Why NASA Is Stagnant
If we could put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put a man on the Moon?
“We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . . This is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us . . . But space is there and we are going to climb it.”
— John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962
Today is the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. As the nation celebrates that great achievement, there is also reason for solemn reflection. For while NASA was able to put men on the Moon within eight years of the Apollo program’s start, the space agency has been unable to go further in the four and a half decades since. In fact, it is no longer capable of going to the Moon and, as these lines are written, is totally adrift, with no real plan for going anywhere.
If we are to remedy the space agency’s current impotence, we need to look at its history. Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.
In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.
The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.
Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.
Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.
It is sometimes claimed that the reason for NASA’s Apollo-era success is that the agency was much better funded at that time. That is simply untrue. The agency did receive a larger share of the GDP then than it does now, but that is because 1960s America was much poorer. The actual inflation-adjusted space-agency funding was virtually the same then as now. In today’s dollars, NASA’s average budget from 1961 to 1973 was about $20 billion per year. This is only 18 percent more than NASA’s current budget. To assess the comparative productivity of the Apollo Mode and the Random Mode, it is therefore useful to compare NASA’s accomplishments between 1961 and 1973 and between 2000 and 2014, as the space agency’s total expenditures over these two periods were equal.
Between 1961 and 1973, NASA flew the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner missions, and did all the development for the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager missions as well. In addition, the space agency developed hydrogen–oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy-lift launch vehicles, nuclear rocket engines, space nuclear reactors, radioisotope power generators, spacesuits, in-space life-support systems, orbital rendezvous techniques, soft-landing rocket technologies, interplanetary navigation technology, deep-space data-transmission techniques, reentry technology, and more. In addition, the Cape Canaveral launch complex, the Deep Space Network, the Johnson Space Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other valuable institutional infrastructure were all created in more or less their current form.