Pigs in Space

Article excerpt

Wasteful and inefficient, with no clear mission, NASA has become just one more massive federal bureaucracyHUD with booster rockets.

The laws of government, like the laws of physics, apply everywhere-whether on earth or in the dark reaches of outer space. When governmental bodies are funded without strict measurable objectives and deadlines, the result will be waste, pork, corruption, and incompetence.

So it is with NASA. When President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 29, 1958, it was a shining testament to the power and grandeur of big government in its infancy. The space agency's first "big hit" was in February 1962 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Its next big success, indeed NASA's crowning achievement, was the first manned lunar landing on July 20, 1969.

In the 31 years since then, NASA has made fantastic progress. Indeed, its most recent achievement was... Well, it was October 29,1998, when John Glenn was shot back into space. Hmm... Something seems amiss.

Outer space is a place of numerical extremes. The distances it spans and the amounts of money required to explore it are both measured in digits that make the eyes spin like a slot machine. But while the universe expands at a steady, predictable rate, space budgets have an unnerving tendency to inflate suddenly and dramatically.

The answer lies in the simple, commonplace, and lamentable fact that NASA is today as much a federal bureaucracy as the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). True, there are some basic differences. Most NASA employees can read, write, and do sums rather well; NASA is somewhat smaller, and HUD isn't rocket science. But NASA's primary unofficial purpose, like all federal bodies, is to keep its staff employed. And, like all federal bodies, NASA survives by offering valuable pork to Congress-considering that it started with rocket launches in one state (Florida) and "mission control" in another (Texas), NASA was seemingly created in a porkbarrel. NASA's two most significant projects-the shuttle and the space stationserve to illustrate.

The Space Shuttle

In 1972, as the Apollo program came to a close, NASA sold the shuffle program as a way to establish routine, low-cost, reliable access to space. Instead of Expendable Launch Vehicles that burned up after take off, Reusable Launch Vehicles could be used again and again, and save money.

Thanks to the "cost saving" Reusable Launch Vehicles, the price tag of hefting a pound of payload into space has increased from $3,8oo in the 196o's to $6,ooo (in constant dollars). And this is only an estimate. Dr. Alex Rowland, formerly a NASA historian but now a history professor at Duke University, calculates that, once the development and capital costs of the shuttle are factored in, the actual per-pound cost is $35,000. In other words, the cost of one shuttle flight is not $350 million as NASA claims, but much closer to $2 billion.

International Space Station

As it became increasingly obvious that the shuttle program was a commercial bust, NASA needed a mission to justify the shuttle's-and not inconsequentially their own-continued existence. Thus, the quest for a new space station.

Initially named "Freedom," the American space station was to measure 500 feet, cost a mere $8 billion, and be launched and ready for activity by 1992. So over the next eight years NASA went to work, spending $10 billion and producing... nothing. Nothing but plans.

Even Congress couldn't ignore such waste-at first-and the project was slated for termination. But NASA was handed a gift: the collapse of the Soviet Union. Concerned that the defense industry would wither in recession after post-Cold War cutbacks, Congress turned to the International Space Station as the aeronautics contractors' way station.

In 1993, President Clinton ordered NASA to design a less expensive station that could include Russia as a cost-sharing partner. …