Right Stuff, Wrong Mission

Email Print

In 1983,
one of the great movies of all time was released: "The
Right Stuff
." It was the story of the Mercury Project,
which preceded the Apollo Project that put men on the moon. The
Mercury Project involved manned spacecraft orbiting the earth.

The movie
was based on the best-selling book by Tom Wolfe, he of "Radical
Chic" fame. It was the story of test pilots who made it to
astronaut status. It was difficult to say why a few of them made
the cut. The participants at the time called this X-quality "the
right stuff."

We have been
told, correctly, that flying in a space shuttle is risky. For
men who are test pilots, however, it’s a move toward greater safety.
When you fly jet prototypes, the odds are that you’re going to
have an accident. When you fly a space shuttle, you’re in charted

There is
a scene in the movie where one of the test pilot’s wives is talking
to another test pilot’s wife. She says that when she attends a
high school reunion, and hears about the boring lives of the wives
of insurance salesmen, she wants to tell them that 25% of the
men in her husband’s occupation die on the job.

In the movie,
there are scenes at a wooden frame tavern called Pancho’s. On
the wall are framed photos. One of the rookie pilots looks at
the wall of photos and says, "I want to get up there. What
do you have to do to get there?" The answer was short and
sweet: "You have to get killed."

Film buffs:
Pay attention to the guy sweeping the floor. It’s Chuck Yeager,
the greatest test pilot of them all, the man who was the first
(officially, though apparently not in fact the
) to break the sound barrier.


One of the
phrases that the movie’s Yeager uses to describe the environment
of an astronaut is "spam in the can." There was nothing
anyone could do on take-off to make the rocket safer. Another
phrase: "Riding a roman candle."

There is
no doubt that the astronauts who ride the candle are brave people.
But, on the whole, they have survived. The trio of astronauts
who were incinerated on the ground on January 27, 1967 because
of NASA’s decision to fill the vehicle with pure oxygen — Grissom,
White, and Chaffee — died ingloriously. They were the victims
of a bonehead policy that got changed posthumously real fast.
The next great disaster was the Challenger, two decades later.
That disaster, as it turned out, was the result of another bonehead
decision by NASA. There had been warnings that the O-rings would
not meet specifications in the cold. But schedules are schedules.
Bureaucrats honor them.

Now the Columbia
has gone. Year ago, I saw "Hail, Columbia," the Imax
movie about the vessel. It was an inspiring movie, as long as
you didn’t think about the billion-dollar cost per flight.

As to what
brought the vehicle to its doom, I don’t know. My bet is there
will never be O-ring-type
evidence. It’s risky up there. But there’s something else. . .


The shuttles
are old. Here’s how old. The New York Times (May 12, 2002)
ran a story on the age of these vehicles: "For
Old Parts, NASA Boldly Goes . . . on eBay
." Here are
some choice extracts.

NASA needs
parts no one makes anymore.

So to keep
the shuttles flying, the space agency has begun trolling the
Internet — including Yahoo and eBay — to find replacement parts
for electronic gear that would strike a home computer user as

say the agency recently bought a load of outdated medical equipment
so it could scavenge Intel 8086 chips — a variant of those chips
powered I.B.M.’s first personal computer, in 1981.

When the
first shuttle roared into space that year, the 8086 played a
critical role, at the heart of diagnostic equipment that made
sure the shuttle’s twin booster rockets were safe for blastoff.

more than two decades later, booster testing still uses 8086
chips, which are increasingly scarce. NASA plans to create a
$20 million automated checking system, with all new hardware
and software. In the meantime, it is hoarding 8086’s so that
a failed one does not ground the nation’s fleet of aging spaceships.

The same
is true of other obsolescent parts, dozens of them.

like a scavenger hunt," said Jeff Carr, a spokesman for
the United Space Alliance, the Houston company that runs the
shuttle fleet. "It takes some degree of heroics."
. . .

acquisitions include outdated computer chips, circuit boards
and eight-inch floppy-disk drives. "One missing piece of
hardware can ruin our day," said Mike Renfroe, director
of shuttle logistics planning for the United Space Alliance
at the Kennedy Space Center.

Yes, that’s
what he said. "One missing piece of hardware can ruin our

Mr. Renfroe said, his team swept the Internet to find an obsolete
circuit board used in testing the shuttle’s master timing unit,
which keeps the spaceships’ computers in sync. None could be
found. A promising lead turned false. Finally, a board was found.
It cost $500.

very inexpensive," Mr. Renfroe said. "To hire a design
engineer for even one week would cost more than that."

What a deal! Think about this. We are sending up crews in vehicles
that are essentially obsolete. They fly in the standard orbit
that involves a launch out of Cape Kennedy, which uses the rotation
of the earth as a slingshot. It’s the same old orbit. There is
not much new to learn in that orbit. Why are we putting people’s
lives at risk? This is K-Mart space exploration. "Attention,
shoppers. . . ."

NASA is increasingly a victim of its own success. Civilian electronic
markets now move so fast, and the shuttles are so old, that
NASA and its contractors must scramble to find substitutes.

In the
past, NASA procurement experts would go through old catalogs
and call suppliers to try to find parts. Today, the hunt has
become easier with Internet search engines and sites like eBay,
which auctions nearly everything.

Mr. Carr
of the United Space Alliance said that when the government bought
complex systems like jet fighters, the contracts often had provisions
that called for routine upgrades and improvements as a way to
limit obsolescence. But the shuttles, with a design lifetime
of a decade, never had that kind of built-in refurbishment plan.

The winged
spaceships are to fly until 2012. But NASA is researching whether
their retirement date can be pushed back to 2020.

For parts
hunters, it could be a long haul. The shuttles, Mr. Renfroe
of the United Space Alliance noted in an awed tone, "could
go for 40 or 50 years."

It’s a trade-off
between vehicles that are wearing out, but which are familiar
to the ground crews, vs. cutting-edge space vehicles that will
crash far more often.

In the old
days, the crash of a test plane and the death of a test pilot
were secrets. There were no televised memorials. There still aren’t.
The public could not bear the emotional strain. They might demand
that the test programs be made safer. But the whole idea of testing
is to push the limits of the technology, or, in the phrase made
famous by the movie, "push the edge of the envelope."

Dead test
pilots are the price of military aviation.

The pilots
know this. They are men with the right stuff.

Is the price
worth it for NASA?


The scientific
experiments run on the shuttles are not cutting edge. There have
been no major breakthroughs scientifically in 22 years of shuttle
flights. Even the breakthrough consumer products of the Apollo
era were based mostly on PR campaigns by companies that had developed
the products earlier for other applications. I call this Tang
technology. The space program was great for sales of Tang, one
of the least palatable beverages of all time.

One of the
women on board the Columbia was doing research on osteoporosis.
What she intended to learn, based on a couple of weeks in zero
gravity, is beyond my non-scientific powers of imagination. Maybe
this: old people are less likely to break their hips in zero gravity.

The United
States government spends hundreds of billions of dollars to keep
this program alive, and the only time anyone hears about it is
when a crew dies. They are all faceless heroes now. Nobody knows
their names or their jobs until there is a disaster.

With Mercury
and Apollo, the justification was two-fold: (1) the Russians got
into space it first, and might get to the moon first (the PR issue);
(2) there might be a military technology here — space-based weapons
of mass destruction. The space missions were essentially military
missions conducted by an agency outside regular military chain
of command, where the competition for resources would have been
won by the Air Force, with the Army and Navy digging in their
heels. As the Strategic Air Command’s Gen. Curtis LeMay is said
to have told a colonel, following a presentation in which the
colonel repeatedly referred to the Soviet Union as "the enemy":
"We don’t refer to the Russians as u2018the enemy.’ They are
u2018the adversary.’ The enemy is the Navy." This may be apocryphal,
but it’s an Air Force story that always gets a laugh from anyone
who knew about LeMay.

What is the
mission of the space shuttles today?

That’s obvious:
to keep NASA’s budget alive.

No matter
what the original goal is for any bureaucracy, its long-term goal
always becomes the survival of the organization. The March of
Dimes was created to stamp out polio. After polio was stamped
out, the organization switched to children’s birth defects. Nobody
walks away from a working mailing list and name identification
among donors. Survival is the iron law of bureaucracy.

will have to justify its mission before Congress. I think NASA
will be successful. The disaster was large enough so that no Congressman
will dare to ask the obvious: "Did these people die as heroes
in the war against osteoporosis?" That question might be
interpreted as a criticism of the Columbia’s mission, as if it
had been a terrible waste of resources, especially human resources.
The Congressman who asks it will be immediately pilloried by the
media as disrespectful of the honored dead.

If you want
insight into the whole program, consider NASA’s budget estimate
for fiscal 2003. Here are some extracts from what is posted on
the White House’s web site. This is from the Office of Management
and Budget.

The Administration
is reviewing programs throughout the federal government to identify
strong and weak performers. The budget seeks to redirect funds
where appropriate from lesser performing programs to higher
priority or more effective programs. Particularly, when low
performing programs are in priority areas, deficiencies will
be addressed through reforms to improve performance. The following
table presents the ratings of selected programs for illustrative
purposes. Some of these programs will be improved by proposals
described in this chapter. . . .

Shuttle Safety Upgrades Ineffective

Need to
address large cost overruns and schedule delays to improve shuttle
safety through effective investments.

Space Station Ineffective

space-based biological and physical research. Effective technically,
but need much better management controls to eliminate huge cost
overruns. . . .

Disrupt NASA’s Science Activities

Many earmarks
in NASA’s budget have little to do with the agency’s mission
in scientific research, technology development, and exploration.
For example, the Congress earmarked NASA’s current budget to
fund corporate jets, college dormitories, libraries, and museums.
. . .

Then the
OMB raised significant questions regarding the safety of the shuttle.
In the last few days, we have heard the figure of a one-in-75
chance of a catastrophic failure. This was not NASA’s estimate
a couple of months ago.

The Space
Shuttle is the only U.S. vehicle that can launch humans into
space and return experiments from orbit. Since the Challenger
tragedy, NASA has been improving the safety of the Space Shuttle,
from an estimated risk of catastrophic failure during launch
for each mission of one in 78 in 1986 to one in 556 now. This
improvement took place even as staffing for the Space Shuttle
has dropped significantly (see chart on Space Shuttle reliability).
NASA continues to invest in improving Shuttle safety, but some
of the planned investments are experiencing significant problems
(see chart on cost overruns). For example, the electric auxiliary
power unit was the highest priority safety upgrade last year,
but delays, technical difficulties, decreasing safety benefits,
and a tripling of its projected cost led NASA, with the support
of its advisory committee, to cancel the project.

While the
safety and schedule record of Shuttle operations has been very
good, and costs have come down considerably in the last decade,
the Shuttle remains a very expensive vehicle to operate. Moreover,
in the last few years, Shuttle costs have been rising considerably,
due to personnel costs, aging infrastructure, growing vehicle
obsolescence, and a shrinking industrial base. A comparison
of the cost to orbit for the Shuttle relative to other space
launch systems is provided in the accompanying chart, which
underscores the need to quickly develop a new system for space


The program
continues because the program is budgeted. The immortal words
in "The Right Stuff," which became the guiding star
of the astronauts, were these: "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

The question
is: What is Buck Rogers’ mission today? If there is a compelling
military case for the shuttle program, let NASA present it. Otherwise,
the entire program should be seen as the triumph of bureaucracy:
"No Buck Rogers, no bucks."

If NASA uses
the tragedy as an opportunity to increase funding for shuttle
safety, despite the fact that the shuttle program serves no military
purpose and precious little scientific purpose, then we will know,
once again, that the iron law of bureaucratic survival is unbreakable.
In short, nothing succeeds like failure.

6, 2003

North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
For a free subscription to Gary North’s twice-weekly economics newsletter,

North Archives

Email Print