First Woodshed on the Moon

NASA wants you to pay $104 billion for its mistakes.


With all the post-Katrina buck-passing, it's rather refreshing to hear a high ranking official admit fault. When he spoke with USA TODAY's editorial staff last week, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin didn't blame himself for his agency's woes, but he did something perhaps even more startling. He agreed that most of what NASA has been doing for the past few decades—the shuttle program and the International Space Station—has been a mistake.

But now, a year after space entrepreneur Burt Rutan's X Prize-winning flight on the privately-funded SpaceShipOne, Griffin still wants to lead our move to the stars. In fact, just last week he announced a $104 billion plan to return America to the moon by 2018. The same NASA that put people on the lunar surface 36 years ago is in the position of a little boy who's given up his mischievous ways and can now be trusted. That might have actually worked in the past, but not now.

Ordinarily, Americans are suspicious of politicians whose backbones have been replaced by opinion polls. But lately Griffin has embodied the opposite extreme. NASA announced its black sky spending spree while our nation searches for money to put the Gulf Coast back together again. When asked about the timing of the announcement, Griffin returned to more conventional political-speak, insisting that we "deal with our short-term problems while not sacrificing our long-term investments in our future."

But what about those other "long-term investments" that Americans have underwritten? You know, the ones Griffin himself just admitted were mistakes. The expectations for what the space station would contribute to science keeps shrinking, even as its price tag swells past the $100 million mark—about a dozen times early estimates. So don't be fooled by the apparent precision of NASA's $104 billion figure; no one has any idea what the real price will be. The only safe bet seems to be that it will be more expensive than advertised.

The shuttle program isn't cheap either. The University of Colorado's Roger Pielke Jr. estimates that NASA has spent about $150 billion on the program since it began in 1971. And like the space station, its expectations have been ratcheted down over the years. What ever happened to those promises of weekly launches?

Even more tragic is that, since the first launch in 1982, the shuttle program has claimed the lives of 14 astronauts. Two years after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, shuttle Discovery's return to flight was shaken by the same problem that killed the seven Columbia astronauts. Luckily, the Discovery's crew returned to earth safely, but the recurring problem still prompted NASA to ground the shuttle program temporarily.

Take a longer view, and NASA's safety record doesn't inspire any more confidence. When I interviewed him earlier this year, X Prize winner Burt Rutan pointed out that after almost half a century of manned space flight, NASA still hasn't achieved the kind of safety breakthroughs his small team achieved in a just a few years. Take the "care-free re-entry" design. It allows Rutan's SpaceShipOne to align itself automatically for reentry, making it much safer to plunge back into the earth's atmosphere. Although Rutan's ship only returns from suborbital space, the design takes the traditionally complex process of reentry and makes it simple.

And when they're not swimming in tax dollars, inventors come to appreciate the value of simplicity. Take the hatch, for example. Private astronaut Brian Binnie explained to The Space Review's Eric Hedman that SpaceShipOne's hatch opens inward and has no moving parts. Binnie estimates that it costs a couple hundred bucks. Compare that to the multimillion dollar shuttle hatch which swings outward and requires complicated mechanisms to seal it for flight.

Yet after a 34-year slide, we're supposed to trust that NASA has gotten its act together. Griffin is excited about NASA's new craft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), whose design recalls the Apollo capsule. In fact, Griffin wants us to think of the CEV as "Apollo on steroids" (an odd choice of words given Congress' recent anti-roid rage). NASA may be going for the retro look, but space exploration isn't stuck in the 60s. Policy is growing friendlier to private space flight, technology continues to get better and cheaper, and something new has entered space—competition.

The day after Rutan and company won the original X Prize by reaching a suborbital altitude of 62 miles, hotel magnate Robert Bigelow offered $50 million to the first private craft that can go four times farther and reach orbit. The same day NASA grounded the shuttle program, Rutan and freewheeling billionaire Richard Branson announced the formation of a new company that will build suborbital spaceships for the burgeoning space-tourism industry. The day after Discovery touched down, Space Adventures, an Arlington-based company, announced plans to take tourists around the moon by as early as 2008.

How many cosmic hints does NASA need to realize that it might not be long before it's eclipsed by space entrepreneurs? If it wants to stay in the game, NASA should move from player to manager: Spell out the mission, offer a nice reward for its completion, and kick back until someone collects the dough. NASA could borrow from a suggestion made by the Aldridge Report, itself the result of a presidential commission, and offer, say, $1 billion "to the first organization to place humans on the Moon and sustain them for a fixed period."

Getting back to the moon for just $1 billion dollars would do more than save America from another money-swallowing black hole. It would help nurture the kind of bottom-up experimentation that led to rapid advancements in aviation, and it just might spare a future NASA administrator some embarrassment. After all, how would it look if NASA's CEV chugs its way to the moon only to find lunar tourists pointing, giggling, and sipping Tang mimosas?