Does NASA Need a Goal?

At the Augustine Committee Meeting in Washington DC on Wednesday Dr. Robert Zubrin talked about the two NASA operating modes, with and without a goal. Suggesting that without a goal NASA will not make real progress. What is your opinion?

Over the course of its history, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first, prevailed during the period from 1961-1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Shuttle Era Mode, or Shuttle Mode, for short.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human spaceflight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve this objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement that plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Shuttle Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination driven, while the Shuttle Mode pretends to be technology driven, but is actually constituency driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission directed reasons. In the Shuttle Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical community pressure groups and then defended using rationales. In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Shuttle Mode, NASA’s efforts are random and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriative materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple polls their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the knick-knacks they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Shuttle Mode.

In today’s dollars, NASA average budget from 1961-1973 was about $17 billion per year. This is only 10% more than NASA’s current budget. To assess the comparative productivity of the Apollo Mode with the Shuttle Mode, it is therefore useful to compare NASA’s accomplishments between 1961-1973 and 1990-2003, as the space agency’s total expenditures over these two periods were equal.

Between 1961 and 1973, NASA flew the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner missions, and did all the development for the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager missions as well. In addition, the space agency developed hydrogen oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy-lift launch vehicles, nuclear rocket engines, space nuclear reactors, radioisotope power generators, spacesuits, in-space life support systems, orbital rendezvous techniques, soft landing rocket technologies, interplanetary navigation technology, deep space data transmission techniques, reentry technology, and more. In addition, such valuable institutional infrastructure as the Cape Canaveral launch complex, the Deep Space tracking network, Johnson Space Center, and JPL were all created in more or less their current form.

In contrast, during the period from 1990-2003, NASA flew about three score Shuttle missions allowing it to launch and repair the Hubble Space Telescope and partially build a space station. About half a dozen interplanetary probes were launched (compared to over 30 lunar and planetary probes between 1961-73). Despite innumerable “technology development” programs, no new technologies of any significance were actually developed, and no major space program operational infrastructure was created.

Comparing these two records, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that that NASA’s productivity in both missions accomplished and technology development during its Apollo Mode was at least ten times greater than under the current Shuttle Mode. The Shuttle Mode is the expenditure of large sums of money without direction by strategic purpose. That is why it is hopelessly inefficient.

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