SpaceFuture.com´s Dr. Patrick
Collins sparks lively discussion in Washington D.C.
by: Rich Robins
February 25th, 2001.
On February 6, 2001, SpaceFuture.com´s own Professor Patrick Collins gave a provocative, reform-oriented conference presentation in Washington D.C. for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration´s Administrator for Space Transportation entitled "The Prospects for Passenger Space Travel". Hundreds of aerospace professionals filled the auditorium where the AST´s 4th annual conference on commercial space transportation took place. As Dr. Collins´ presentation was one of the first of the entire conference, crowd attendance and attentiveness were at their peak. Taking advantage of the captive audience, the U.K.-born Dr. Collins raised issues not normally addressed in the United States regarding its previously relatively unquestioned space program. The key issues raised about NASA´s "underperformance" resonated with nearly everyone, both during the conference and in several cases beyond.
First, Dr. Collins lamented over how cumulative government investment worldwide regarding space had amounted to about US$1 trillion to date, and yet passenger space travel is still not even remotely prevalent. The need for more jobs, resources, and economic growth potentially resulting from space tourism make this a sobering fact, indeed. Why the stagnation? The professor´s explanation was illuminating: "Government space agencies were set up during the Cold War to outdo the Soviet Union in performing 'space missions'. Like many government organizations, space agencies are monopolies. However, unlike most other monopolies they receive only very loose oversight because they don´t supply services to the general public"...other than through television and newspaper articles created by a press which simultaneously depends upon NASA for some timely newsleaks.
Judging from the audience´s favorable reaction, the climax of Dr. Collins´ presentation involved his addressing how these space agency monopolies "tend to follow their own interest - which any economist will tell you is to preserve their monopoly status." He illustrated this point by mentioning how NASA has acted to keep people from being able to visit space without depending directly upon NASA. Without even mentioning the well-known troubles that aspiring space tourist Dennis Tito continues having, Dr. Collins discussed how the U.S.´s monopolistic space agency has not promoted its most economically valuable report which it has ever helped produce in its four-decade history. That report is entitled "General Public Space Travel and Tourism", and its i.d. number is NP-1998-03-11-MSFC. It discusses how space tourism could start at any time and will become the largest business in space, and it gives a list of recommendations to help bring this about. Nevertheless, despite public promises by still current NASA Administrator Dan Goldin to make the tax-supported report available on NASA´s popular website, one still cannot find it there. There is not even a hint of its existence. Why? Might NASA prefer not to encourage the American media, politicians, teachers, voters, and taxpayers to discover that a commercial space tourism industry could surface and cost far less than NASA's $14 billion annual budget? If NASA lost its highly visible space tourism niche, would it be able to continue attracting nearly as much direct (albeit pork-laden) funding that could otherwise go towards financing tax incentives and even guaranteed markets for private industry?
As Dr. Collins suggested, NASA´s hiding such commercial space tourism information conveniently keeps investor interest at bay regarding private ventures. NASA simultaneously succeeds at making space projects look prohibitively expensive. Thus, investors are frightened of commercial ventures not only because of the confusingly high prices but also due to the imprudent nature of competing for seemingly nonlucrative turf against the powerful U.S. federal government. When Dr. Collins implied that the commercial space tourism study´s remaining unavailable on NASA´s popular website suggested that a self-serving cover-up had taken place by the NASA establishment, the amused yet very intrigued response of the audience was literally quite audible.
As Dr. Collins insightfully mentioned, although the FAA´s AST has 1,000 times less funding than NASA even after its budget was recently doubled, the AST will nevertheless lack the disincentive to help make space available to the masses. After all, commercial space tourism does not directly compete with the AST´s activities. It only competes with NASA´s.
The professor eventually discussed how Japan has maintained separate civilian space programs. They collectively operate on merely 12% of NASA´s budget, even as NASA maintains an annual budget that´s larger than all the rest of the world´s civilian space agencies combined. The result for Japan, according to Professor Collins, has been a downward pressure on costs, as both entities compete for funding from Japan´s Congress. Particularly noteworthy is the enhanced incentive to innovate that competition gives its competing civilian space programs. This tends to be the case even when such innovation creates the risk that certain bureaucrats´ jobs could consequently become obsolete.
Based on Professor Collins´ impact on the increasingly stimulated and pensive audience that day, the saying "nobody is a prophet in their own land" comes to mind. After his presentation, it seemed to become increasingly acceptable for others to speak out against the status quo. Indeed the keynote lunch speaker that afternoon, Tim Huddleston of the National Coalition of Spaceport States, went on to take the relatively bold step of criticizing how things are being done with NASA´s human spaceflight program. Subsequently, vocal expressions of disapproval by still others regarding the oppressive status quo continued to grow. Those who might have otherwise tried to defend NASA kept their comments nearly as hidden as their financial relationships with NASA´s current monopoly....
Perhaps it´s not a total coincidence that at an Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel held just two days later (February 8), current NASA Administrator Dan Goldin suddenly expressed anger regarding Johnson Space Center (JSC) and shuttle contractors, saying they are "trying to make sure there's no competition to the shuttle." More significantly, merely two weeks after that (Feb. 23) Goldin removed his personal friend and formerly very powerful ally George Abbey (now the ex-director of Houston´s JSC) from his longtime post of selecting all of the astronauts for Shuttle missions. Curiously enough, Goldin now preaches the need for "major changes" regarding human spaceflight. Whether Goldin can somehow manage to overcome the growing outcry in the aerospace industry for U.S. President George W. Bush to finally bring in a new, more trustworthy leader for NASA remains to be seen.