~ Archive for November 18, 2003 ~

Should NASA send government employees into space?


On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin ushered in an era of government-operated manned space flight.  In the intervening 42 years we’ve seen the following:

  • several accidents in which NASA flight accidents have killed off government employees who had become public heroes, a popular schoolteacher, etc., causing widespread international grief (plus a bit of euphoria in the Palestinian world after the crash of the Columbia)
  • an inability by NASA to take the risk or massive expense out of manned space flights
  • improvements in technology have led to various private groups (see http://www.xprize.org/) deciding that personal space travel has become practical

Perhaps it is time to ask the question “Why should NASA operate manned space flights?”  I.e., is sending a human into space an inherently governmental function?

In some ways it would appear that the U.S. government must be involved.   No private individual or company can afford to set up a worldwide tracking and communications network.  No private individual or company can afford to invest in fundamental research and development on new kinds of jet and rocket motors.

Yet the same arguments could be made for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  It makes sense to have the government fund infrastructure that facilitates flight.  The FAA pays weather briefers and air traffic controllers.  The FAA funds airport design, construction, and maintenance.  The FAA researches instrument approaches to airports and publishers procedures that it believes to be safe.  The FAA certifies airplanes, pilots, and airlines.

But the FAA doesn’t buy the planes or have its employees fly them.

When the U.S. government goes flying it is extremely risk-averse.  Army helicopter pilots train in expensive Bell Jet Ranger turbine-powered helicopters ($600/hour).  The Black Hawk helicopters have airbags to lessen injuries to occupants in the event of a crash.  The Feds look at a piston-powered Robinson R22 ($150/hour; the standard private sector trainer) or a homebuilt helicopter with horror.  They’d never want to be responsible for an 18-year-old Army kid going into one of those death machines.  Roughly half of the crashes of homebuilt airplanes supposedly occur on the very first flight.  The FAA is well aware of the dismal statistics but they’re happy to check your work, give you an Experimental certificate for your new kitplane, and wish you good luck.

Conclusion:  there are plenty of activities that the Federal government facilitates but considers too risky to undertake.  They don’t want a Federal employee doing it but if Irving Goldberg, a divorced retired dermatologist, wants to do it they will actually facilitate his risk-taking.

Why not do space travel the same way?  NASA can fund all of the infrastructure, do research, sell rockets cheap, and then shake the hand of any adventurous folks who want to head up beyond the Wild Blue Yonder.  In the small airplane world we have Angel Flight in which private pilots volunteer their time and airplanes to transport medical patients and their families, to the tune of approximately 15,000 missions per year.  Similarly in the private space travel world the government could ask these adventurers “Say, as long as you’re going up into space, would you mind conducting this experiment for us?”

It was a national tragedy when Christa McAuliffe died on the Challenger.  It is only a minor local news event when an adventurous soul crashes his or her small aircraft.

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