Spatially Challenged

The fall of NASA and the prospects for a new Space Age.


Once upon a time, Americans were captivated by space ventures—the country's collective interest peaking in 1969 with the first Moon landing. But in the ensuing 35 years, the Space Age has come and gone and when Columbia burned up in February of 2003 few Americans were even aware that a shuttle mission had been in progress. In the new book “Lost In Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age” (Pantheon), author Greg Klerkx—former director of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute—attempts to explain why government-sponsored space projects no longer capture the public's imagination.

Ironically, Klerkx identifies the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)—with its myriad political and financial interests—as being largely responsible. Yet Klerkx doesn't focus on assigning blame for this state of affairs. In fact, he argues that a new Space Age may be on the horizon, as a burgeoning private space industry has quietly been filling the void left by NASA. Recently, Failure interviewed Klerkx about the past, present and future of space travel.

What motivated you to write “Lost In Space”?

A few different things converged to the point where I felt I needed to do something more than simply grouse about my own upset. One was my own long lingering hope for a human Space Age—based on my childhood expectations of Apollo and other things that were promised in the wake of that. Also working at the SETI Institute, I got the chance to get a firsthand look at the space program in a way that most people don't. I think the combination of those two things led me to a couple of conclusions. One is that the reason human space flight hasn't moved further is not technological—it's largely political. That's not necessarily a stop-the-presses conclusion, but the source of the political problems was a surprise—that it was NASA, the organization that most think is charged with moving space flight forward.

In the book you distinguish between the “paper” NASA and the “real” NASA. Can you explain the difference?

The “paper” part is the vision that is spun to the public in order to keep them interested in the idea of space flight. The “real” part is the actual motivation for much of NASA's business—that is, simply keeping dollars flowing to the agency from tried-and-true sources. It's not to say that everyone in the agency is so cynical as to not be interested in space. But at the leadership level there's definitely an understanding that NASA employs a lot of people—not only directly as a civilian agency but also via its contracts. Over 80 percent of NASA's funding—15 to 16 billion dollars a year—consistently goes to outside contractors. That's a lot of money, a lot of jobs and a lot of congressional districts. So the “real” NASA is all about making sure that those jobs stay in place and that money still comes in. The idea of doing something competitively, economically or in concert with a larger vision doesn't necessarily flow from the idea of keeping the money coming in. The “paper” NASA is all about spitting ideas out: “We're going to be building colonies in space; we'll be sending people to the Moon and Mars.” People like the ideas, but very few of those things get translated into the “real” NASA. 

Most readers would be surprised at how critical you are of the space program—and how poor the safety prospects are for future shuttle missions. Won't the Columbia disaster implore NASA to be extra cautious when it comes to safety?

It probably will make NASA extra cautious, but I don't think caution is really what's behind the shuttle's problem. If you look at the organization it takes about 20,000 people just to make a shuttle flight happen. Certainly, if you can't make a flight safe with 20,000 people and about half-a-billion dollars per flight behind it you have to wonder if this vehicle is one that ought to be used. The real issue is that the shuttle can never be safe enough to meet the safety parameters that a space vehicle ought to meet. That's because it was a hodge-podge design. We would be much better off using something much simpler—such as the Russian Soyuz capsule and an expendable rocket. It has a much better safety record and is much less expensive.

What did CAIB [the Columbia Accident Investigation Board] find? 

Its report was fairly hard-hitting in that it was critical of NASA [for] ignoring the problem that they think caused Columbia to be destroyed—a large chunk of insulating foam breaking off the main fuel tank and hitting the leading edge of the wing. So when the shuttle orbiter re-entered [the atmosphere] hot plasma came in through the wing and basically burned its way through the vehicle and caused it to disintegrate. The board said NASA should have paid more attention to reports from engineers and also [the fact] that the problem was evident on previous flights. But the upshot of the Columbia report was this: It said, “As soon as NASA has something new it ought to replace the shuttle.” Well, there have a number of “something new's” that have been in the works for the past 25 years, and although a fair bit of money has been spent on these vehicles none of them have ever flown. 

In the book I say that one of the reasons why NASA is so loathe to give up the shuttle is because it was so hard to get in the first place. In the late sixties and early seventies NASA needed a new vehicle, wanted a new vehicle, wanted something to keep the jobs in place. Having gotten that gravy train they don't want to jeopardize it by saying, “Right, we're going to terminate the vehicle at 'X' date, regardless of whether or not we have a new vehicle.” What you have in place now with the Bush Administration mandate [a new space policy directive] is basically a timeline to get rid of the shuttle. It's supposed to be gone by 2010, irrespective of whether or not there's a new launch vehicle. However, that date has already slipped within NASA and I suspect it's going to slip a lot further because you have the same sort of political motivation in place to keep it going.

What is your reaction to the recent news that the shuttle gears were installed backwards? Was that an accurate media report? 

It was an accurate report. But I don't make too much of that because when you have a vehicle which has in the neighborhood of three million independent parts, every now and then something will be installed backwards. But the larger issue that report speaks to is the over-complexity of the shuttle. This is its fundamental problem. In the book I talk about one case where there was a shuttle upgrade and they removed thousands of pounds of wiring that wasn't even being used. It's what they call a “multi-generational vehicle” that is just too complicated for the task, and if the shuttle keeps flying we will lose another one. I'm very confident in making that statement and a lot of other people would agree.

Has the thrill of human space travel been lost? And if so, why? 

I think it has been lost in the broader culture. There are certainly pockets of people in society who are very interested in human space flight and obviously I am [in] one of those pockets. The Space Age is no longer with us—that may be the easiest way to put it. The reason is because at its core the Space Age was geo-politically motivated—it was about beating the Soviets in space. Once that happened with the Moon landing people turned their attention elsewhere. I would call NASA and its political minders to task for that because rather than find a new way to engage people they simply tried harder to engage them in the same old way—by saying that we have this competition with other countries. People saw through that very quickly. That's part of the reason that interest in space declined as rapidly as it did and it really hasn't recovered. I do think there's hope for recovery but I'm not sure it's going to come through NASA.

What are the prospects for future human space exploration? 

They are reasonably good but we are in a very critical window of change. We have a new presidential mandate for NASA to send people back to the moon—by roughly 2015—and then on to Mars. There have been presidential mandates in the past, of course. Bush senior had such a mandate in 1989 and Ronald Reagan had one in 1986. They didn't come to much. Certainly, after announcing his space plan in January the current President Bush backed away from it publicly. But behind the scenes NASA's leadership is working very hard to try to change the agency to make it more worthy of this mission and more worthy of public interest. I think if I was NASA's leadership I would be looking at the two shuttle disasters, looking at the public and political response, seeing this mandate and saying, “If we don't change now we may not have a future.” It will be a very interesting couple of years to see if NASA continues to do business the same old way or whether it does some things differently. 

At the same time, you have for the first time, a very robust private space sector. A number of companies are developing launch vehicles and satellites, and you have the X Prize®. Ten years ago this sector was embryonic. Now it's maturing and I think within the next year you will see the first flight of a privately developed manned spacecraft. That could be the beginning of something very interesting. I think it's one of those cases of “watch this space,” as they say. 

Can you explain what the X Prize is?

The X Prize is a prize of ten million dollars that will be given to the first team that can send a privately developed manned spacecraft to suborbital altitudes—about 62 miles above the earth. [The winner must] send three people up to suborbital altitudes, come back down safely, and then do it again in the same vehicle within two weeks. The X Prize was conceived by a group of St. Louis businessmen who were inspired by something called the Orteig Prize, which was what spurred Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic to Paris in 1927. Their idea was, “We want to see the development of the private manned space flight industry. Maybe we need to do something like this, which helped develop commercial passenger aviation.” The X Prize has been around since 1996 and there are a number of companies competing. A company called Scaled Composites (SC) in the Mojave desert is definitely at the forefront but there are a couple of others that have done test-runs of engines and test-flights of vehicles.

What companies are at the leading edge of the space tourism industry? 

Space tourism is just one aspect of the private space sector. It's certainly the one that gets the most attention because it's the most extreme in terms of human experience. There's a company called Space Adventures which is really a tourism company. As far as launch vehicles go, SC has actually test-flown what they hope will be the winner of the X Prize. In Europe, there's a company called Orbital Express which is developing a robotic spacecraft to service satellites in orbit and may well be developing a craft that will help keep the Hubble space telescope alive for a while. These are all different aspects of this private space sector. I think ten years ago the private space sector was only about developing rockets and there was the hope that eventually it would send people into space. But now it's much more diverse, the players are more savvy, and the technology is much more advanced. It's a viable sector at this point.

So you think the likelihood of private suborbital space flight becoming a reality soon is realistic?

I think it's absolutely realistic, not only because of what SC has done. Again, they have test-flown what they call SpaceShipOne; they have flown it past Mach 2, and they have flown it over 100,000 feet. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—which regulates commercial space flight in this country—has recently issued its first commercial license for a private manned space vehicle and they gave it to SC. That is a very big development because prior to that, companies like SC were really flying blind. Even if they were able to develop the vehicle they didn't know whether they could send anybody up in it. So the FAA is saying, “Yes, this is something we need to look at and regulate,” and they've done that. 

Do you have any idea what the timeline might look like? Wasn't Space Adventures' first flight supposed to have taken place several years ago? 

The timelines have definitely slipped. But the game changed when SC got involved because it's a company that has a very distinguished track record developing aircraft and also helping NASA with the development of its spacecraft. It's not a fly-by-night entrepreneurial company, which is how most of the X Prize contestants were characterized prior to SC coming on board. If I were a betting man, I would say by this time next year we will have seen the first successful flight of a private manned spacecraft. I think it's that close.

If space tourism became a reality do you think that would inspire a new Space Age?

I think it would, because what got people excited about space travel back in the fifties and sixties were two different ideas. One was that space exploration was going to be the next phase of grand exploratory adventures. So people were excited about that—this idea of the final frontier. But the other thing that was a great motivator was this idea that everybody would eventually get to be a space traveler. You might not get to go to the Moon, you might not get to go to Mars, but maybe you'd get to go into orbit and get a perspective on your life and home planet that you wouldn't otherwise have. This was something that was a very strong motivator. During the sixties in particular it was very much in the culture and in the media coverage of space travel. I think that aspect of space interest got lost very quickly when after Apollo it became clear to people that NASA and its partners were going to do nothing to get the average person into space. That's what has been lost in terms of interest in space travel. It's really a demonstration sport. If you started to see a popular space tourism industry you might actually revitalize broader-ranging exploration because people would say, “This has some relevance to my life.”

Would you explain what SETI does? 

SETI uses large radios and telescopes connected to high-powered computers to scan distant star systems to see if there is any evidence of communications technology that might be similar to what we've produced on earth. It's a long distance way of trying to detect whether there are other civilizations in the galaxy.

In the book you argue that SETI is misunderstood. Why? 

I think it's because SETI is about discovering extra-terrestrial life, and in pop culture that is a very charged idea. You can think of everything from E.T. to Independence Day. Because SETI was originally funded via NASA and Congress, there were some congressmen who found it a very easy target for cost cutting. They said, “Why are we paying for a search for little green men?” It really wasn't that sort of thing and it was fairly low-cost, as well. But back in the early nineties when things were a little tight budget-wise Congress said, “Yeah, let's just cut this program.” Ever since—even though SETI has been revived by private funding—it has had to fight the perception that it's a hunt for little green men. Really, it's solidly based in astrophysics and computer science. 

What exactly has SETI found? 

Nothing yet. But it's a big galaxy. And it's a fairly slow search process. SETI scientists will admit that they may never find anything or that it may take decades, if not longer. But if you're going to be a scientist you have to be patient. These scientists are the most patient I have ever met.

If ET Calls, Who Answers?