6 August 1999
Other - Vehicles (None)
Goldin Muddies Waters over New Launch Vehicles
Uses False Logic to Press for NASA's Interest Against Taxpayers'
by Patrick Collins
In an interview with _Space News_ (July 12, p 1) NASA Administrator Dan Goldin stated his view that taxpayers should increase NASA funding in order to develop reusable launch vehicles that will lower the cost of access to space.

However, Mr Goldin's conclusion is based on false logic.

This is extremely important, since Mr Goldin is very influential: As head of the world's largest space agency, his views are treated as gospel by most of the world's media and most of the public. But Mr. Goldin is first and foremost the spokesman for a $14 billion/year special interest group who, more than anything else, want the continuation of government funding for what they like doing. Only secondarily is Mr Goldin concerned for US taxpayers (which has led him to improve NASA's efficiency in some respects). This leads him to argue in a particular way - ignoring inconvenient facts in order to reach conclusions that suit his NASA colleagues.

The errors in Mr Goldin's argument, which make his conclusions invalid, are several, but the most serious are these: 1) Mr Goldin equates reusable launch vehicles with a replacement for the space shuttle, and 2) He ignores what is by far the largest market for reusable launch vehicles, namely passengers.

1) The space shuttle was developed during the cold war for purposes of strategic competition with the Soviet Union. Now that the Cold War is over, there is absolutely no need to replace it. A space shuttle replacement has only a very limited market - launching satellites and NASA payloads. Furthermore, after assembling the space station, NASA has no task that is accepted by Congress and taxpayers. Any "replacement" for the space shuttle is therefore based merely on NASA's current leaders' wishes.

Space News reported: "Even with funding, Goldin is sceptical that any RLV that could replace the space shuttle could be developed in less than 10 to 12 years. "Right now, just launching some LEO satellites and some GEO satellites doesn't build a big enough market," he said."

When starting the $1 billion X-33 reusable rocket test-vehicle project, NASA claimed that the follow-on "Venture Star" orbital vehicle would be financed commercially. However, it was later estimated to cost some $5+ billion to develop. It is trivially simple to show that if you design a $5 billion vehicle for such a small market that you will only launch a few times/month, then you cannot earn sufficient profits to repay the investment - and hence you cannot raise the finance commercially. NASA have spent almost $1 billion "discovering" this fact for the US taxpayer.

Is it possible that Mr Goldin and colleagues didn't understand this elementary bit of business economics? No, it's likely that they understood it perfectly well - and in any case, Space Future explained it in _Aerospace America_ years ago (April 1997, Vol 35, No 4, p 8). But NASA's leaders have an agenda: They want to argue that business can't finance "reusable launch vehicles" - and so taxpayers have to give NASA more money.

2) Mr Goldin avoided even mentioning the launch market that is hundreds of times larger than the satellite launch market - that is, passenger carrying. Only passenger-carrying offers the possibility of large-scale operations involving tens of flights/day of tens of vehicles. This is how airlines have reduced the cost of air travel so amazingly - not through massive government expenditure on developing new technology so that an unpiloted cargo plane could be profitable with just a few flights/month.

By carefully avoiding the subject of passenger carrying, Mr Goldin conveniently obscures the fact that, by contrast to the hopelessly uncommercial "Venture Star", it would be possible to repay a similar, or even greater, investment developing a passenger carrying vehicle because the passenger space travel market is hundreds of times larger. The overriding interest of the American people concerning space is to have low-cost passenger access to space as soon as possible. This interest is both personal, since a majority of the US population wish to travel to space, and economic, since developing a space tourism industry will greatly benefit the US economy.

By ignoring this, Mr Goldin is trying to confuse the American people into` believing that since it isn't possible to fund a "shuttle replacement" commercially then there is no alternative but to keep giving NASA more money. But this is untrue. The best way to realise space tourism is to aim straight at it, by developing passenger-carrying vehicles through collaboration between the space and aviation industries. But NASA's current leaders believe that their overriding interest is to get more government funding, and tourism is seen as a threat to this. And so Mr Goldin conveniently avoids the subject.

The Space News article continues: "Instead, Goldin believes that more
investment is needed by NASA to develop the technologies needed for future RLVs. However, he noted that NASA's budget is unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future, making it difficult to find the funding needed to support such projects."

But Mr Goldin is being disingenuous, because the X-33 and Venture Star projects are of rather little relevance to developing passenger space travel services. For a start, both vehicles are unpiloted and are not designed to carry passengers. Second, they operate more like missiles than aircraft, having significant periods during flight when it is not possible to survive an accident - which is unacceptable for passenger-carrying, and so will not be licensed by the FAA.

To develop passenger carrying vehicles, you should start with - passenger-carrying vehicles. Sub-orbital vehicles are a particularly cheap way to start - as NASA did with its own first space flights by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.

The truth is that Mr Goldin and his colleagues at NASA care nothing for enabling US citizens to visit space - which is the key to benefiting commercially from space investment. Indeed NASA actively resists the possibility. In its 40 years of existence NASA has never once asked the American people about the subject. (By contrast, Space Future and associates have done so - and the Japanese, Germans, Canadians and English.)

Under pressure from the Space Transportation Association NASA participated in producing the 1998 report "General Public Space Travel and Tourism" which is unreservedly positive about the prospects for space tourism. But this is the only report that NASA has ever published on the subject. It is not available on NASA's web-site; and it is mysteriously "unavailable" through their $500 million computerised document service! (Try requesting it.) Finally, as we see above, when discussing RLVs Mr Goldin does not even refer to passenger carrying.
$500/second, $40 million/day - and NOTHING for the taxpayer
Most importantly, passenger space travel could start as soon as just a few years from now, with sub-orbital flights - like NASA's own first piloted space shots. The vehicles needed for this can be developed for a fraction of the cost and risk of orbital vehicles. And there are numerous ways that NASA and other space agencies could help this come about, even without using any funds, as described here.

As Administrator of NASA Mr Goldin is responsible for spending $14 billion of taxpayers' money every year - that's almost $500 every second - nearly $40 million/day. So just a few days of NASA's budget would be enough to actually start space tourism! Mr Goldin therefore has the primary responsibility for deliberately not helping to realise space tourism. Every morning he takes the decision "NASA will spend nothing out of today's $40 million to help US taxpayers have access to space."

Just as politicians don't say "I'm only interested in winning the next election" but talk about working for the interests of the people, Mr Goldin of course does not say "This is just for the good of NASA and friends" - but tries to get people to believe that he's working in their interests. But judge for yourself: if he used even a tiny 0.1% of NASA's colossal budget - $13 million, or just 8 hours of their funding spread over a year - we'd see enormous progress. But that would run counter to what he considers to be NASA's interests, and so he continues to pretend that only giving even more money for NASA's own favourite projects will open the doors to space.

But nothing could be further from the truth. That would merely prolong the delay, and add to the decades through which US citizens have already had to wait for space to become accessible. Mr Goldin has presided over the spending of $100 billion of taxpayers' money to date. Another 7 years of NASA's current budget would be another $100 billion, and as spent by NASA that would maintain space industry employment at its current level of about 1/2 million, giving rise to no new business. By contrast, $100 billion invested in commercial space travel would create a business of roughly a $100 billion/year turnover, permanently employing several times as many people - and most of the investment would even come from the private sector. But it can't get started while NASA's leaders continue to pretend that it isn't feasible, and that only more funding for NASA will make it possible.

The USA is the most heavily indebted country in the world, currently riding a stock market bubble surrounded by a sea of global deflation. This deflation is caused by excess capacity in old industries - and inadequate investment in new industries. At such a time, wasting another $100 billion on unprofitable space activities while spending nothing to develop what NASA has admitted in print will become the largest business activity in space would be an appallingly bad investment decision.

No "High Purpose"
The situation might be different if NASA had some "High Purpose" more important than making space accessible to US citizens. But there is no such "High Purpose". There was (arguably) during the cold war, when NASA was used for symbolic competition with the Soviet Union. But there is no longer. Nothing today is more important in space than enabling ordinary citizens to be able to buy a ticket to space. And that can be achieved by setting that objective and doing what is necessary to achieve it. It is a straight-forward engineering development task.

NASA staff should be embracing space tourism; they should be delighted that most of the public wishes to pay to visit space for themselves, recognising that this provides a wonderful opportunity to repay the vast public investment in space to date. Isn't it obvious that this is a more attractive - and more honest - future for NASA than jealously trying to maintain a false exclusivity, paid for by the taxpayer, and based on a fiction? The fiction that going to space is impossible for anyone but specially selected government employees.

So long as Mr Goldin continues these arguments - and until he comes clean about passenger space travel - he cannot claim to be a friend of the American people.
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Patrick Collins 6 August 1999
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