X-33: How the Central Planners at NASA Wasted Another Billion Tax Dollars
The X-33 has finally been laid to rest after $1.33 billion tax dollars have already been wasted on that purported replacement for the Space Shuttle. Not even the Air Force will sponsor it, as this article states. Why such wastefulness? For NASA´s version of what happened, feel free to click here. To hear another side of the story, though, please read what's below.
An artist's depiction of the X-33
The X-33 was supposed to replace the aging space shuttle. The Space Shuttle costs somewhere around $600 million dollars per launch, which is 30 times more than costs which are associated with the comparatively safer Russian Soyuz rocket that took Dennis Tito and a crew of two other cosmonauts to the lone remaining international space station back in April of 2001. Peculiarities emerged from how NASA handled the X-33 program, such as its controversially having awarded the entire contract to one lone provider (Lockheed Martin) back in 1996, here in a country where competition usually is the chosen path. The X-33 also involved a lot of unproven, "high risk" technologies that predictably did not yield worthwhile dividends. It was almost as if decision-makers did not want the X-33 to succeed and thereby bring down the cost of launching from the $10,000 per pound that taxpayers pay to launch people on the Space Shuttle. "Coincidentally" Lockheed Martin also operates the Space Shuttle (through its United Space Alliance joint venture with Boeing).
It is worth noting that aerospace companies' government contracting profits are presently still based on a "cost plus" system. In other words, government contractors are compensated for the costs of what they produce for the government, and they also receive an additional percentage of the gross sales price. This percentage gives them something resembling what's known as a "profit" in far more capitalistic systems. The higher the costs, the bigger the "profits".
The implications of this are not favorable for the aerospace industry, though. If there is a relatively nonincreasing demand for launch services by the U.S. government, and the more entrepreneurial commercial launch companies can't even get a launch permit from the FAA's AST for use in trying to create new markets for cheaper space access, then where is the incentive for the three U.S. launch companies that actually have launch permits to act in ways that would bring launch costs down? By the way, those companies are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Orbital Sciences. Meanwhile, if you were a bureaucrat seeking a job in the private sector, would you not be inclined to "look the other way" when abuse of taxpayers is taking place by any of the three licensed U.S. launch companies that could someday hire you? Would you not be inclined to ignore efficiency-promoting alternatives such as the awarding of competitive prizes for any launch company that can bring down the high costs of launching that is currently still charged by U.S. companies?
Should it come as a surprise that the U.S.A.'s world launch marketshare has declined from around 100% during the mid-1980's to about 27% during the year 2000? The U.S. Department of Commerce has documented this alarming downward trend, in fact. Nevertheless, the three licensed U.S. launch companies continue to have substantial lobbying machines. "Coincidentally" reforms needed in order to make space more economically accessible are predictably slow to materialize. Is it a surprise that humanity's initial space tourists (Dennis Tito & Mark Shuttleworth) selected Russian launch service providers, even though one would think that the U.S.A. would be teaching the formerly socialist Russians about capitalism in space?
For more details regarding the technically very risky technologies that NASA and Lockheed "conveniently" incorporated into the predictably abandoned X-33, one can visit the following CNN Article entitled "NASA's billion-dollar shuttle replacement may never fly" (September 25, 2000). Some of the more interesting excerpts from that CNN article regarding the X-33 fiasco include what's below, although the italicized insertion at the beginning is our own:
In the beginning, the X-33 was a high-profile project. [A meddlesome, micro-managing, and political favor-seeking] Vice President Al Gore unveiled it in 1996 during a ceremony at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "This is the craft that can carry America's dreams aloft and launch our nation into a sparkling new century," Gore declared as he and NASA administrator Dan Goldin lifted a box to reveal a model of the wedge-shaped spaceship.
Critics say the craft's futuristic design is at the heart of the problem. NASA could have chosen to build a space shuttle replacement by developing proven technologies, but instead chose the high-risk path of trying to build something almost entirely new. When NASA first asked for proposals to build a replacement for the space shuttle, three aerospace companies applied to work with the space agency on the project. "We evaluated all three proposals and Lockheed Martin was the clear winner," NASA Program Manager Gene Austin says.
Critics wonder how that could be. Even four years ago, they say, it was apparent that the technological hurdles facing Lockheed Martin's Buck Rogers design would be difficult to clear. The design required development of linear aerospike rocket engines, which have never been used in flight. It required the development of a wingless "lifting body" airframe that could keep the vehicle flying smoothly both during launch and as it returned to Earth. Most challenging of all, it required oddly shaped, composite fuel tanks that could withstand the pressures of a space launch while filled with pressurized liquid hydrogen at a temperature of 423 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
"NASA did not take the low-risk path. They chose the high-risk, high-payoff approach," Dave Urie, the engineer who designed the spacecraft, said during a 1997 speech. "It was in my view a mistake to abandon well-known and well-tested technology," says Urie, who retired from Lockheed Martin in 1996, in part because he was disgusted at changes in his design. "I guess they got what they deserved," he says.
article concludes by saying that former House Space Subcommittee
congressional staffer Tim Kyger predicted long before the program's termination
that "[n]ot a thing will be said about [the X-33] by NASA until after
the  election." Then "[i]t will be quietly put to sleep."
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
*Is it wi$e to maintain NASA´s official government agency monopoly?
*NASA´s annual budget is a little over 3 times larger than the NSF´s, but NASA engages in nearly 9 times as much pork barrel spending. For details, please click here.
NASA been stifling commercial space ventures that could otherwise outperform
*Which proposed legal reforms could help taxpayers remedy the NASA problem in our democracy and replace most if not all of it with private alternatives?