Competition: An Innovative Cure for
OpEd published in Space News
(weekly printed edition´s date: September 25th, 2000, page 20)
The Microsoft antitrust litigation, as well as the consumer benefits resulting from AT&T´s break-up, have substantially raised public awareness about the negative impact that monopolies can have on society. Many people who know much about NASA distrust it as well. Unfortunately NA$A's annual budget allocation process is consequently unpredictable. It seems NASA would benefit from having publicly funded competition, resembling what the Japanese government's previously divided civilian space agencies were like for several decades (and with a combined total of just 12% of NASA´s budget, too). Such a decentralization of power would benefit taxpayers, the private sector and Congress.
NASA has a larger budget than nearly all of the world's civilian space agencies, combined (according to: www.euroconsult-ec.com). It also has one of the U.S. federal government's biggest procurement budgets. Robustly financing space endeavors is desirable but considering our record high $6.4 trillion dollar national debt, spending the money efficiently is crucial. Are we really doing enough to remedy examples of waste such as the exorbitant NASA space station cost overruns, the X-33 shuttle replacement billion dollar fiasco, the latest space shuttle disaster, the various Mars mission failures, the United States' substantial loss of launch marketshare throughout the world, and the spectacle of various technologically challenged U.S. satellite companies that are struggling to avoid bankruptcy? Meanwhile, the price of sending U.S. astronauts into space has gone nowhere but up over the past several decades even as it has gone down abroad (unlike foreign success rates).
Publicly funded competition could reinvent government. Currently, aspiring reformers inside NASA cannot point to more cost-effective civilian competition when trying to justify reform from within. Consequently, those who propose unpopular but necessary reforms have a needlessly more difficult time justifying them and can consequently get marginalized or even replaced. Meanwhile, NASA cannot yet point to competition when trying to justify telling Congress that pork-laden projects which some representatives occasionally pressure NASA to adopt would actually competitively doom it. Additionally, potential critics of the status quo are often afraid to publicly express their criticisms, either out of fear for our space program´s funding levels, or their own careers. Frankly, with such lavish NASA grant awards and other endorsements potentially at stake, what incentives do established academics in the space realm have to criticize our presently monopolistic civilian space program´s contracting, scientific investigation, and "self-policing" practices? Worsening matters, there are presently only half a dozen engineers and scientists serving as federal Congressional representatives to try and police NASA for us. Without a competitor by which to gauge performance, they can only guess at the veracity and appropriateness of claims coming from smooth-talking NASA officials, who are occasionally even pressured not to be as truthful or as candid as they might prefer to be.
What if the National Science Foundation got to directly and substantially compete with NASA, though? (As other examples there are also the Department of Defense (such as the Air Force or DARPA); the FAA´s AST; and the NIH, etcetera.) The National Science Foundation has no research facilities of its own, and it conditions grant-awards on successful completion of a peer review process involving experts from academia, industry and the government. If the National Science Foundation (for example) got more funding allocated for its space endeavors along with the authorization to directly compete against NASA, it could utilize NASA centers as long as doing so withstands peer review scrutiny. This could boost NASA's public image, as people would be more likely to believe that whatever remains of NASA is not merely a product of executive or legislative pork-barreling, stacked evaluation boards, and bureaucratic inertia.
NASA's $13.6 billion annual budget dwarfs the $170 million budget for the National Science Foundation's space-related projects (which are presently focused merely on ground-based astronomy). The NSF therefore has to reject close to 75% of the space-related research proposals it receives. The Congressional Appropriations subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies decides how much money it will allocate to both NASA and the National Science Foundation. Why not boost the NSF's space budget and, more significantly, broaden the scope of space activities for which future NSF money is earmarked? The NSF could already compete regarding funding nanotechnology research, space plasma investigations (related to nuclear fusion, for example), and microgravity studies. Does it really make sense to maintain the presently large budget discrepancy?
This proposed reform would probably trim the size of government bureaucracy. The National Science Foundation's lack of research facilities would probably boost the demand for ones in the private sector. Indeed, such sites would consequently appeal more to investors, especially if they did not have to endure the stigma of competing against tax-supported NASA without the overall federal government´s blessing. Similarly, academics could perform many tasks that less-inspired NASA bureaucrats currently do. Academics are presumably fairly reliable too, considering how even NASA already empowers them to head official space projects (while simultaneously asking for their endorsement of more questionable, unrelated NASA activities...).
Because the National Science Foundation lacks any substantial space infrastructure, it has no inherent conflict of interest that would prevent it from outsourcing to contractors whenever possible. The more efficiently the NSF would outsource to the private sector, the greater its cost effectiveness and ability to increase funding from Congress. Success would be rewarded more than flashy presentations and dubious claims made in Congressional hearings each fiscal year.
It is inspirational to think of the implications of such a potential change. We could finally see the emergence of more guaranteed markets whereby the government merely offers the prize and stands aside. What self-respecting company would not rejoice at foreseeable National Science Foundation funding innovations? Meanwhile, such an inherently outsourcing entity would have far fewer reservations about endorsing free market-supporting reforms regarding space, such as tax incentives. Indeed, it would probably endorse them however it is permitted to do so...
If the National Science Foundation got more involved with space, we could see an unprecedented race involving each U.S. space program´s striving to lower taxpayers' bills more than the other, while making the most of the increasing array of goods and services offered by the private sector. Are competing public approaches not justifiable for something as vast and potentially valuable as post-Cold War space? U.S. citizens live in a democracy and deserve to see this interagency competition issue adequately debated. Should we settle for the status quo, or shall we reinvent government?.
(The author is an attorney who once served at NASA
headquarters as a small business utilization specialist.)
For a list of additional relevant arguments justifying the interagency
competition model, please click
Author´s note: According to a posting at http://www.ad-astra.net/cgi-bin/BBS/SpacePolicy/read/26481 , DARPA (a NASA competitor) is getting a very substantial funding boost for space-related research. Another source tells us that Ron Sega will be increasingly involved with DARPA's space endeavors now, and that he was one of those who helped bring about the DC-X reusable launch vehicle which terrified lazy and overpaid NASA bureaucrats and their corrupted contractor allies.
The National Science Foundation is now on track to have its budget doubled by the year 2007, according to this article. This is highly significant, considering how back in October of 2000 when Congress increased the National Science Foundation's budget by 13.6%, the NSF Director Rita Colwell said that the boost "represented the largest dollar increase the Foundation had ever received, in real or constant dollars." At the same time, NASA´s academic program funding was reduced in comparison to the previous year´s.
The Space Access Society, & ProSpace have formally endorsed the interagency competition model. Additionally, other organizations privately do. Interestingly enough, hundreds of aerospace professionals were intrigued when Dr. Patrick Collins came to Washington DC from Japan in order to give a highly relevant presentation to those attending the FAA´s AST´s annual conference on commercial space transportation in February of 2001. He pointed out some of the pitfalls of maintaining NASA´s monopoly, and any dissenters must have been hiding that day... Who will be next to take a stand for positive reform?
Gradually NASA´s virtual
monopoly over academic space funding erodes. Academics will consequently
get to criticize NASA´s way of doing business with less fear of losing
space-related $upport, because there will be alternative sources of it such
as the NSF as well as perhaps the National Institute of Health and
other federal agencies.
Such agencies could offer $20 million dollar "launch vouchers", for
instance, and save taxpayers hundreds of million$ in comparison to what each
individual Space Shuttle launch costs (approximately $600 million).
People at NASA know that the private sector is far more economical, and competing
agencies would have the incentive to finally help companies prove it.
Why should we really care? In response, we could probably repay our record high $6.4 trillion dollar national debt with the benefits resulting from colonization efforts on the Moon and Mars (for instance). Such breakthroughs would
pertain to energy production, the biotech sector, robotics, mining, chemistry, telemedicine, and the inspiring of students to eagerly embrace math & science like they did during the 1960´s when folks like Bill Gates & Steve Jobs initially fell in
love with such subjects. We could even learn to view others as fellow Earthlings, not enemies. "Baby boomers" will retire in droves by 2010, though, and we do not have much time left to fix the stagnating status quo...
Please feel free to pass this article´s web address or contents on to whomever you like. We do supposedly live in a democracy... ).
Legal and governmental reforms needed to help jumpstart the space industry...
With the existence of interagency competition, whenever NASA´s leadership "behaves counter-productively", at least we´d no longer have all of our eggs in just one basket...
selected brief excerpts from President Eisenhower´s Farewell Address...