strength of the small technology, private-sector approach is diversity, and Gump provides a roll call of small start-up companies, from American Rocket and Orbital Sciences to Space Services and Pacific American Launch Systems. No one knows the best (that is, the cheapest and safest) way to launch payloads into space. Competition among a dozen small space firms will tend to reveal the answer.

Gump reviews the private alternatives to NASA's $30-billion-to-$80-billion space station. One firm, for example, proposes using the 14-story external tanks that power each shuttle into space as construction material. After bringing these giant tanks 99 percent of the way into space, NASA drops them back into the atmosphere to burn up over the Indian Ocean.

For $200 million to $300 million, External Tanks Inc. can turn the enormous interiors of these containers into roomy laboratories. Its "Labitat" facility would be 50 times larger than NASA's version and cost about one-hundredth as much. To get its hands on NASA's external tanks, however, the firm has been careful to describe Labitat as a complement to the space station—not a substitute for it.

A dazzling array of space projects has been proposed, but few have managed to attract venture capital. Throughout the 1980s, NASA's promise of weekly launches at $600 a pound scared investors away from private launch ventures. With that promise revealed as empty, the trickle of venture capital flowing into space enterprises may become a stream. If it does, we can expect the space industry of the 1990s to grow as dramatically as the computer industry of the 1980s.