Shortly after I moved into the Shuttle Program office, I was very surprised to learn that NASA did not own the blueprints for the space shuttle! The government never purchased the intellectual property and the design details of the vehicle. The blueprints are all proprietary information belonging to Boeing.
NASA never really built any big rockets; NASA hires contractors to do that. For example, the Saturn V was built in pieces, the mighty first stage by Chrysler (how times have changed!), the second stage by North American Aviation, the third stage by McDonnell Douglas, the lunar module by Grumman, and the command/service module by North American.
North American Aviation was an innovative, nimble, flexible, efficient, small commercial aircraft company lead by the legendary “Dutch” Kindelberger. NAA designed and built many classic aircraft including the P-51 Mustang. After Kindelberger passed, corporate mergers changed NAA to North American Rockwell, then Rockwell International (which can claim credit as the designer and producer of the Space Shuttle orbiter), and now to merely a division of the Boeing corporation. The historic site in Downey which saw production of the P-51 Mustang, the Apollo CSM, much of the Shuttle Orbiter was sold, sadly, to commercial interests who couldn’t turn a profit on the land as a strip mall but rent the property out for movie making. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. After Boeing bought out RI, the workforce moved a few miles over to Huntington Beach. It’s just business, as they say.
So I am quite amused by the current debate about whether or not NASA should build rockets or contract that work out to commercial firms. NASA per se has never built rockets of any size. But that statement is so simplistic as to be disingenuous. There is a marked difference between the “old” way of doing business and what is being proposed as a “new” way of doing space business.
Simply put, in the old days (or even today’s days), NASA (the government) was in control; made all the big decisions, required complete insight into all the details of the design, manufacturing, testing, and production of the space flight vehicle. Eye watering amounts of documentation were required for every step. The contractor might do the detailed work, but the government folks got to see everything, review everything, and approve everything. The contractors work on a “cost plus” basis and charged for every change. Somewhere along the line, the small, nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient company that was North American Aviation became a cog in a bureaucratic, military-industrial, giant corporation (no offence, Boeing).
The “new space” model is that one or more nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient commercial companies will provide a reliable, safe, economical launch vehicles and spacecraft that American astronauts can ride to the International Space Station. Getting to low earth orbit is so easy that practically anybody can do it! Large government programs are no longer required and NASA should concentrate its efforts on deep space exploration and doing the “hard” things like landing on the Moon or Mars.
Except that in the early part of the 21st century, getting to low earth orbit is neither routine nor easy. Anybody that has really tried to do it – past the viewgraph engineering stage – can attest that getting to LEO is hard. It requires precision, care, extremely good engineering, quality control, etc., etc., etc. Landing on the moon may be “hard”, but getting to LEO and back is hardly a cakewalk. Recently I have read several statements from some “new space” entrepreneurs concerning space flight safety. They acknowledge that an accident would be devastating for the commercial crew launch business, so they profess that each of the companies attempting to put human spacecraft in orbit (or sub-orbit) is committed to safety. I believe that statement. However, intentions are not enough; remember whither the road leads which is paved with good intentions. In my mind, I can hear entrepreneurial mortgage lenders claiming giving loans to people who cannot repay those loans is bad for business and could cause the mortgage company to fail. Surely nobody would do that, right? There are pressures to compromise safety everywhere and to think that a commercial business won’t be subject to those pressures is naive. How do you know when you have gone from being “efficient” to having cut the corner too close?
I do believe that commercial human space flight can be accomplished much more economically and efficiently than the government and our “cost plus” contractors do it today. And it can be done with a reasonable level of safety, even in this low margin, high energy, dangerous business. But how to accomplish these competing goals is the question.
It is entirely one thing for a wealthy adventurer to personally choose to go into space on a new and untried rocket. After all, nobody stops you from climbing Mt. Everest or parachuting into the wild outback for a ski adventure on a pristine mountain, its your own skin, your own risk. But if the goal is to put U. S. Government civilian employees who are on official U.S. Government business on a commercial rocket, it will be the responsibility of some government agency (NASA? FAA?) to ensure that the “conveyance” is reasonably safe. NASA knows only one way to attempt to ensure safety, and that is very invasive. In this case, synonyms for ‘invasive’ include: costly, slow, bureaucratic. Won’t help the business to be nimble.
In the 1990’s, NASA turned over the management of the space shuttle subsystems to the Boeing contractor. In effect NASA relinquished a modicum of control and insight, a huge change in NASA culture at the time. Going to a commercial launch vehicle will require a bigger change NASA culture. This level of culture change is not impossible, but it is hard. We’re currently studying on how to make commercial human space flight work – safe and economical at the same time. As always, the devil is in the details. And the hardest part will be the culture change. Changing NASA’s culture is a topic for another day.