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NASA Does a U-Turn, Opens To Private Industry

kdawson posted more than 6 years ago | from the facing-skyward-thumb-out dept.

NASA 81

mattnyc99 writes "Popular Mechanics is reporting that NASA — faced with the looming retirement of the space shuttle, and planning for longer missions like the one to Mars we've been discussing — is looking to free up its budget and depend a lot more on private space startups to carry key payloads into orbit in the next few years. For an agency so steeped in bureaucracy, it seems like everyone from NASA chief Mike Griffin to contracted officials to the key players in this in-depth podcast roundtable is finally acknowledging that commercial rocketeering (space tourists aside) is a more efficient means of getting back into space for NASA. Quoting: 'Because of a new focus for NASA's strategic investments — not to mention incentives like the Ansari X Prize, which spurred the space-tourism business, and the Google Lunar X Prize, which could do the same for payloads — private-sector spaceships could be ready for government service soon, says Sam Scimemi, who heads NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. "The industry has grown up," he tells PM. "It used to be that only NASA or the Air Force could do such things."'"

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People Seem To Be Unaware (5, Insightful)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385588)

That very few people actually work for NASA as opposed to "NASA contractors", as such, saying that NASA is "opening to private industry" is just ignorant.

When NASA stops offering "cost plus" contracts to the usual suspects (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc) then you can have a big celebration, but until then its just business as usual.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (3, Insightful)

mrbluze (1034940) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385668)

When NASA stops offering "cost plus" contracts to the usual suspects (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc) then you can have a big celebration, but until then its just business as usual.

When this kind of thing comes up, I always wonder what implications private outsourcing of critical work has on problem solving. I mean, if another shuttle explodes or some such thing, it's probably straightforward in getting all the commerical secrets out of the offending company, but couldn't it be argued that private outsourcing causes these kinds of accidents (because the private company doesn't want to reveal everything to NASA about their product)?

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (2, Informative)

susano_otter (123650) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387142)

Actually, "reveal everything to NASA" is a condition of the funding. Nobody delivers a black box system to NASA.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

mrbluze (1034940) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387794)

If that's true then it's a Good Thing (TM) and a worthy investment, but I've never seen that happen anywhere else before.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

Foolicious (895952) | more than 6 years ago | (#23389714)

Have you ever worked at or with NASA?

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

mrbluze (1034940) | more than 6 years ago | (#23397252)

Have you ever worked at or with NASA?
Nah I'm in the health sector.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23388050)

As far as I know, the "product" on cost plus contracts always belongs to the government. The contractor isn't allowed to hide anything because it's spelled out in detail in the contract that all work done for the contract belongs to the government. The government owns the end product, the source code, the schematics for custom hardware, design documents, ... everything.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23391134)

Only thing left to do is outsource to India :)

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

philpalm (952191) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385756)

That private industry already sends satellites into space (for telecomunications and direct TV) but commercial enterprise for landing on the moon is limited at best to either making it a stepping stone to the planets or as a mining venture. You can't put a price tag on landing on the moon, as opposed to sending satellites into orbit. Bigger payload rockets may pay off in the long run, but not landing on the moon.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (3, Interesting)

timeOday (582209) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385798)

First paragraph:

For decades, NASA kept a tight fist around the construction and operation of the spacecraft that ferried its astronauts and hardware into orbit. Sure, an army of private contractors actually built the vehicles, but NASA oversaw the designs--and always kept the pink slips. Now, however, the agency seems to be shifting course, as NASA officials insist that the budding commercial spacecraft fleet represents the only way the United States can realize its dreams of solar-system conquest on schedule and at an affordable cost.
NASA not owning the successor to the shuttle does seem like a significant change to me.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385888)

Which is why the development of the Ares I is barreling ahead. You can't just make shit up and then say "wow, that's unusual" to get a story.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

lgw (121541) | more than 6 years ago | (#23388540)

You can't just make shit up and then say "wow, that's unusual" to get a story.
Wow, have you ever watched a 24-hour news channel? That's their entire business model!

The dinosaurs are extinct because they didn't have a space program, but imagine the hilarity if they did!
All we really know is that if they had a space program, they didn't come back - hilarity may yet ensue once we look around a bit more. :)

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 6 years ago | (#23393194)

If the dinosaurs had a space program (aka sentient dinosaurs with an industrial civilization to build them), I'm completely certain that we would have found the ruins of an ancient dinosaur civilization by now.

That we haven't even found evidence of even something like a cave-man level of technology from dinosaurs speaks volumes abut that concept.

Still, I would have to agree with you about news outlets.... who are very fickle with what they will and won't run as stories.

Yeah, except, I'm proof you are wrong (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23387406)

I worked for a company of a few hundred employees, who contracted directly and indirectly with NASA providing technical and engineering support for Ares I. Not a usual suspect. And there are a lot of us around. Lots of little companies you've never heard of, designing and engineering Ares. Sure, Boeing and LockMart have the big contracts to fabricate (honestly, there aren't many who could compete who have the capabilities, care to name a few who could outside the "usual suspects"?), but the engineering work is being done by a host of contractors you've never heard of.

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

randyleepublic (1286320) | more than 6 years ago | (#23388990)

I like the part about going back to the moon and going to Mars. This is total delusion. The USA is on the verge of a major economic meltdown. The govt. puts out stories like this to wave in our faces as distraction. We can't even afford a new shuttle, but we're going to Mars? Uh-huh...

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

Edward Ka-Spel (779129) | more than 6 years ago | (#23390578)

Check the article again. That's exactly what they are talking about here. NASA is trying out different alternatives to get a private vehicle that can make it to the ISS for supply drops. They feel that the field has matured enough that private industry can develop the vehicles and earn profit off flying them, so NASA doesn't need to be as heavily involved. This is not a new decision, NASA has been going in this direction ever since Rutan won the X-Prize with SpaceShipOne. That was enough to give confidence that private industry can do it.

Meanwhile, their Ares I vehicle to get to the moon is being done the more traditional way. This is not a mature field and in the near-term there will be very little commercial benefit of going to the moon. So this is an area that NASA needs to push along keeping a firm control over the contract. Although if a private company wants to give it a try, there are no rules preventing them from doing it on their own...

Re:People Seem To Be Unaware (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#23396162)

And this is why I say to you, and the article, no shit sherlock. The article is trying to play this up as some great about turn for NASA. It's not. It's a little toe in the water to see how warm it is.

Ahh...Popular Mechanics (2, Interesting)

iamlucky13 (795185) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385630)

Only 2 years late on this story [wikipedia.org] . *sigh* I remember when I could read Popular Mechanics and learn new things.

The most recent detail in that article dates back to three months ago when NASA re-awarded to Orbital Sciences the funds that Rocketplane Kistler forfeited when they failed to meet their milestones.

Also, it's not like NASA has been closed to private industry before. The true story of the Fisher space pen [snopes.com] is a small, but great example. NASA just doesn't typically provide open-ended opportunities like this, much less with discretionary development funding.

Re:Ahh...Popular Mechanics (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 6 years ago | (#23393328)

This is a bit different than the COTS program. COTS was originally intended to be a "safe bet" backup concept in case the Orion/Ares vehicle couldn't get off the ground (and increasingly it looks like that may happen). Or more to the point, there was a faction within NASA and Congress that wanted to see what private businesses could come up with, even though the leading administrators and committee chairs in Congress wanted to re-create the Saturn I rocket (for lack of a better comparison).

The "news" that makes this story current and relevant is that NASA is beginning to realize that they need to put commercial contracts on the front burner and make them the primary method of at least getting into low-earth orbit. Paying SpaceX or Blue Origin a contract for going into space would be like booking a flight on Delta or United... something that is cash and carry and no NASA engineer hanging over the launch team as the flight is going up.

That may still happen for the first several flights, but imagine if some NASA personnel had to sit in the cockpit of every flight that some NASA official had to take between Huntsville and Washington D.C.? Sounds silly to me too, although it wouldn't surprise me either.

Re:Ahh...Popular Mechanics (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23396494)

No, this is COTS. The news that could have made this story current is that NASA has released the RFP for COTS phase II. Phase I provides funding to a small number of companies for developing hardware for COTS. The Phase II RFP authorizes NASA to solicit and consider bids for services under the COTS outline. These can come from anyone, regardless of whether they received funding for COTS-I, so hypothetically, Lockheed could bid and be selected for a contract with their Atlas rocket, while SpaceX could get nothing, despite having developed the Falcon 9 partially with COTS-1 money. This news is probably what prompted the Popular Mechanics article, but somehow managed to get left out.

COTS was never a fallback for Ares/Orion. COTS arose out of the Commercial Space Act of 1998, which required NASA to buy equipment from commercial providers rather than developing their own, whenever possible. COTS does not mandate the development of manned capability and so it can't be a fallback for Ares/Orion. That is an optional extension of the program, and so far only SpaceX has stated a firm desire to pursue it.

NASA won't be entirely hands-off for COTS launches. The stakes are too high and the risk too uncertain, unlike airline flying. Their involvement will be more along the lines of that when Russia launches NASA astronauts to the ISS.

Now we can put that money to good use (1)

uselessengineer (1172275) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385650)

Now we can put ALL that money to good use. I think the iraq war needs more. [slashdot.org] In all seriousness, NASA used to be a well run organization devoted to science, Where did we go wrong?

Give em a go (2, Interesting)

Fluffeh (1273756) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385654)

Lets not be too negative. At least it's turning in the right direction. They might not really be walking down that path yet as we all hope they do, but getting them to look to the right direction is something better than nothing.

Re:Give em a go (1)

pembo13 (770295) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385836)

Think Microsoft in space.

Oh No!! Not NASA!! (2, Interesting)

linesma (869062) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385674)

It was bound to happen, it had been brewing since the draw down of the Clinton years, and they are finally admitting it, NASA is mainly a non-government organization. Just like the military, which has yet to truly admit it (but they have in a way), things are mostly done by outside contractors or civilian employees making more than they could if they worked for the military doing the same job. Or tax dollars at work!!

Re:Oh No!! Not NASA!! (2, Interesting)

wasted (94866) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386658)

Just like the military, which has yet to truly admit it (but they have in a way), things are mostly done by outside contractors or civilian employees making more than they could if they worked for the military doing the same job. Our tax dollars at work!!

Although the individual contractors make more than they would if they were in the military, the contracts I am familiar with usually end up saving the military money. It usually takes significantly fewer contractors, (since contractors don't have as many bureaucratic layers and don't need to be temporarily absent to attend training, take medical leave, attend command meetings, or touchy-feely workshops,) and don't have many of the non-salary costs of the military (such as transfers, schools, support personnel, etc.).

If the military's hiring contractors saves money and frees military personnel from mundane, unrewarding, and/or unchallenging jobs, I'm all for it, even if the individual contractors cost more on a per-person basis. On the other hand, if the military is spending more money on contractors than it would spend by using military personnel, it is a waste of tax dollars, and if I recall correctly, part of a US Military officer's duty is to ensure that tax dollars are not wasted, and if tax dollars are being wasted, someone is not doing their job. (I forget the exact wording requiring officers to be vigilant of costs; someone who knows will probably respond and correct me.)

Re:Oh No!! Not NASA!! (2, Informative)

Teancum (67324) | more than 6 years ago | (#23393478)

You tend to get better services from civilian contractors that are performing tasks that are admittedly something more of a civilian task anyway.

Do you think that some private soldier or ordinary seaman is going to have their heart into flipping burgers at the Burger King in the PX? What kind of accounting job do you think some 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of college is going to perform as opposed to a professional CPA with 30 years of experience that doesn't want to deal with the ordeals of a military officer? Neither of these jobs require somebody train in weaponry and combat tactics, yet these are examples of civilian contractors who do indeed work for the Department of Defense... sometimes on DoD payrolls even instead of contract situation.

During World War II, these would have been military jobs and indeed were given military ranks. Just like Ronald Reagan and his military commission in the Army doing what is admittedly a civilian job (he only made training films and was never considered for front-line service).

Popular Mechanics Sensasionalism (4, Informative)

pavon (30274) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385684)

This isn't an about-face. The fact of the matter is that NASA has been required by law to contract out nearly all of its launch production, facilities and maintenance for a long time now. All of its probe launches are done with Boeing and Lockheed rockets. NASA has also gone out of its way to offer contracts to the smaller private companies from the vary beginning of the new launcher plans. If you look at the contracts they almost appear to be intentionally catered to the strengths of these specific start-ups.

This isn't about public vs private - it is about NASA's desire to stop being dependant on a small number of large aerospace corporations. It is about their desire for space exploration grow in anyway possible. Everybody who works there wants to see SpaceX, t-Space, and the others succeed, as much as the folks here do.

The real answer... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23385700)

... is to declare that weapons of mass destruction have been found on Mars, hoarded by the terrorist Martians. Oh look at that, a bottomless pit of money has just been opened for NASA. Hundreds of billions of dollars for space conquering, no questions asked, no budget to propose.

That was simple. Next problem, please.

Sounds Good To Me (3, Insightful)

susano_otter (123650) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385714)

NASA's primary role is to stimulate aerospace R&D by setting challenging goals and offering to underwrite the costs of risky R&D programs outlined the most competitive bids from private contractors.

The contractors benefit by getting outside sources of funding for research projects that may not swiftly transform into mature, commercial aerospace opportunities.

The public benefits from the scientific gains, and the long-term economic benefits resulting from the original R&D stimulation.

But once an aerospace technology begins to mature, and profitable business models become apparent, the need for government-subsizied R&D passes away, and private industry willingly takes the next steps themselves, with their own funding. Witness, for example, Boeing's booming aerospace engineering and service business, founded on Apollo-era technology acquired from companies whose R&D was originally funded by NASA.

I, for one, wholeheartedly approve of NASA turning to the private sector for robust, proven, mature aerospace solutions. Once the technology has reached that stsge, NASA's work is done, and it should move on to other, more advanced goals.

Re:Sounds Good To Me (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23387388)

You have an interesting take on the role of the state in subsidizing private business. Although it is fairly accurate, your description of what NASA's or any other arm of the government, should be is open to discussion, or at least it should be if you think democracy is a good idea. In that case, do you think that the average citizen would agree to handing over their hard-earned money to enrich a few "profitable" companies? The question has more or less been asked in many polls, each one with the same outcomes. The most important issues being national, free health care, a strong commitment to public education, job creation, environmental concerns, etc.

What you are advocating is basically welfare for the rich sectors of society with benefits maybe trickling down to the rest of society (no guarantees though). Those priorities are backwards for most people, however. How about advocating for welfare for the poorest segments of society (a much larger segment) with benefits maybe trickling down to the privileged sectors? (no guarantees though)

Logic? (1)

bobwrit (1232148) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385724)

It seems logical that a org. that is run by a government that rerecives money from big corperations would turn to private sectors. Milking the money???

private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sector (4, Insightful)

br00tus (528477) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385872)

Regarding the typical kdawson buzzwords...first of all, insofar as government being "steeped in bureaucracy", how about a large corporation? I have worked at large companies where it would be a dream that the red tape was as low a level as covers for TPS reports...many of them were natural monopolies that European governments would have never let stand - but the US government does - so they can afford to blow money.


Secondly, why is the private sector "efficient"? Instead of paying just labor costs and capital costs, you now have add the expenses for the profit that will be taken as well, so the only thing new about this is the majority shareholders, whom Federal Reserve studies show are multimillionaires and billionaires, will be getting a check as well. Plus the company will be lobbying the government regarding how this money is doled out. Look at the agricultural industry in the US for starters.

Despite having had to swallow a lifetime of propaganda about how much more efficient it is to have something handled when a billionaire is getting a profit paycheck as opposed to a government project, I don't swallow it. Maybe in the US or UK, where government attempts to do so are sabotaged, but I have seen Scandinavian government "bureaucracies" that make the "efficiency" of the typical pointy headed bosses company in the US look laughable.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (2, Insightful)

Rob Kaper (5960) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386096)

Secondly, why is the private sector "efficient"?

Because it allows you to utilise the ideas, labour and capital of the entire population and not just the part supposed to be involved with government.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (1)

gemada (974357) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386274)

Secondly, why is the private sector "efficient"? Because it allows you to utilise the ideas, labour and capital of the entire population and not just the part supposed to be involved with government.
Just because you utilise those 3 things does not make the private sector inherently more efficient.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (2, Insightful)

syousef (465911) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386284)

Because it allows you to utilise the ideas, labour and capital of the entire population and not just the part supposed to be involved with government.

No it doesn't. You hand your contract out to a company and you're locked into what that company can do. Hand it to a government department and you're locked in to what they can do. Sure you get to pick from a wider set of limitations but neither allows you to use the "ideas, labour and capital of the entire population". You can't hand a contract to Boeing and get input from rival engineers.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 6 years ago | (#23393560)

The advantage of going with a company is that if a competitor comes up, you can hire the competitor... perhaps as a secondary supplier at first but if they work out you can make them the prime contractor and relegate the previous company as the secondary supplier/contractor.

In other words, you can cut out a company much easier than you can kill a bureau or department from the government.

Look at the regulations regarding the sales and importation of Irish Whiskey and tell me how you are going to kill the government agency that deals with that one product alone (and their fairy god-Senator(s) that protect them). Once an agency is created, it live nearly forever. That isn't necessarily true about a company who does contract work for the government.... which I know unfortunately from first-hand experience.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (1)

syousef (465911) | more than 6 years ago | (#23398400)

The advantage of going with a company is that if a competitor comes up, you can hire the competitor... perhaps as a secondary supplier at first but if they work out you can make them the prime contractor and relegate the previous company as the secondary supplier/contractor.

Ah yes, so if I contract to have a speciality item made, I can have a second one made and double my costs? That might work if:

1) There's no exclusivity deal in the contract. (There often is)

2) It's not a speciality one of item. Your idea works with paper clips, calculators or desktop PCs. It doesn't work so well for an aircraft/spacecraft wing

In other words, you can cut out a company much easier than you can kill a bureau or department from the government.

No company worth their salt will take the risk of you pulling out of the deal without adding a punitive clause.

Look at the regulations regarding the sales and importation of Irish Whiskey and tell me how you are going to kill the government agency that deals with that one product alone (and their fairy god-Senator(s) that protect them). Once an agency is created, it live nearly forever. That isn't necessarily true about a company who does contract work for the government.... which I know unfortunately from first-hand experience.

That simply isn't true. Plenty of government organizations have been axed in the past.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23386246)

As far as efficiency goes, the theory is that businesses in a vibrant multiplayer market will have to become ever more efficient or else the other companies that do will out-compete them and put them out of business. It's Darwin in action. Adapt or die. Over time, theory goes, this strong incentive to improve efficiency will produce a more efficient organization than if an organization with fewer incentives to improve, like a government organization with a steady statutory income, had existed over the same time frame.

Of course, the reality is that businesses try to establish trusts and monopolies and other ways of securing an income other than making their business better for their patrons. I'm in a bitch of a situation right now where my car insurance company (Titan a.k.a. Eastwood a.k.a. Nationwide, avoid them) has been charging me a monthly "billing" fee and not telling me. I'm on an annual plan, paid in full for several months from now, and they just sent me a notice that I owe them over $100 because of the combined sum of these monthly "billing" fees when I was never billed plus additional service fees and late charges. They admit it's their fault but they refuse to fix it and they insist that I owe the money. The state insurance commissioner is going to get a letter about it, but I expect nothing to happen except I have to find a different provider and my credit rating is going to hell. That's capitalism for you.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (2, Informative)

ZonkerWilliam (953437) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386372)

One big reason private companies are better than government is budgets. A government agency runs on budgets, they aren't motivated to save money if they don't spend all of it they don't get it back the next year, use it or loose it. Simple as that.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (1)

bwy (726112) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386430)

So, the Soviet Union was a model of efficiency, you say? Actually, I don't really even care about the answer. Neither answer would make me want to live in the Soviet Union.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (2, Insightful)

Iron Condor (964856) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386608)

So, the Soviet Union was a model of efficiency, you say?

In an attempt to get this even vaguely back on topic: who put the first satellite into LEO? Who put the first man into LEO?

And while I'm at it: How many people did the Russian government put into LEO total? How many people did the US government put into LEO total? And how many people has the oh-so-efficient private industry put into LEO so far? Big zero, eh? Wonder how that is...

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (2, Interesting)

JonBuck (112195) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386770)

There's one very good reason why private industry hasn't put people in orbit yet.

There's no profit in it.

Oh, there's profit in commercial satellites. We have thousands of them orbiting. But to actually put people in orbit is still a money-losing proposition. Although that might change in the medium term.

Ever heard of Bigelow Aerospace?

Governments may lead the way, but it's private citizens who really make changes. It's been like that for centuries, from Columbus, to Lewis and Clark, to Alan Shepherd. It was often a century or more before settlers followed explorers into the New World, and space may follow that example. But in order to get any real movement, there has to be something else: Profit.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23387440)

Wasn't Columbus funded by the Queen? Isn't that equivalent to today's government? Also, Columbus didn't make "great" changes...he began exploiting and enslaving the native Indian population. (Read his own journals)

Your notion that profit is the motivation needed for "real movement" is laughable...and patently incorrect if history is at all relevant.

To name a few examples, the state has been responsible for the "big ideas" behind electronics (and hence computers), the Internet, biotechnology, space travel/exploration, etc... The list is very long and quite impressive. The fact that a number of private individuals and companies have been able to piggy back off of this collective work and enrich themselves is actually quite disgraceful.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 6 years ago | (#23393972)

The reason why private industry hasn't put people into orbit yet (discounting Space Advantures and their astro-tourists), has mainly been due to government bureaucrats getting in the way.

I know of at least two and perhaps more private industry groups that gathered the financing necessary to purchase a space shuttle for private flights. NASA didn't even want to consider the possibility and flatly refused to give the authority for the NASA contractors to continue the production line necessary to build additional shuttles and allow private citizens to obtain the parts for the equipment.

The other issue is the engineering principle regarding any sort of design.

You can design design anything either

*Cheaper
*Reliably
*Quickly

But you must select only two of the above options.

Apollo and the Cold War rush for ballistic missiles clearly pushed for reliable and quickly developed systems and threw cost out of the window entirely. The Space Shuttle tried to do all three simultaneously, and failed miserably at all of them.

What is different about SpaceX and the newer spacecraft development companies is that they are emphasizing a much cheaper cost to getting into orbit. This is something NASA (realistically) nor the military have every tried before... sometimes for political reasons and usually because any space development project simply must be completed within the 4-8 year terms of Senators and U.S. Presidents. Anything that takes longer is usually shot down unless it is so far along that the subsequent administration isn't going to kill the program.

Apollo (Kennedy/Johnson) and to a certain extent the Space Shuttle (Nixon/Ford) and certainly the ISS (Reagan/Bush I) were under this sort of time pressure to get things accomplished. Indeed the ISS is suffering from the fact that the original concept is nearly 20 years old in terms of its original political supporters who provided the initial funding.

I could give other opinion pieces and studies about why the cost of sending stuff into low-earth orbit is as high as it is... and there is some strong economic rationale for that on the part of the traditional aerospace manufacturers. Those costs are such that practical private citizen space travel is unprofitable until you can otherwise drive the cost of transit to orbit at a much cheaper rate. I'm glad that there are people with money to get the job done trying to make that happen.

private vs public (1)

mrlibertarian (1150979) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386790)

Instead of paying just labor costs and capital costs, you now have add the expenses for the profit that will be taken as well,

Private does not mean profit-driven; private means 'without force'. For example, Wikipedia is a private organization. Also, profit is not an expense; profit is revenue minus expenses.

The beauty of the profit-driven model is that, over time, scarce resources will tend to be allocated to their most-demanded uses as efficiently as possible. If a company earns large profits by selling highly valued products, then it will attract competition. The increased competition will drive prices lower, which benefits the consumer. Conversely, inefficient companies will lose money until they go out of business. Of course, the point of all this is not to benefit the consumer; rather, investors, entrepreneurs, and workers are striving to make a profit. It just so happens that in their quest to earn a profit, everyone benefits. This makes sense when you realize that by trying to earn a profit, you are, by definition, trying to please someone else.

Now, if you're not interested in profit, then so be it. No one says you have to be profit-driven. But it is pointless to argue that the profit-driven mechanism is inefficient because it does not achieve your desired ends (e.g. building a better space shuttle). The beauty of the market is that it allocates resources to consumer preferences, and those preferences may be different from your preferences.

Re:private vs public (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23388144)

Actually, profit-driven markets often lead to distorted non-efficient systems just as easily as efficient ones.

If it is profitable to be inefficient, which is often the case when you're providing a service and getting paid by the hour, then the market will strive towards inefficiency. Consultancy is a prime example of this, as are monopolies and other information distortions.

It becomes within the interest of a profit-driven market for entities to create scarcity, perceived scarcity and other inefficient distortions for profit.

Then again, it depends on what your metric for measuring efficiency is. If your metric for measuring efficiency is measuring how much wealth is transferred relative your costs (i.e. your costs are small compared to your profits), then a profit driven market seems very efficient.

PS I'd like to see Kurt GÃdel punch Milton Friedman in the face an infinite number of times.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (1)

lusiphur69 (455824) | more than 6 years ago | (#23389162)

Very good point and well said. I often question the pie-in-the-sky, free market is god sort of capitalists. My experience has been the opposite of Rand's famous Fountainhead (a load of bollocks, by the way) - big corporations are typically some of the most poorly managed, myopic and wasteful organizations I have ever seen.

However, given that /. has lot's of Ron Paul types, expect to get modded down for your accurate, though heretical, views.

Re:private...bureaucracy...efficient..private sect (1)

Nebulious (1241096) | more than 6 years ago | (#23391006)

Debating the inherent superiority of private vs. public industries is an exercise in false dichotomy. It's the context, circumstances, and era that matter.

Back in the space race, the government had a motivation to be daring and adventurous; they just had to one-up the commies. Not only that, but space was something new and dramatic. This allowed a whole lot of money, time, and brilliance to be pooled and we got pretty far from it.

Once the space race was over, that drive faded. The space shuttle wasn't even supposed to be used in missions, but instead as an intermediary for a better reusable craft. As the years went on, NASA felt increasing internal and external pressure to be safer and take less risks. As a result, a lot of progress and good science was sacrificed. Just look at the compromises with the ISS.

As it stands, NASA is sadly a drag on the aerospace industry. It's still a wonderful program, but it's lost its ability to lead and innovate. So now, the task is being taken in hand by private companies in a fresh start. These people are now doing the new and exciting. In addition, many of the companies like Virgin Galactic and Bigelow are focused on doing old things in new ways in order to increase accessibility. This is a perfect area for private industry because accessibility means a market and a market means a profit.

To this day, the government is still best for doing this first. Look at the internet, satellites, and fusion research. However, Edision's ghost will tell you any day of the week that a private company is the one bringing those technologies to the everyman.

Next step: (1)

felipekk (1007591) | more than 6 years ago | (#23385908)

Outsourcing: I would love to see the new launch site in Delhi!

Why? (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386446)

India already has their own. In addition, how would this help America or even the world? Absolutely nothing would be gained.

Annoying (3, Interesting)

Migraineman (632203) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386250)

It used to be that only NASA or the Air Force could do such things.
WtF? It used to be that NASA and the Air Force had a strangle-hold on spaceflight. They were the only ones who could do such things. Ugh, this annoys the crap out of me.

The Shuttle was a huge program when it was first considered. Congress mandated it's use to justify the expenditure. The Air Force levied horrible constraints against development, turning it into the mediocre performer it is today. The Congressional mandate effectively stopped any substantial commercial spaceflight development until pretty recently.

I've flown a payload on the Shuttle (STS-116.) Lemme say that the oversight for flying on a manned launch vehicle was enormous. That's a completely unnecessary burden for most launches. The single-use unmanned boosters are a much more effective method for putting everything but people into orbit.

The US space program is 20-30 years behind where it should be. I can't stand when folks think it's a wonderful thing that the bureaucrats are finally getting a clue. We should be completely furious that it's taken this long.

Re:Annoying (1)

Martin Blank (154261) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386410)

Lemme say that the oversight for flying on a manned launch vehicle was enormous. That's a completely unnecessary burden for most launches. The single-use unmanned boosters are a much more effective method for putting everything but people into orbit.

What are your thoughts on the multi-platform Ares I/V designs, which effectively split the mission into manned and unmanned segments?

And that will be different from the falcon series? (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386546)

The reason I bring it up, is that Musk has indicated that he is doing the BFR (big (F******|Falcon) Rocket), which will use the merlin 2. From some of the items out there, it appears that it would have an engine that will deliver about as much as a falcon 9 engine will.

Re:And that will be different from the falcon seri (1)

Martin Blank (154261) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387362)

I look forward to success in the Falcon series, but as yet, there has not been a successful launch of even the Falcon 1. I seem to remember watching one of the two launches on a web stream, until the video cut out due to control problems. I'm hoping that they can get a better result in the third launch, which I understand is due soon, though news on it seems to be a bit unclear.

The Ares systems, while being somewhat new in some ways, uses proven technologies derived from the shuttle. We'll see a first test of that in April 2009 with an initial suborbital flight test, though we have to wait another four years after that for the next test.

SO..... (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387446)

A system that is based VERY loosly has more possibility of success than does a system that has fired twice (literally once), and on the 2'nd attempt was just shy of getting to its orbit by an early shutoff (and other issues)?

Third launch is to be end of june, though I have wondered about that.

As to the suborbital test, that is just for 1 piece of the ares system. It will take another decade to get to the end. And oddly, I am a fan of Ares, but, I think that it is not going to see the end of the tunnel. The reason is that I think that budget constraints will take hold and Musk will have built the BFR before the Ares V is even partially completed.

Re:SO..... (1)

Martin Blank (154261) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387562)

That's quite possible. But there's a lot left to do. And even if the Falcon 9 heavy succeeds and keeps its manned launch costs down, there's still room for the Ares V to be developed, as its maximum payload is nearly five times greater, and will be important for getting the most massive launches into space. There's something to be said for ultra-heavy launch platforms; had we been a little more forward-looking and continued evolving the Saturn platform, we might have been able to get the space station up there faster.

Re:SO..... (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387628)

The falcon 9 heavy is very different from the ares V. The comparable is suppose to be BFR and ares V, though Musk has kept that one pretty cryptic about it all. Worse, at this time, both Ares V and the BFR have about the same level of development. The falcon 9 heavy is meant to take on the top Atlas with a greater payload and less than half the costs.

I think that it is fair to say that just about anybody connected to the space program wants to see a MONSTER low costs rocket. Of course, getting both together depends on high frequency.

Re:SO..... (1)

Martin Blank (154261) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387710)

When it comes to 100+ ton payloads, I'm a little less picky about costs, especially since even high costs are often a small fraction of the development costs of said payloads.

Re:Annoying (2, Interesting)

Migraineman (632203) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386676)

I definitely think that the programmatic split is the right thing to do. There is no reason to send a flight crew up with every single launch. The Shuttle's original mission objectives had a much more hands-on expectation. That has turned out to be inaccurate.

The Shuttle is an impressive piece of hardware, but it's payload capacity is a huge step backward from that of the Saturn series. The Saturn V (which happens to be man-rated as well,) could loft 118,000kg into LEO. You'll need four or five Shuttle trips to move the equivalent mass, assuming your payload can be neatly sectioned into quarters and reassembled on-orbit. There's an enormous payload penalty imposed on the Shuttle - life support systems, avionics, wings, re-usable engines - all contributing in a negative manner to the payload capacity.

I haven't been following the recent Ares developments. I got tired of watching the Shuttle program participants trying to lobby their respective programs into the Ares plans. The space program is as much a political entity as it is a technical one. That alone will guarantee that it won't be anywhere near an optimal [technical] solution. As long as the politicians hold the purse strings, we're going to get more of the same.

Re:Annoying (1)

icebrain (944107) | more than 6 years ago | (#23389404)

Though if you consider the orbiter itself as payload, then you do reach Saturn V levels (roughly).

Seriously, though, Shuttle-C and others would have narrowed the usable payload gap considerably. It still leaves the pesky problem of a side-mounted payload, but at least said payload wouldn't have a TPS to get damaged.

Re:Annoying (1)

clickety6 (141178) | more than 6 years ago | (#23388854)

It used to be that only NASA or the Air Force could do such things.

WtF? It used to be that NASA and the Air Force had a strangle-hold on spaceflight. They were the only ones who could do such things. Ugh, this annoys the crap out of me.
 
Yeah, what about the Russia, Europe, China and India, all of whom can do "such things" :-)

Re:Annoying (1)

Migraineman (632203) | more than 6 years ago | (#23391392)

Perhaps I should have clarified that I was referring to US spaceflight. Until recently, it was damned near impossible to take hardware built in the US and launch it on foreign vehicles. ITAR restrictions and all that ... Top that off with Congressional mandates that US programs were to use *only* the Shuttle, and you have a recipe for stagnation.

Re:Annoying (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 6 years ago | (#23394218)

Russia is certainly a worthy country to put into a comparison here, but Europe and China? India?

OK, Europe is considering a manned spaceflight option, and China has been able to duplicate the early Soyuz/Gemini type spaceflights, but I don't consider them to be realistic in terms of practical alternatives at the moment. Certainly not India who is developing technology comparable to SpaceX and some of the private space launching services.

If you relax the standards, you might as well add in Brazil and Dubai. Heck, Indonesia is even a major launcher of spacecraft... even though they contract out with other countries for most of their equipment.

Re:Annoying (1)

perlith (1133671) | more than 6 years ago | (#23389464)

> The US space program is 20-30 years behind where it should be

The US education system is 20-30 years behind where it should be.
The US nuclear power program is 20-30 years behind where it should be.
The US homeland security is 20-30 years behind where it should be.
The US patent system is 20-30 years behind where it should be.
The US healthcare system is 20-30 years behind where it should be.

Made several corrections for you.

Re:Annoying (1)

rujholla (823296) | more than 6 years ago | (#23393736)

I agree with most of your post but I'm curious on the last one -- where should our healthcare system be. I thought we were doing well there with the drugs we are developed and medical techniques that are amazing.

"The industry has grown up," (1)

scorp1us (235526) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386300)

"It used to be that only NASA or the Air Force could do such things."

Yeah, It's not like its rocket science or anything... Or has the challenges changed? Its still primarily a challenge of managing a crap load of propellant.

Its an 18 year old law (2, Informative)

Baldrson (78598) | more than 6 years ago | (#23386346)

PL 101-611, the Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990, has required NASA to do this for the last 18 years.

Tragically there was an obvious direction in place subsequent to the space race (remember the Apollo program?) that would have been followed through to space industrialization had the launch service industry enjoyed the same protection from government competition that the satellite industry enjoyed [presageinc.com] :

* (c) Private enterprise; access; competition

In order to facilitate this development and to provide for the widest possible participation by private enterprise, United States participation in the global system shall be in the form of a private corporation, subject to appropriate governmental regulation. It is the intent of Congress that all authorized users shall have nondiscriminatory access to the system; that maximum competition be maintained in the provision of equipment and services utilized by the system; that the corporation created under this chapter be so organized and operated as to maintain and strengthen competition in the provision of communications services to the public; and that the activities of the corporation created under this chapter and of the persons or companies participating in the ownership of the corporation shall be consistent with the Federal antitrust laws.

It wasn't until 1990, when a coalition of grassroots groups across the country [geocities.com] lobbied hard for 3 years, that similar legislation got passed for launch services.

The fact that the global economic paradigm didn't follow the Club of Rome model exactly doesn't change the reality of the Malthusian paradigm given a fundamentally limited biosphere undergoing its largest extinction event in 60 million years. The Club of Rome merely added academic fashion to the very real urgency of the Malthusian situation still facing the biosphere. The 1970s was the right time to start the drive for space industrialization based on a private launch service industry. It didn't happen, the pioneering culture that founded the US is being replaced by government policy with less pioneering cultures and now we're all facing some increasingly obvious difficulties -- not just pioneer American stock -- and not just humans.

Old News (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23386504)

NASA contracts and awards to small startups is really old news. I don't understand how this could possibly be considered a "U-Turn" on May 12, 2008 when there are at least two departments within NASA soley dedicated to fostering small buisnesses.

And since the destruction of Colombia and the announcement that the shuttles are to be retired it has been common knowledge that NASA will rely on private companies to continue its obligations to the ISS and other current missions during the gap years before it can provide an inhouse alternative.

Rewriting NASA's Charter...? (1)

unfunk (804468) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387058)

As it stands, NASA operates as a wholly government-funded agency, and under its current charter, anything that results from its efforts is a Public Domain free-for-all.

Perhaps they should look at a joint funding scheme such as Australia's CSIRO [wikipedia.org] , where they can patent and profit from their efforts? Just think of how much they could make just off APOD [nasa.gov] prints alone, let alone actual useful stuff!

That called 180 NOT a uturn (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23387090)

Thta a 180. U a is when u turn lefted or righted not when turn ARUND. DUm!

Pretty screwed up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23387820)

"It used to be that only NASA or the Air Force could do such things."
That used to be good. Government controlled agencies seem to be much safer to me than profit-hungry corporations, which can sell potentially fairly destructive "services" pretty much anyone who pays for it. Anything that can result potentially mass-destruction seems to be better controlled by governments. Just because private corporations can do "such things" doesn't mean they should be permitted by law. Just the opposite.

Yay, unaccountable entities with unknown quality.. (1)

sethstorm (512897) | more than 6 years ago | (#23387990)

...in space.

Nothing like bottom-dollar, low quality equipment to cloud the orbits. It didn't do well to cut corners the last time around. This time, the corners being cut are too deep into quality.

When corporations cannot do anything to evade regulation, then we can talk. Handing over the control does not make sense when quality will go out the window. That'll be made painfully clear when some "cost-designed" vessel has a flaw that kills.

Keep it in-house, in-nation as much as possible. That means keeping the globalism up in space.

Our government isn't that incompetent, you just drank too much of Reagan's kool-aid.

Another Sleazy Ripoff Sales Pitch (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 6 years ago | (#23388062)

"The industry has grown up," he tells PM. "It used to be that only NASA or the Air Force could do such things."


NASA and the Air Force still are. Someone show me a private corp with anywhere near the success rate as NASA, even with its private contractors (like Boeing, etc).

How can anyone be surprised or impressed with the Bush regime cheerleading our turning over our space program to private corporations, after deliberately leaving us without new public programs to replace the capacity we developed over the past 4 decades? Now that most of Bush's cronies he's had running the government will be forced to leave government with him and his collapsing Republican Party, of course all our public effort must be replaced with private ones on the public budget.

The only thing that's overdue in this story is demands to privatize the ongoing Star Wars. I expect that will be the last big push as Bush packs his bags to return to Texas, where they've surrounded Houston with private contractors suucking at the public tit, and ex-government employees always welcome.

Letter to the Editors (1)

DynaSoar (714234) | more than 6 years ago | (#23388388)

Dear Popular Mechanics,

Welcome to 1995. That's when the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was placed with NASA. It was formed in 1984, under the Department of Transportation, but you specified NASA's role so we'll go with that. NASA has been reversing its policy of relying solely on BigAero ever since OCST came under their umbrella. Sadly, it was too late and too inbred with the industry to take advantage of the previous efforts to produce more efficient launch systems such as Truax's designs, said efforts being as numerous if not as far developed as the present crop of aerospace start-ups. NASA never completely ignored those efforts -- they must have paid some attention in order to reject them. Rejecting less is the only thing that's changed, and that's been changing in this direction for years. Just because Griffin et al. has talked about it recently doesn't mean it's a recent development. Should you ever want to pretend you're actually doing journalism, consider doing the sort of research journalism requires, which would have produced much the same details I've related. Of course being way behind the time curve doesn't make for headlines and so doesn't sell magazines. Do yourselves and us a favor, and stick to cars, power tools and inventions that never get produced, and leave the things you're not going to bother to understand alone.

Sounds all to much like (1)

wallyhall (665610) | more than 6 years ago | (#23388656)

Deception Point?!

Didn't anybody see "Moonraker?" (1)

MrMonroe (1194387) | more than 6 years ago | (#23390394)

This is obviously a bad idea which will result in the creation of a master race on a hidden space station.

Space ads (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23390426)

Now we can look forward to seeing Starbucks covering the hull of our spaceships.. or even better, WalMart. And when the aliens see us they will say "Take us to your WalMart."

About time, but too late (1)

Fishbulb (32296) | more than 6 years ago | (#23391336)

Too late for the Rotary Rocket Company [wikipedia.org] , dangit.

Dan Brown would be proud (1)

meadowsoft (831583) | more than 6 years ago | (#23393542)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deception_Point [wikipedia.org] It's too bad that they announced this before they had a chance to stick a meteorite in the Arctic.

Risk (1)

Hythlodaeus (411441) | more than 6 years ago | (#23394522)

This is not about being more open to private industry. Things are done and will continue to be done by the large contractors which are not, in fact, government agencies. The little X-prize companies are not anywhere close to putting a beeping metallic sphere, much less a human, into orbit - and by the time they do they will look more like peers among the military-industrial old guard than revolutionary startups.

When you boil this story down to its essence, NASA is just aiming to do with rockets what they're doing with that NASA MMO - if somebody wants to independently bear the cost and risk to build something, NASA will get involved if its good and stand aside at no cost to themselves if the effort fails.

So.. (1)

steelmaverick (936668) | more than 6 years ago | (#23397860)

Does this mean that I'm gonna get to fly to the moon, or am I still gonna have to wait?
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