Private enterprise could meet space objectives

The recently released Columbia accident report describes how, since the 1980s, nearly $5 billion – practically the cost of the original shuttle fleet – has been wasted on efforts to build a shuttle replacement, says Robert Zimmerman.

Those failures make a strong case for returning to private enterprise. In the 1960s, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) laid out general specifications for competing private companies, which quickly and cheaply produce new rockets, capsules and lunar landers. But once the moon race was over, NASA started building an ever-growing bureaucracy.

Since then, its efforts have come to naught:

  • After spending $1.7 billion, and building nothing, the hypersonic National Aerospace Plane programme proposed by President Reagan in 1986 was cancelled in 1992.

  • The X-33 single-stage-to-orbit re-usable spacecraft was announced with much fanfare by Vice President Al Gore on July 4, 1996 – but after five years and $1.2 billion, it was cancelled when cracks were found in its experimental fuel tanks.

  • During the same period, NASA pursued the X-34, a smaller two-stage reusable rocket launched from the belly of a L-1011 jet, and the X-38, a re-usable lifeboat for the International Space Station – but after four years and more than $1 billion, both were scrubbed.

  • From 2000 to 2002, NASA spent $800 million drawing blueprints for a plethora of proposed shuttle replacements under the Space Launch Initiative – then scrapped it.

    NASA's next project is the Orbital Space Plane. Proposed two months before the loss of Columbia, this manned re-usable vehicle mounted on an expendable rocket was initially expected to cost about $4 billion and to be completed by 2012.

    After Columbia, NASA offered to hasten construction, and is prepared to spend as much as $14 billion to complete it by 2008.

    Source: Robert Zimmerman, Say no to NASA, yes to private companies, USA Today, September 24, 2003.

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