On the 34th day of the recent government shutdown at 4 p.m., a huge cloud billowed out from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. It had been produced by a successful static test fire of the Falcon 9, which will ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station sometime in the next few months. It will be the first such flight since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, essentially marking an American return to manned spaceflight.
On the day of the test fire, about 95 percent of NASA's workforce was on furlough, having been deemed non-essential to government functioning. How did NASA manage such a milestone with a skeleton crew?
It didn't. The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule that sits atop it were built by SpaceX, a privately held company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk. The vehicle's tests and flights are being conducted on contract with NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program, which represents a tiny fraction of the overall cost of the U.S. space effort. The program is a classic study in the power and pitfalls of privatization, and it may be our best chance to get off this godforsaken rock.
Before it can stage a manned flight, SpaceX must execute one final dress rehearsal, duplicating the planned mission but without actual human beings in the capsule. It looked, for a while, like the government might still be shut down when that time came. SpaceX and NASA both indicated that the launch would nonetheless happen on schedule.
The federal government wound up reopening the day after the test fire, well before the planned launch. But it could certainly be shuttered again, given that the underlying political battle is far from resolved. And legislation emerging from this shutdown will make future shutdowns less politically painful by guaranteeing back pay to government workers. What's more, since the goal of the commercial launch industry is to greatly increase launch frequency, there's a good chance the government will at some point be shut down at a crucial moment in space travel.
The Commercial Crew Program was deemed essential this time and therefore escaped the wrath of politics. But that won't always be the case. And in this instance, key elements of other relevant agencies—notably the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—were up and functioning, thanks to some lucky budgetary timing that might not always align so neatly. This is the danger of intermingling private and public: There are efficiency gains and cost savings from the private side, but the dysfunction of the public sector leaks into the efforts of the firms.
Privatization should push further, aiming to remove as much of human enterprise as possible from the blast zone of politics. It's pure madness to make the success of manned space missions contingent on President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreeing about how many steel slats Congress is willing to fund at the Mexican border.
Even if they don't have direct NASA funding or contracts, commercial space companies are not safe from the vagaries of government. The CEO of the space startup Vector recently tweeted that a test flight to orbit was being held up by a lack of FAA approval. "Shutdown stops FAA's ability to finish our launch license," wrote Jim Cantrell. "Hoping DC gets its act together soon." This is why privatization isn't enough—deregulation is also crucial.
Trump put it best, actually, when he said at a March cabinet meeting: "Rich guys, they love rocket ships. That's good. That's better than us paying for them. And I noticed the prices of the last one, that they said it cost $80 million. If the government did it, the same thing would have cost probably 40, 50 times that amount of money. I mean, literally, when I heard $80 million—you know, I'm so used to hearing different numbers with NASA."
Rich entrepreneurs aren't the only ones who love rocket ships. That's another good reason to protect space from politics by moving as much of it as possible into the private sector: Rich officeholders love space too—but they don't understand it.
Shortly after his inauguration, for example, The Atlantic reported that Donald Trump asked NASA to consider sending up the first test of the Space Launch System (SLS) as a manned flight. That is, the White House asked whether Boeing—which is building a vehicle in direct competition with SpaceX under more conventional contracting terms—could skip the step where you send an empty capsule up before putting actual humans in the tin can. Trump's interest, of course, was driven by a desire to see the return to crewed American space flights during his presidential term.
That may or may not be a good idea. As Reason has argued, NASA is probably overcautious about risk. But this is a decision between aerospace engineers and astronauts. It shouldn't be subject to the demands of political showmanship or executed on timelines determined by elections instead of the movement of planetary bodies.
Meanwhile, SLS, the project over which the government has the most control, is also the furthest behind schedule. "At its current rate, we project that Boeing will expend at least $8.9 billion through 2021—double the amount initially planned—while delivery of the first Core Stage has slipped 2.5 years from June 2017 to December 2019 and may slip further," an October Office of the Inspector General report found.
Not only that, but SLS is single-use. Each launch requires a new vehicle to be constructed, with a price tag of about $1 billion each. And its parts, unlike those of the SpaceX system, are not recoverable or reusable.
According to a plan NASA submitted to the Office of Management and Budget shortly before the shutdown, the agency has the equivalent of 17,856 full-time employees. Of those, about 800 are needed to "protect life and property," which more or less amounted to keeping the folks in the International Space Station alive, keeping NASA property secure, and keeping the Commercial Crew Program moving forward.
The government was essentially stalled for one-tenth of its working year. That would be hard for any firm to recover from. Yet about 17,000 NASA staff will get compensated, in the end, for work they didn't do.
For some people, even the promise of a (belatedly) paid vacation isn't enough to make the struggle with a federal bureaucracy worth it. Shutdowns make it harder for the government to attract and keep the best and brightest. For a long time, NASA was able to take a captive workforce for granted. Wanna be an astronaut? NASA is the only game in town. Rocket scientist? NASA. That guy in the white vest from that movie? NASA. That lady in the cool glasses from that other movie? NASA.
But now? "We didn't have a mass exodus," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in his remarks welcoming back furloughed workers. "I think had this gone on longer, we would have. But we did lose people—onesies and twosies—across the agency and even here at headquarters."
When conditions change for private companies, they adapt in different, more efficient ways. SpaceX just did a round of layoffs, announcing the departure of about 10 percent of the company's 6,000 employees. Another player, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, laid off about 40 employees as it transitioned to a new home for its commercial flights at the (mostly publicly funded) New Mexico Spaceport.
A space launch industry that is more private than public would also be more fun. You may recall when Musk launched a car into space just because in early 2018. After he got in trouble with just about everyone—including his own boards and the Securities and Exchange Commission—for a podcast interview he did while smoking weed in September, NASA's Bridenstine jumped on him for it, saying to a group of reporters in November: "I will tell you that was not helpful, and that did not inspire confidence, and the leaders of these organizations need to take that as an example of what to do when you lead an organization that's going to launch American astronauts." NASA's solution was to conduct "a cultural assessment study in coordination with our commercial partners to ensure the companies are meeting NASA's requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment."
This is obviously a CYA activity, though it's hard to imagine that if a bunch of astronauts die in a fireball over a populated area anyone will say, "Oh, well, NASA did conduct those cultural fit assessments in 2019. What more could it have done?" But it's also hard to imagine that a visionary CEO smoking pot on a podcast has much to do with workplace safety.
When one rocket-building rich guy cracks up, it's handy to have a couple more waiting in the wings. (See what I did there?) Musk is making people nervous, even as he currently leads the pack. But look over here: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is racking up victories as well. His firm, Blue Origin, is building on a reusable model similar to SpaceX's and has had considerable success on the launchpad. The company has secured some modest contracts from NASA, but it's less entangled with the federal government than SpaceX is. Of course, for that very reason, Blue Origin may find it trickier to get approvals and licenses for launches than its more state-symbiotic counterparts. And then there's the open question of whether Trump would stoop so low as to instruct his agencies to deny permissions to Bezos' space company just because he happens to have a beef with Bezos' newspaper company.
There's a deeper truth in those high furlough figures: A space program isn't essential to the functioning of government. Indeed, the vast majority of nation-states operate quite cheerfully without a space program at all. Just because something is vitally important—essential even—doesn't mean we should rely on government to get it done. Quite the opposite.