Introduction to The Economics of Space Exploration
Gregory F. Rehmke
Good public policy analysis requires perspective. Research on space exploration should include more than today’s facts, policies, and proposals. Further readings in the political and technological history of the space age provides the perspective needed to judge various space policy proposals and options. Students who combine this historical background with insights provided by basic economics will have a powerful advantage in debates on space exploration policy.
There is an easy way to begin this broader research. As easy as [Netflix or your DVD player], in fact. You can watch The Right Stuff, the upbeat movie based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book. The Right Stuff tells the history of the space age from test pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier through the Mercury
astronauts blasting into space. The movie is a catchy chronicle of the beginnings of America’s manned space program but the book is even better, offering a richer more detailed account. Also recommended is Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox (Simon & Schuster. 1989), which tells of the Apollo program’s challenges and accomplishments. The articles and studies reprinted in The Economics of Space Exploration were selected to provide relevant historical, economic, political, and legal perspectives on space exploration. Students researching space exploration should soak up the technological, economic, and political issues surrounding the topic. The studies and articles that follow are often critical of NASA’s long-term management of U.S. space exploration. Though many economists see a role for government in promoting pure research, far fewer have confidence in the ability of centralized government agencies to manage enterprises that are commercial in character, such as Amtrak (the national train service), the U.S. Post Office (the national postal system), the FSLIC (the now-bankrupt national deposit insurance system for Savings & Loans), or the Space Shuttle (the national space transportation system).
Molly Macauley, a space economist for Resources for the Future, notes that the Space Shuttle soaked up over 60 percent of the total civilian space budget. NASA’s budget for space exploration has long been drawn from what is left over after its space transportation expenditures. Beyond the various arguments about the shuttle’s complex design, is the basic economic issue of pricing. Macauley argues that “inefficient shuttle pricing to date has resulted in an efficiency loss of some $2.5 billion.” (MA. Toman and M.K. Macauley, “No Free Launch: Efficient Space Transportation Pricing,” Land Economics, Vol. 65, No. 2, May 1989, p. 91).
NASA’s management of expendable rocket launches is also open to criticism. The late president of American Rocket, George Koopman, noted that NASA required 600 people to handle a Delta rocket launch, while the Air Force required just 60 for its Delta launches.
Space transportation costs are crucial because all space exploration projects must first be launched into space. The more expensive the launch, the less money left for exploration. And the demand for space exploration is thought to be “elastic.” That is, as launch costs drop, a vast array of plans for specific space enterprises become feasible. Joseph Martino briefly surveys the already existing demand for launches and suggests the latent demand is far higher (see his essay in Section One). What space technology is the tight stuff? The Right Stuff portrays the public relations aspect of NASA in an almost comic light, but makes clear that the foundation of government space programs is funding. Through the movie we see Chuck Yeager, and other of the almost anonymous test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, watch with amazement the growing publicity surrounding the Mercury astronauts. Funding followed the publicity, and after the Mercury program came the Apollo program, with its 25 billion dollar race to the moon. Near the end of The Right Stuff we hear the lament that funding for newer faster experimental airplanes is being cut, and all dollars channelled into NASA’s new rockets.
Was pulling investment dollars out of experimental airplane technology and putting it into rocket technology the right thing to do? Jim Baen suggests it may not have been: “Remember the movie, The Right Stuff, and Chuck Yeager’s disdain for ‘spam in a can?’ Some say that if it weren’t for NASA smothering its funding, Yeager’s program would have produced an orbit-capable hypersonic rocketjet, a ‘Gipper Clipper,’ by the mid ’70s. What we got for a hundred times more money was the Shuttle.” (New Destinies. Vol. Ill, Baen Books, New York, Spring, 1988, p. 11).
In “Paint your Booster: Apollo–what might have been,” James P. Hogan critiques the rapid rise of government spending for the Apollo program, and the rapid funding decline that followed the first moon landings (New Destinies, Vol. VIII, Fall, 1989, pp. 7-21). Hogan also mentions Air Force plans for a successor to the X-15 that would draw from the “reservoir of accumulated experience and team of crack pilots at Edwards AFB… The Air Force plans envisaged a successor designated the X-15B, which would have taken off like a rocket, gone into orbit, and landed like an airplane, carrying a crew of two.” (p. 14)
Proponents of a related proposal, the SSX Single Stage Experimental Rocket, say current expendable launch vehicles are too much like ammunition— they get shot just once. Aerospace consultant Maxwell Hunter argues that the American space program is disconnected from the basic nature of transportation, particularly air transportation: “One of the keys to transport airplane operations is the ability to save the airplane intact after an engine (or anything else) failure at any time after initiating take-off. Airplanes do this using wings and runways, but it can also be accomplished with vertical-rising rockets having a sufficient number of engines…” (See Hunter’s article “SSX: A True Space Ship,” in Section Two.) [Note from the future: all this is what SpaceX and other private rocket companies have developed, though three decades later.]
Hunter explains that “Rockets and airplanes come from two very different worlds of flying vehicles. One is the world of ammunition and the other the world of transportation.” Airplanes enjoy quick turnaround, operate autonomously, and require minimum ground crews. The thesis of Hunter’s article is “that the real difference is the intact abort capability of the airplanes, especially in the event of engine failure. Nothing on this planet compares to the safety of the commercial airplane fleet. When you think of it, it’s a stunning achievement. All such airplanes have a good fighting chance of saving themselves from almost all conceivable disasters.” Hunter concludes: “Building better ammunition will not create a spacefaring nation.” That is, better launch rockets still will not approach the efficiency and safety levels he says the SSX reusable rocket would have.