What Next for NASA

Report Government Regulation

What Next for NASA

April 4, 1986 12 min read Download Report
Milton R.
Senior Visiting Fellow

(Archived document, may contain errors)

1 8 500 April 4, 1986 WHAT NEXT FOR NASA INTRODUCTION The January 28th explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle and the death of its seven-member crew dealt the U.S. space program the most serious setba ck in its quarter-century history tragedy was America's first in-flight loss of life. It destnyed one-fourth of the Space Shuttle fleet sister spacecraft. Despite this, there has been a remarkable declaration of national resolve not to allow the disaster to block America's future in space. But admirable though this expression of national will certainly is, more than money and a ''can do" attitude is needed to get the space program back on course.

The televised hearings of the Presidential Commission empane led to investigate the Challenger loss, together with revelations in the press, have damaged seriously the widespread public respect and confidence once enjoyed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA Serious questions about the agency' s management, policies, and procedures have been raised. More important, questions have emerged concerning the agency's overall direction and mission. Indeed, it seems that NASA has lost sight of its primary function as a science and research body and incr easingly has sought to monopolize American space development.

As fundamental questions regarding NASA and the U.S. role in space are being considered, the pressing issue is: how can the U.S bridge the gap in space launch capability caused by the Challenger's loss. Pressure to speed up the frequency of Shuttle launch e s was building well before the January 28th accident, leading sone to argue that an accelerated Shuttle launch schedule, to keep up with demand may have contributed to the tragedy The Challenger And it grounded Challenger's W th the loss of Challenser, t i s certain that no Shuttles wi be launched for at least 12 to 18 months Concerns regarding the 1 safety of the basic Shuttle, moreover, have provoked calls for basic design alterations service for an even longer period has been destroyed will take at least 2 1/2 years from the time work is initiated. When the Shuttles are again operational, safety concerns almost surely will dictate fewer flights, and, in all Likelihood, additional restrictions on payloads This could delay returning the Shuttles to And repl a cing the spacecraft that In short, even when a full Space Shuttle fleet is restored to operation, it is unlikely that the fleet will be able to meet the demand for launch services. As such, an alternative space launch capability must be found. One alterna tive already exists: the so-called Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELVs the unmanned rocket systems that launched payloads before the Shuttle program.

Ironically, the most serious problem that the ELVs face may be NASA.

In the 1970s, NASA ended ELY production and then hindered private efforts to develop the ELV commercially.

Air Force decision to purchase a number of ELVs. Had the Air Force not succeeded in overcoming NASA objections, the Department of Defense would not have had an alternative space launch sy stem available when the Shuttle was lost NASA even tried to block ar.

With NASA suffering a crisis of co>fidence--implicating its long-term policy for the space program--and with a huge gap in America's launch capability, the Reagan Administration must de vise a space strategy that restores public coneidence, focuses NASA's mission, and assures greater flexibility in the nation's space transportation system. The Administration should 1) Revise NASA's mission, making science and research once again its prim a ry concern 2) Restrict NASA launches of commercial satellites to those that cannot be launched on commercial vehicles 3) Require that any commercial payload flown on a NASA spacecraft pay the full cost of its launch 4) Return the Chief Sngineer's Office a t NASA to its traditional role as an independent overseer for safety-related matters with full authority to approve or disapprove design modifications and to stop launches if safety is in question 5) Increase the number of inspectors and require that they p erform on-site inspectioris at fabrication facilities for NASA space vehicles 26) Strengthen the role of NASA's Aerospace Safet Advisory Review Panel in the planning and design of NASA spacecraft 7) Impose strict limitations on the amount of oT#ertime mai ntenance crews are allowed to perform to prevent axcessive fatigue 8) Create an open line of communication to the Deputy Administrator for employees with safety concerns.

To complement these actions, steps are needed to increase launch flexibility by encou raging development of a strong private space launch industry. These include 1) Make advance purchases of ELVs for government missions and pay 2) Develop a private Space Shuttle capability through 3) Require all federal agencies to 'hire--or contract out t o --the a bonus for early delivery lease-back" arrangements private sector for launch services that can be performed at the same or lower cost than the government woul-d incur by building and launching the vehicles'itself 4) Quickly develop at the Departmen t of Transportation the guidelines and regulations necessary for governing ELVs.

These reforms can restore confidence in NASA and refocus its mission. Even before the Challenger c-ccident, it was becoming evident that the Space Shuttle would be unable to a ccommodate all the demand for space launch services alternative means of sending payloads into orbit was needed. The loss of Challenger makes an alternative undeniable Developing alternative space launch capabilities, instituting necessary reforms at NASA and refocusing the agency's mission will be a formidable task. The potential of space for commercial and military purposes is enormous, a fact recognized by Moscow. The U.S. has the capability to lead man to the stars that it has the ingenuity and the wil l to overcome the current crisis It should have been clear that some Now it must also demonstrate PICKING UP THE PIECES: REFORMING NASA Even at this early stage of the i:nvestigation into the challenger accident, it is clear that there are two broad catego r ies of reforms needed at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration The first 3consists of reforms that relate to the agency's overall sense of mission--its policy direction. Other reforms concern those areas that are directly related to the mainte nance of necessary safety standards quality control, and reliability.

Rethinkina NASA's Policv Goals 0 The most important policy reform is to return the agency's mission to a greater emphasis on basic research and exploration commercial role should be limi ted to encouragement and technical assistance Its In the late 1970s, the Carter Administration decided to cast the As the preoccupation with commercial Space Shuttle as a commercial vehicle budget commercial activities development grew so did pressure for the Space Shuttle fleet to meet a regular and frequent launch schedule. This, in turn, led NASA to a decision to discontinue production of Expendable Launch Vehicles unmanned rockets--ELVs) and to shut down their production lines. The current deficit of s p ace transportation capability is a direct consequence of this decision This was to justify its The result was that NASA became increasingly involved in To prove that the Shuttle was a commercial vehicle, NASA moved to monopolize private sector commercial s pace activities. To accornrlish this, the agency offered assistance and encouragement to private firms with space projects so that they would consider using the Shuttle for transportation. This assistance came in the form of free, or heavily discounted, l a unches on the Shuttle, joint venture agreements under which NASA would bear some of the development costs of a project and other dixect and indirect'subsidies. At the same time, the agency discouraged private competition to the Shuttle. NASA denied potent i al competitors access to facilities or technical assistance, for example and kept the price of Shuttle launches artificially low to undercut private launch systems private launch proposals. The price paid, apparently, for NASA's determination to dominate commercial space was less attention paid to NASA officials even publicly denigrated science and safety.

It should not have been necessary to justify the Space Shuttle on a dollars and cents basis. It was, and.remains, an invaluable scientific tool. More im portant, and despite the Challenger disaster it is an efficient means to transport astronauts regularly into space to gain important experience in manned space flight, an area in which the U.S. continues to lag far behind the Soviet Union. The lessons lea rned by astronaut crews on successive Shuttle fl.ights have'been an essential element in providing the information necessary to the development of a more permanent presence in space could be justified on that basis alone.

The expenditure 4There are tasks i n space, moreover, that can be performed on y by astronauts. Therefore a means of putting men into orbit has always been necessary: this was demonstrated once again last year, when astronauts were able to repair a crane on the Shuttle to retrieve a satell i te the agency in the end pushed the vehicle beyond its limits--with disastrous consequences agency's mission is returned to its original tasks of basic science and exploration, the President should issue a policy statement. It unambiguously must define NA SA's mission as basic scientific research exploration, and the encouragement of private commercial projects.

The statement should prohibit the agency's direct participation in commercial projects and ban the use of the Space Shuttle fleet, or any other NAS A space vehicle, for the launch of commercial satellites--unless the satellites cannot be placed in orbit by any other means. The President further should instruct NASA to charge any commercial user of the.Shuttle the full cost of its launch, so that alte r native launch systems are not unfairly underpriced By justifying the Shuttle's existence on commercial terms To relieve NASA of self-imposed pressures and to ensure that the Such a policy statement would give clear guidance to NASA It would prevent NASA f rom being able to regarding its mission and would restrict the agency's purely commercial projects influence commercial projects through hidden or overt subsidies thereby ensuring that it could no longer impede space entrepreneurs.

ODerational Reforms at N ASA: Ensurincr Safety Until the loss of Challenger, NASA enjoyed the reputation cf having one of the most advanced quality assurance and safety programs in the world has been among the most damaging revelations of the hearings currently being conducted by the Presidential Commission. As a result, the reinstitution of adequate safety measures is among the most important operational reforms the agency must adopt The mounting evidence of the erosion of this program The first, and perhaps the most important re f orm would be to return the Chief Engineer's.Office to its traditional role as an independent overseer for safety-related matters. Prior to 1983, the Chief Engineer had the.authority to stop launches, to require design changes, and to approve or disapprove changes in space vehicle designs. The Chief Engineer also maintained inspectors at plants that manufactured the principal components of spacecraft, and he was responsible for inspections at launch facilities.

After February 1983, however, responsibility f or inspections was shifted to contractors, and the number of inspectors in the Chief Engineer's Office was reduced. In addition, travel funds were so curtailed that inspection of manufacturing facilities became virtually 5I. I impossible. Worse still, at the very time that the level of inspection was being reduced, the demand for inspection rose dramatically, thanks to the' rapidly accelerating pace of Space Shuttle launches.

NASA should increase the number of inspectors on t he staff of the Chief Engineer's Office, as well as beefing up its role, and ensure that inspectors make on-site inspections of manufacturing plants where primary Shuttle components, such as the solid rocket boosters, are made. Among other things, this wo uld signal a greater concern with safety to firms building key Shuttle systems.

A second important reform would be the creation of a stronger role for NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Review Panel. It had expressed concerns about a number of safety-related matters that may have contributed to Challenger's loss however, elicited little action requires NASA to act on Advisory Panel recommendations within a set period of time and to report back to the Panel the results of that action Many of thei'r concerns A system should be put in place that A third area for review is the excessive overtime by workers in such critical areas as repair and maintenance of the Shuttles. NASA may have the best workforce of any federal agency. But its employees are often required to work excessively long hours for extended periods of time, increasing the likelihood of mistakes and diminishing performance. Immediately before the Challenger loss, workers at the launch site reportedly were subjected to 70 and 80 hour work weeks.

Stric t limitations on overtime should be imposed for workers in such fields A final reform to improve safety would be the creation of a direct "hotline" to NASA's Deputy Administrator for use by any employee with a safety concern. In the hearings on the Challe n ger accident, it was discovered that strong objections to the launch were voiced by several employees of at least two of the Shuttle's prime contractors. Yet their objections never reached the upper echelons of the agency's management A hotline alarm syst em would ensure that this set of circumstances could not be repeated.

FILLING THE GAP While a loss of space transportation capability such as that which followed in the wake of the Challenger tragedy would be an enormous blow at any time, it is particularl y devastating now apparent before the accident that the capabilities of the Space Shuttle fleet would be taxed sorely by the launch requirements o? the Strategic Defense Initiative. In addition, a host of promising new commercial endeavors were emerging t hat would have created additional It was 6demand for hunch services. It was, in fact, the perception of this new demand tliat convinced some private firms to initiate private ELV programs.

Because. of general federal budget constraints, NASA may find it production of the ELVs needed to provide additional launch services.

There have already been suggestions that, any monies required for the construction of a fourth orbiter come from other NASA programs. This would be a severe blow to the agency's scientific mission. Therefore an alternative means of funding for an orbiter to replace the Challenger would be preferable. Fortunately, such an alternative does exist hard to obtain the funds to replace Challenger, much less to initiate Recent estimates by NASA in dicate that it would cost more than 5 billion to replace the lost orbiter and to provide some ELVs to help reduce the launch pressures on the Shuttles. These figures rest on the assumption that the government would build and operate the vehicles.

Private f irms, however, should be able to raise the money to open the production lines to build the ELVs, if the federal government provides the necessary commitment to use the vehicles. Private firms, in fact for some the have been attempting to purchase ELV prod uction lines from NASA. In one case, they even offered to purchase an additional Space Shuttle. Now is the time to take them up on the offer.

To do this, the government must 1) Pre:purchase from the private firms the ELVs that NASA and the Department .af D efense will require for government missions. These purchase caiumitments, of course, would be for vehicles that the government has to obtain by some means-either building them itself or purchasing 5hem. As such, there would be no subsidy involved in the t r ansaction. Rather, a prepurchase agreement would simply provide the guarantee of a sufficient market to justify the opening of private production .7;ines. Since the space program is falling rapidly behind schedule because of the problems of the Space Shut t le fleet, bonuses should be offered for early delivery of the vehicles 2) Consider the offer of several firms that want to finance and build an additional orbiter. The firms would provide the capital and lease the orbiter to the government for use on offi c ial missions. The firms, however, also could fly the vehicle for strictly commercial missions. Under such a lease-back arrangement, the federal government would avoid the initial cost of building the vehicle and would pay only for government use. At the s a me time, the firm providing the financing and construction services would have the guarantee of a sufficient market (again, for missions the government planned to fly on a Shuttle anyway) to justify the investment. In this way, private firms would be assu m ing all of the initial costs of developing the needed alternative space transportation capability. At the moment, of course, exactly the opposite is the case. NASA has had to provide all I i I I I i I I I 7the up-front funding and then search for commerci a l payloads to offset part of the staggering in-tial outlays 3) Contract out space launches to private firms if the cost of doing so would be below that of the federal government building and launching the vehicles itself help establish a private sector ca p ability in this area 4) Move rapidly to complete the rules and guidelines for commercial launches currently being formulated by the Department of Transportation. These new rules are aimed at expediting the licensing of commercial ELVs. They are a response to the experience of early space entrepreneurs who had to apply to dozens of agencies and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain a permit for a single launch conditions 81 This would cut federal outlays and Clearly no commercial firm could long o perate under such CONCLUSION The loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle is a tragedy that will leave a lasting mark on'the nation. In its aftermath, NASA no longer can avoid its long simmering internal problems problems can the U.S. ccntinue exploring the h e avens. Neither NASA nor Washington can do this without the private sector safety procedures, but.to stop undenaining the efforts of private firms to help keep the U.S. the leading nation in space Only by solving these It is time, therefore; for NASA not o nly to tighten its internal Milton R. Copulos Senior Policy Analyst 8-


Milton R.

Senior Visiting Fellow