Capitalism crosses the final frontier

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, September 19 1988

It was extraordinarily prescient of the producers of Star Trek to send Captain Kirk off to the final frontier in a star ship called Enterprise, for it now transpires that when the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, took his small step for mankind in July 1969 he was also making a giant leap for private enterprise.

It used to be so simple, back in the days of innocence in the early 1960s. President Kennedy said he wanted to put a man on the moon. Why? Because it was there and because the Russians might get there first. Just that. So American governments poured their billions into the great adventure, and the United States and all its friends and relations applauded and enjoyed the show.

Since then, the programme has nose-dived into a black hole. Congress has run out of cash, the country has run out of enthusiasm, NASA has run out of ideas and the whole programme has become mired in technical failure, political squabbles, ideological clashes and corruption. If there is a future for the American space programme, it appears to be privatised. Mission control is moving to Wall Street.

Neil Armstrong is not really to blame. A second, equally unforgettable, equally symbolic event in the programme is just as important – the moment when the space shuttle Challenger burst like a gigantic firework in the blue sky over Florida in January 1986.

As the eerie columns of white smoke rose like two devil’s horns over Cape Canaveral, the NASA link man on television looked for a moment and, barely grasping the truth, concluded that there was ‘a major malfunction.’ That euphemism was soon dwarfed not only by the confirmation that all five men and two women on board had been destroyed, but also by the creeping realisation that the great and romantic adventure of American space exploration had been changed for ever.

Next week, according to NASA’s latest plans, the space shuttle Discovery will be hurled from a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in a dauntingly public test of NASA’s efforts to deal with that malfunction.

At one level, it is simply a test of engineering. NASA has spent $3.5 billion making 400 modifications to the shuttle’s design, checking 27 miles of cable, 7,000 electrical connections and 250,000 different sections of wiring. In the search for certainty, the launch date has been delayed four times. Yet even now, the director of the shuttle programme, Rear Admiral Richard Truly, says there may be more delays: “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it took us two or three times to get airborne.”

At a deeper level, the launch involves a cluster of intangible factors like national prestige, self-confidence and patriotism. The United States, more than any other country, has enjoyed a long love affair with technology, a romance which reached new heights with the Gemini and Apollo space programmes in the 1960s. A repeat of the Challenger disaster would be an occasion of sadness for any country, but for Americans it would also be a sickening blow to national morale.

For the space programme itself, the irony is that even if the Discovery mission is a great success, it is probably too late to save the people who will have done most to make it work – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. The shuttle is the symbol of NASA’s demise and of the rise of the new commercialised space race.

The shuttle was conceived, according to former NASA officials, with two aims, neither of them articulated publicly. First, it would preserve manned flights – the human interest factor which would stimulate public support and Congressional funds. Second, it was a stepping stone towards a manned flight to Mars, a trip so expensive that to this day NASA denies that it wants to make it. This denial is described by former White House scientific adviser George Keyworth as ‘lies’.

The public justification for the shuttle was that it would earn money by carrying commercial payloads. But since the first shuttle flight in 1981, the price tag on the shuttle’s cargo bay has soared from $10 million to $245 million while the number of flights planned has been cut back. After the Challenger disaster, President Reagan cancelled all commercial bookings to give priority to the Pentagon’s spy satellites. Now NASA critics complain that the shuttle is inherently fragile and will never provide a reliable service.

NASA has put all its resources into the shuttle and into its even more controversial spin-off – the plan to build a 250-ton space station named Freedom which would be linked to Earth by regular shuttle flights and would study the universe, map the planet and allow scientific experiments to take place in a weightless environment. It would also be a vital test bed for the undeclared plan to fly men to Mars.

But the space station, just like the shuttle, is being attacked as unworkable. Astronomers say the station will vibrate so much that it will be impossible to study the universe; geophysicists say its orbit will make it impossible to map the planet; the National Research Council says there is no great demand for weightless science; and NASA’s own scientific adviser, Lennard Fisk, recently conceded:”I couldn’t justify the space station on the basis of science. I wouldn’t try.” So, what is it for?

The question has become acute since the budget for the station, just like the shuttle before it, has shot up from $8 billion when President Reagan first bought the idea in 1984 to a projected $30 billion now. NASA’s answer, ignoring the unmentionable mission to Mars, is national self-respect, an echo from the old days. But times have changed and, in particular, the debt-ridden US government no longer has money to throw into space.

Perhaps the most poignant sign of NASA’s difficulties in keeping the shuttle and space station programmes alive is that it has been attacked with passion by President Kennedy’s nephew, Representative Joseph Kennedy, who believes his uncle would not have wanted to pursue his dream of space exploration at the expense of, for example, low-income housing. “No-one who stood for that grand and noble dream ever thought it would be financed at the expense of the very poorest and most vulnerable people here on Earth,” he says.

The doubts about NASA’s technical expertise, its real goals and its claim on public money have all been aggravated by worrying reports from NASA’s inspector general who speaks of huge rip-offs by NASA contractors ($90 components sold to NASA for $987, for example), of bribes to middlemen and missing millions and cosy deals where NASA officials retire to work for the same contractors whose rip-offs they failed to report.

President Reagan’s White House has taken advantage of this uncertainty to shift the whole programme out of the hair of the federal government and into the hands of private entrepreneurs. This was most clearly signalled two years ago, when the Deputy Secretary of Commerce, Clarence Brown complained:”The national space programme has been conducted in a way that has effectively thwarted entrepreneurial capitalism and replaced it with a government monopoly.”

Since then, Reagan has ordered government agencies to use commercial rockets instead of NASA’s and to stop designing their own space craft; he has set up an office in the Department of Transportation which issues licences for private space flights; and he has offered private companies limited liability in the event of disasters, such as private rockets crashing on cities. He also ear-marked a $700 million grant for a private company to build its own small space station.

Next month, a Florida businessman, Bob Davis, his wife, Betty, and their 25 staff hope to see their company’s 14-foot rocket open the new era by taking off from an old airfield near their home and soaring over the Atlantic Ocean before dropping the results of scientific tests into the sea on a parachute.

In its wake, twenty more licences have been issued for private rockets. The government is offering, research grants, operating grants and deferred payments for using their launch pads. Florida and Hawaii are planning to build space ports to service private rockets. Florida is also planning to build a moonscape for testing lunar vehicles

Both Presidential candidates appear to favour the privatisation. The White House policy was shaped by James Baker, former Treasury Secretary and now George Bush’s campaign chief; and Florida’s plans are the work of Bush’s son, Jeb, the state’s Commerce Secretary. Dukakis has said he wants to cancel the space station, and although he was forced to eat his words for fear of losing votes in Alabama where the station is being built, his commitment to the project is unlikely to outlast the election.

NASA is fighting back. Its former general manager, Philip Cuthbertson, recently called officials who favour the privatisation of space ‘ideological zealots’. NASA has cleverly tied Canadian, Japanese and European funds into the space station so that its cancellation will cause trouble outside Washinton, and NASA showed that it still has lobbying muscle on Capitol Hill when it persuaded Congress to block the $700 million that the President wanted to spend on the private space station.

It has also received a public pat on the back from the National Space Society, a group of 1960s space romantics who have paid for newspaper advertisements extolling the virtues of NASA. The signatories to these advertisements include Bob Hope, Barry Goldwater and Gene Roddenberry, the far-sighted producer of Star Trek.