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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
[Rant Warning]

Why 2001 Was Not 2001

The Collapse of the Can-Do Spirit

Like the science-fiction writers that inspired them, the pioneers of space flight (Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, Oberth and others) foresaw the vehicles they were developing as the first steps toward mastery of the solar system and even travel to the stars. Elements of the dream they held were space stations housing hundreds or thousands of people, essentially cities in orbit, where scientists observed changes on Earth and performed experiments to learn more about human responses to low gravity, while engineers made ready the long-range ships that would voyage to Mars and the other planets of Sol our sun.

Radio, television and movies (as well as books and magazines) brought these visions to the public — which embraced them enthusiastically. A 1968 film called 2001 set the mark for what we expected to be doing in space by the year 2001. We'd have really large space stations in orbit, spinning to provide weight for their occupants. Routine spaceliner trips (Pan Am spaceliners, with stewardesses!) ferrying business passengers up to those stations, where some transferred to flights bound for bases on the moon. Rockets capable of taking crews out to Jupiter. The film had a real and lasting impact — and not just on the public. Pan Am took reservations for the first spaceliner flight, and maintained the lists for years afterward.

About the same time, the Star Trek television series popularized the idea of a more distant future when interstellar travel had become commonplace and dealing with alien races was an ever-present challenge — which a somewhat wiser breed of humans generally handled with aplomb. I could point to other films and TV shows, and hundreds of printed works, that conveyed much the same message.

There were plenty of reasons for optimism. America had mastered atomic power and won World War 2. Our jet planes had broken the sound barrier. Our aerospace industry was the envy of the world. Why should we not go on to master interplanetary flight and even to break the light barrier1 as well?

That message was reinforced by the real space program. The National Aeronautics & Space Administration, formed in 1958 as a response to Sputnik, met Kennedy's challenge and placed 12 men on the moon by 1972. It was a mammoth and momentous achievement, earning NASA a well-deserved place in the public mind as the exemplar of the can-do spirit.

However, despite the emphasis on peaceful science and exploration, NASA's reason for being was to beat the Soviet Union to the moon and thus prove the superiority of the capitalist system over communism. Once that race was won, the federal government's chief motivation for spending large sums (at peak, about 1.5% of GNP) on the space program disappeared. Though not a military organization, NASA was in fact an artifact of the Cold War.

Silhouettes of X-20 Dyna-soar vehicle and Titan-III booster
Image used by permission of Greg Goebel

Consider an alternate history for a moment: The USSR fails to match America's fission and fusion bombs. Able to maintain ultimate military superiority, Uncle Sam easily faces down communist efforts to foment "people's revolutions" around the world. With no need for grandiose propaganda efforts, America instead pours a greater measure of wealth into grass-roots programs like the Peace Corps, and into medical research and consumer electronics. These efforts pay off in a greater quality of life at home, trade surpluses, and good will abroad. There is no Cold War, no politically-motivated Space Race. The German rocket scientists brought to the U.S. after World War II simply blend into its aerospace industry, where their dreams act as a leaven and their unique experience overcomes many technological obstacles. Left to itself, flight vehicle development proceeds through the X-15 and X-20 programs to produce a family of reusable orbiters that launch on expendable boosters. They begin to see use in transcontinental delivery of critically needed items. Ultimately, with advances in rocket engines and structural materials, a small, fully reusable spacecraft is introduced.

With routine, low-cost personnel transport to Earth orbit assured, the aerospace industry turns to follow-on activities. They include establishment of a transit hub, lofted piece by piece by expendable boosters and assembled in orbit. Soon the expendables are replaced by a fully resuable, two-stage system capable of placing fifty-ton payloads in low Earth orbit. System economics improves to the point that other industries take an interest in the orbital hub. It becomes the nucleus of a cluster of installations including a tourist hotel and specialized research platforms. Also present is a "space drydock" where large robotic probes are assembled and sent to the outer reaches of the solar system.

Humans have made trips to the moon, collecting samples, placing scientific instruments and surveying a site for a permanent base. These expeditions are partially financed by a popular film. Called "Space: 1999"2, it protrays that time — only a few years away — as having the moon base in place, with water-extraction facilities at the south lunar pole and a remotely controlled radio astronomy facility on farside. Construction of an atomic-powered spaceship that will carry a human crew to Mars and back in 2001 is under way. No one finds these projected developments very remarkable. Nor are they extremely expensive; incremental development, with plenty of testing, has seen to that. There are no debates about frivolously throwing money away in space when we have so many problems right here on Earth to solve. Everyone understands that the money stays on Earth, paying people's salaries, and the hardware in space is solving Earthly problems.

I hope you enjoyed the brief excursion into what might have been. Now, let's get back to reality.

Our present reality came about this way. The Apollo 11 landing on the Moon represented, in Cold-War terms, ultimate ideological victory over the Soviet Union. No longer could the Politburo claim, as it had since Sputnik, that superior space technology proved the superiority of the Communist system. Meanwhile the war in Viet Nam, another outgrowth of the Cold War, as well as domestic programs like the Great Society, claimed ever greater shares of American resources. After the Apollo program was cancelled and plans for follow-on programs became politically infeasible, NASA (like any government bureaucracy) struggled to maintain its existence. Besides having to contend for funding with urgent problems (e.g. the energy crisis) that cropped up like weeds, it faced competition from the National Science Foundation and other research arms of the government, and from space programs of the military services. And the committee structure of the Congress pitted it against other "Function 250" organizations, notably the Veterans Administration. War veterans have a lot of political clout in this country.

The Nixon administration did approve the Space Shuttle. But instead of the $12 billion NASA requested, it funded the program at only $5 billion. At this point, NASA had two choices: it could give up on the shuttle and shift to smaller programs that it could get properly funded, or it could take the shuttle money and do as well as possible with it. Realistically, the latter choice was the only one possible. This is unfortunate, since it resulted in a shuttle that is only partly reusable. (The original proposals were for a smaller orbiter and a flyback booster, both fully reusable.)

Congress was another political obstacle, one that had to be surmounted repeatedly. Funding for the shuttle was nearly defeated five times, once surviving only because a congressman cast a "Yes" when he meant to vote "No". Almost always, this "fits and starts" management of programs makes them cost more than they would if funded in entirety and (barring screw-ups) permitted to complete development. But of course the political process is antithetical to any such long view. The average congresscritter's attention span tops out at two years. That's why you see multi-year programs approved with development funding cut to the bone. He can't vote the program down, its lobby is too powerful. So he chooses the next best way of appearing fiscally responsible to the folks back in his home district. It costs less to develop the hardware, but the program's operating and maintenance costs rise out of proportion. Skylab is a prime example of where this leads. When it was launched in 1974, it was known that atmospheric drag would bring it down in about three years. NASA wanted to put a booster on it, to periodically raise its altitude. This booster was cut to save money. Skylab (a station with more internal volume than what we have now) fell on western Australia in 1977.

In order to garner maximum support from this political spoils system, NASA field centers were distributed to the states of powerful congresscritters, and contracts were let in the widest possible array of states. This tended to work against manufacturing efficiency. At the same time, those few large aerospace firms that had well-funded lobbying efforts made sure they captured the lion's share of the prime-contractor roles on military as well as NASA programs. As these few firms got bigger, they became ever more conservative. In a vehicle-development program, small improvements were OK, but radical innovation would not do; it was considered to have too much technical risk. Never mind that NASA's purpose as chartered could not be achieved without a host of radical innovations.

It all comes down to the risk-averse culture that developed in this country during the 1970s and 1980s. Captains of industry were motivated to play it safe, because doing otherwise could disturb the steady quarter-to-quarter growth of profits and/or market share, and make the stockholders unhappy. Politicians were motivated to play it safe, lest a disgruntled constituency turn them out of office. The public at large was motivated to play it safe because... well, just because. America became the world's most litigious society. Premiums for medical-malpractice and other liability insurance soared, and many activities formerly taken for granted were effectively prohibited as a result. Among them were the manufacture of general-aviation aircraft (read: Piper, Beechcraft and the like) and the use of commercial facilities by hobby or non-profit groups (which meant that the Homebrew Computer Club was no longer welcome to use the auditoriums of the Silicon Valley firms that had once hosted its meetings.)

Things got so bad that it became an international joke. At one point, a British newspaper ran a story headlined "The Yellowing of America". That wave of inchoate fear, thank the stars, is subsiding; but it's left a lot of damage behind.

An allied effect is the lessened respect for technical competence. The aerospace industry has been hit especially hard by this, with the result that (as reported in Aviation Week) industry leaders have declared a "Crisis in Aerospace". Many skilled workers are about to retire, and the problem of finding equally skilled replacements — and holding on to them — is what has the industry leaders worried. As well they should be. For many years in aerospace — and engineering in general — the path to success has meant (to paraphrase a Morton Thiokol manager) taking off your engineer's hat and putting on a manager's hat. Add in the fact that many aerospace managers never wore an engineer's hat, and the attitude that engineers are interchangeable, and you arrive where we are: with engineering generally regarded as a second-class career, and one that increasing numbers of students avoid.

I have little doubt that the overall quality of engineers has contributed in some degree to this result. But that touches on the quality of American education, and that subject deserves a whole 'nother rant.

Another factor was the general crunch in the federal budget. One way of dealing with this has been to merge, as far as possible, military and civil space programs. The Space Shuttle Orbiter, proposed as a relatively small "people mover", had its cargo bay expanded to 15 by 60 feet so it could carry military spy satellites like the KH-11. This was done to better the Shuttle's chances of approval. (This ties into the projected flight rate. The more often the shuttle could fly, the lower its cost per flight. Adding military payloads improved that number. This was not imposed on NASA, as far as I know; they made the change themselves. On the other hand, there was some deal-making involved. The Air Force was ordered to give up the expendables they had been using to launch spysats and depend exclusively on the Shuttle. Air Force Secretary Pete Aldritch won praise, after the Challenger disaster, for doing an end-run around this policy.) Whether imposed or not, the change had the same result: making it harder to get a really good "people mover" Shuttle.

It's what I call the "all-eggs-in-one-basket syndrome". Some of you will remember how McNamara imposed a common design — the F-111 — on both the Navy and Air Force, which had conflicting requirements for their new fighter-bomber aircraft. The syndrome still operates today, as I'll explain.

You understand now, I hope, a little more about the complex factors that led us where we are. The bottom line is that today we find ourselves with a less than fully reusable space shuttle we can barely afford to launch and a space station billions of dollars over budget (after an expensive series of "cost-saving" redesigns). We cannot staff the space station with its full complement of seven, so we have only three people aboard. That's only enough for assembly and housekeeping work; the scientific experiments that sold the station are mostly on hold. Why can't we put seven people aboard? Because, after ten years and all the billions spent, we still don't have a way to bring the full crew back in an emergency. Why don't we have a crew return vehicle yet? Because there's been an interminable debate about its purposes. One side wants just a CRV, whether another Russian Soyuz (which is what would return the three currently aboard), an updated Apollo capsule, or an entirely new design. The other insists that the CRV must also be a general-purpose orbiter, much like the original shuttle orbiter, capable of ascent as well as descent. So the "A-E-I-O-B" syndrome continues to afflict us, this time blocking any progress toward meeting a vital need.

Fortunately, the larger picture is not entirely bleak. What is needed is a way to do another end-run around the obstacles that currently block development of affordable access to space. The elements of that are emerging. First, there is plenty of aerospace engineering talent ready and willing to tackle the technical side of the problem. Second, entrepreneurs are champing at the bit; all they need is venture capital and a few years. There was a surge of enthusiasm a while back, which might have been the point from which those few years were measured. (Yes, another might-have-been.) Alas, it guttered out when the market for large LEO satellite constellations evaporated. Progress today consists in a series of bootstrapping operations: incremental development funded by commercial customers. The hardware will evolve from small, highly reliable rocket engines through rocket-powered airplanes to suborbital vehicles and finally to ships capable of taking a few thousand pounds of cargo — or a few paying passengers — to orbit and back.

This progress will not be as orderly and coherent as the X-planes program would have been. It is hard to forecast exactly how long it will take, or which of the many contenders will grab the prize. But I maintain, as I always have, that I will live to see it happen.

1 Yes, I understand that the so-called light barrier is fundamentally different from the sound barrier. I'm talking here about public attitudes.
2 I extend my sincere apologies to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson for copping the title of their popular alternate-history television series starring Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Barry Morse.   <Grin>
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