Next Wednesday, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the $15 billion per year space agency's operations, is introducing a bill to set up a new national space commission. The commission's mandate will be to look over NASA's shoulder and prod it in the direction of fixing what critics have called its "broken safety culture," after the catastrophic loss of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1.
It is by no means clear the Hollings bill will pass. Its six sponsors all are Democrats and NASA always has opposed -- often fiercely -- any such outside monitoring or oversight of its operations. There is no doubt, however, the long-fabled U.S. space agency remains in dire shape.
Despite its $15 billion operating budget, its manned space program remains in shambles. Nine months after the Columbia incinerated its seven astronauts in a ball of fire over Palestine, Texas, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe still has not established a timetable for when the three remaining shuttles will fly again. He has pledged a sweeping new strategy for the agency, including proposing a replacement vehicle for the shuttle, but he has given no hint of when that plan will be delivered.
NASA's problems go far, far deeper than the expensive woes of its now inert manned space program. Critics charge the revered agency long has been a gigantic socialized bureaucracy that has failed repeatedly at what it was given multiple billions of dollars to do.
Ironic, but President George W. Bush has remained an uncritical, instinctive protector of NASA, maintaining policies that are classic examples of big-government, big-spending, pork-barrel waste.
After the Columbia disaster, Bush pledged to boost NASA's budget by at least a half-billion dollars a year so the unscientific, uneconomic programs it had long imposed upon its clients could continue unabated. Thus the president has been throwing good money after bad, for even before Columbia disintegrated the costs of the shuttle program had proven truly catastrophic.
To date, 14 astronauts have died in the spacecraft. The program has cost a quarter-trillion dollars over 25 years. Yet U.S. capabilities in space remain only a fraction of what they were a decade before the first shuttle mission was ever launched. In 2003, the United States possesses vastly inferior manned space capabilities than it did during the Skylab station program in the mid-1970s, or even when it first sent three astronauts around the moon and returned them safely to Earth, on Apollo 8, some 35 years ago in December 1968.
The shuttle is dangerous, expensive, non-economic, militarily useless and loathed by scientists -- all for very good reasons. Nevertheless, like any Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter-era, Great Society bureaucracy or any Soviet command-economy, Gosplan state enterprise, NASA continues to purge any vestige of economic or scientific rationality or practical effectiveness from the space program.
Indeed, agency critics long have argued no organization has done more to keep America out of space for the past 30 years than NASA has, and no program has been more decisive in achieving that end than the space shuttle.
The shuttle fleet is down from five spacecraft 20 years ago to only three now -- the other two both destroyed in catastrophic accidents costing the lives of all on board. The shuttle's 14 lost lives are more than all the other U.S. and Soviet/Russian spacecraft fatalities combined since manned space travel began with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, more than 42 years ago. By contrast, the clunky old Soviet/Russian space program has not lost a life in space in more than a quarter of a century.
The remaining shuttles each are now at least 20 years old. Gregg Easterbrook, who predicted disaster for the shuttle program in an article in The Washington Monthly just months before Columbia's first flight in April 1981, tellingly noted on Time.com after the disaster that Americans insist on school buses being replaced every decade. Yet NASA and its congressional supporters seriously think the remaining shuttles can be operated safely and reliably for another 20 years -- making 40 years in all of wear and tear at multiple gravitational force take-offs and atmospheric re-entries at 20 times or so the speed of sound and six to nine times the speed of a fired bullet.
So far, no one in Congress -- Republican or Democrat alike -- has dared to take on NASA's mighty interest groups, including the huge aerospace corporations with which it has enjoyed a 40-year cozy relationship. Likewise, no one in Congress has dared to suggest the vast government agency be privatized. The most they have ventured is to propose legislation requiring NASA to develop new reusable spaceships, or longer-range manned ones, or to create yet more bureaucratic oversight bodies to oversee an agency that has long drowned in its own expensive and time-consuming paperwork.
NASA bureaucrats have decades-long experience, however, at frustrating any efforts to make them change their ways, or to be more bold or supportive to manned space exploration. Their corporate culture, greatly shaped by the late Carl Sagan, has long been skewed against precisely that.
NASA shows no signs of any urgency or haste in developing the necessary next generation of reliable and cost-effective Big Dumb Booster workhorse rockets, capable of carrying manned spacecraft to keep up with the rapidly evolving Chinese manned space program. If current trends continue, China will be able to orbit the moon 250,000 miles away with three taikonauts, displaying its own astronauts to celebrate the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet by then NASA might even lack the capability to put U.S. astronauts into low Earth orbit at all -- a mere 200 miles up.
NASA was a product of America's 1960s Big Government, welfare society liberalism and it has survived even after the catastrophic welfare system of that era was finally reformed. Now, it looks set to survive for many years into 21st century America, aided by an incurious, reflexively supportive president and a timid Congress beholden to special interest groups in a bipartisan consensus.
Despite Sen. Holling's efforts, no change need be expected.