A Note from Newt Gingritch about Space

I'd been planning on running some columns about the different candidate's ideas concerning space.  I had already done one about what Newt Gingrich really said.  Now, you can see his follow-up in his own words:

In the past 10 years – since the Columbia tragedy led President Bush to retire the Space Shuttle, we have spent almost $150 billion on NASA and the civilian space program. We have spent additional money on defense aspects of the space program. Yet the United States currently has no way to launch a human being into space, other than buying seats from Russia.

NASA has accomplished some difficult things in its history, but spending $150 billion on the space program without developing a rocket and spacecraft to launch astronauts into space is near the top of the list.

For Americans who lived through the heroic era of early exploration in space and getting to the moon, it is hard to believe that in 2012 we are once again stranded on the Earth's surface.

NASA has reached this point by achieving a perverse breakthrough: the bureaucratization of space. The modern NASA is so risk averse, and so heavily burdened with safety processes, management, political meddling, and institutional inertia that it takes decades for new programs to get off the ground.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The time from Glenn's Mercury 6 mission in February 1962 to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in July 1969 was seven years and five months, to the day.

In that period we figured out how to perform frequent launches, keep humans alive in space for weeks, conduct space walks, rendezvous and dock two spacecraft in orbit, travel to the moon, land on it, walk around there, launch back off, and return to Earth. Each of these achievements presented innumerable challenges. Yet from launching one person to landing on the moon took less than seven and a half years.

The Shuttle program lasted 30 years, not counting the decade it was being developed.  And after 30 years, we are reduced to buying seats for American astronauts on a class of Russian spacecraft first launched 45 years ago, in 1967.

Even if rocket scientists and astro-physicists do view time scales a little differently than most people, it would be desirable for the human space program to make some significant advances over the span of their entire careers.

The men and women who went to work at NASA after having been inspired by our bold space achievements during their youth or by dreams of a spacefaring future cannot be satisfied with what our space program has become. The elected officials who direct them should not be either. And the American people should be dissatisfied with both.

The way forward for the U.S. in space should be rooted in our entrepreneurial values and our spirit of adventure. We must open space to the private sector, allowing free citizens take risks--both financial and physical--in pursuit of our aims on this frontier.

The model for rapid progress at low cost can come straight from the history of aviation. In its infancy, aviation advanced by a series of monetary prizes set for particular feats. Starting in 1906, the U.K.'s Daily Mail offered rewards for the first people to achieve various milestones, including a non-stop flight between London and Manchester and flying across the English channel. In the U.S., William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000 in 1910 for the first person to fly from coast to coast in 30 days. Most famously, Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 in 1919 for the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. It took eight years, but Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize in 1927.

These competitions were far more dangerous than many today might imagine. In the 1927 Dole Air Race from California to Hawaii, only two of more than 15 entrant planes made it to Hawaii. But the pilots took such risks eagerly and freely, and in doing so made enormous strides in advancing and popularizing aviation.

A prize system similar to that of the early 20th century, aimed at enticing private companies to pursue our goals in space, would be a far more effective and exciting approach for the United States, and it would better reflect our values than does a massive bureaucracy incompetently managed by Congress and appointed bureaucrats. 

The privately funded X-Prize Foundation conducted such an experiment in recent years, offering a comparatively small $10 million prize for a two manned suborbital flights in a reusable spacecraft within two weeks. It drew more than two dozen competitors, and the prize was awarded in 2004.

If, instead of spending almost $20 billion each year and getting nothing new in terms of human spaceflight, Congress set aside a large sum for prizes--say 10 percent of NASA's budget, or $18 billion over a decade--we could save hundreds of billions and still get better results. We could dramatically reduce the size of NASA and refocus its mission on breakthroughs in science and technology, rather than developing or operating basic launch vehicles and spacecraft. 

After I discussed the prize concept with Robert Zubrin in the 1990s, he estimated in his book The Case for Mars that if Congress posted “a $20 billion reward to be given to the first private organization to successfully land a crew on Mars and return them to Earth, as well as several prizes of a few billion dollars each for various milestone technical accomplishments along the way,” it would draw numerous competitors. The actual mission, he estimates, could cost as little as $4 billion, leaving the winner with a $16 billion profit and the taxpayers with a system that gets to Mars thereafter for a fraction of NASA's annual budget.

Prizes have several huge advantages, which Zubrin also points out:

  • We don't pay anything unless and until we actually get results--and we never pay more than the prize amount. If no one offers a system of  launch vehicles and spacecraft that meet the prize specifications, it doesn't cost anything. And cost overruns are impossible even if there is a winner. After spending $150 billion on NASA for no current manned capability, this is quite a virtue.
  • It would result in systems radically cheaper than those NASA has produced. NASA contractors are paid on a cost-plus basis, meaning whatever they spend “plus” a markup. This gives them a disincentive to save money. In a prize system, a company has to raise or borrow every dollar a company it spends, and then decreases their ultimate profit.
  • Many competitors will spend money investing in technology and developing new solutions, but won't win the prize. And they spend all the money before the taxpayers ever have to pay anything.
  • Competition breeds better, more diverse results. While NASA projects typically result in only one working design, a single prize incentive could produce several viable designs that make it to the flight stage--each will have different merits.  Awarding runner-up prizes further stokes the competition. 
The golden age of the space program is a piece of our history that makes all Americans feel proud. But today's non-manned interim program discredits that history and disappoints its employees and supporters. It's obvious that the bureaucratic model is failing, and failing expensively. With a prize-based, entrepreneurial approach, we can recapture the spirit of adventure and again be the envy of the world in space.
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