Saturday, April 16, 2011

Research Paper on Space Exploration

Research Paper on Space Exploration

The United States federal government is ultimately responsible for the annual budget allotted to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for space exploration and research. Conflicts arise when a decision must be made between economics and research development. Engineers do not want to see their important research ideas and projects fall victim to cutbacks, but it is also an engineer's responsibility to consider cost effectiveness and economics in the decisions that they make every day.

Over the past fifty years, the space program has been a topic of controversy. Society cannot decide what our position in space should be. Is outer space the "Next Frontier"? Some people believe that exploration is simply a waste of time and money. They argue that NASA has not progressed with the same fury of the 1960's when man landed on the Moon during the Apollo missions. The Space Race is long over, and therefore they believe that the space program in the United States has lost its driving force.


Problem Statement
In the mid-1990's the federal government approached NASA with regards to downsizing their budget. The space program was asked to find another source of funding, or else some of their projects would have to be eliminated all together. Naturally, the scientists and engineers at NASA wanted to avoid that possibility at all costs.

One option strongly considered dealt with private industry. Already, such companies as Rockwell and Lockheed Martin were contracted by NASA to perform intermediary functions and construction of materials and systems for different spacecraft and other payload [1]. It was suggested that NASA should turn over full control of these projects to those companies. This would reduce NASA's federal expenditure and promote private industry at the same time. Taken one step further, opinion states that the space program as a whole should be turned over to private companies. As a result, the NASA budget problem would be totally expunged.

There are several positive effects associated with the privatization of NASA operations. With respect to economic principles and theory, privatization is beneficial to society in general. NASA's possible dissolution would be equivalent to shifting from a monopolistic situation to pure competition [2]. The competition between businesses might produce the motivation needed to rejuvenate the space program and to achieve successes comparable to the 1960's.

As with every positive viewpoint in a debate, there must be a negative perspective. Some believe that putting scientific research into the hands of business is a step in the wrong direction. There is a fear that private industry's objective for space exploration will focus on the pursuit of profit rather than the pursuit of knowledge and development. Continuing with that theory, privatization could lead to commercialization. Space could become polluted with advertisements. Hasty business ventures might occur without weighing all the possible long-term effects.

Privatization of NASA is not the cure-all solution. Although it may help relieve federal expenditure, new problems will surface. Completely turning over operations from NASA to private businesses will compromise safety and other important engineering concerns for the sake of profit.

The Debate Over Economics
NASA's budget problem became a topic of concentration in the mid-1990's. On August 21, 1995, NASA first vocalized their intentions to transfer Space Shuttle operations to a single contractor. As a result, the federal government would no longer have to support flight operations once the contractor took over. The United Space Alliance (USA) was formed by the two biggest Shuttle contractors at the time, Rockwell and Lockheed Martin [3]. NASA considered their bid to take over Shuttle operations along with others from such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Bamsi. On November 7 of that year, NASA decided upon USA as its prime option. By October 1996, the Space Flight Operations Contract was drawn, approved, and in effect.

NASA's future goal is to privatize the entire space program. The hope is not only to defer the cost from the federal budget, but also for the private sector to make profit from the deal. The space program will be changed from a "governmental function toward a commercial enterprise" [4]. One of the positive effects foreseen by the USA is a decline in the cost of shuttle operations [4]. This is based on the economic principles such as the theory of pure competition. Theory states that when many businesses sell a standardized good, the competition between them drives the market prices of that good down [2]. In this way, they hope to attract other businesses and customers to the competitive market that will be created under privatization.

But is NASA following its economic plan through? It is true that NASA has branched out to private contractors as the first step toward their privatization. But instead of forming a truly competitive market, they seem to be creating small monopolies. In February of 1999, Daniel C. Tam was appointed as the Assistant to the Administrator for Commercialization at NASA [5]. In January 1999, before Tam was in his position, NASA had selected 125 proposals bidding for "Phase 2" in the privatization process. The contract value was about $73 million, to be conducted by 113 small businesses [6]. In August, "in an attempt to stimulate the development of new technologies," NASA narrowed its search down to 103 proposals, worth $62 million, to be carried out by 90 small businesses [7]. This seems like a contradiction to NASA's explanation for privatization. Instead of promoting more firms, they are limiting the competition. In economic theory, barriers to entry occur in a more monopolistic market system. In this type of market the firm controls the price; as long as there is continued demand for the good, the company can continue to drive up the price of that item [2].

In another perspective, there is no guarantee that the businesses given control of the space program will be able to survive. Without government funding, the space program loses the tax money that it was dependent upon for financial support. The companies will receive money from corporate investors and sponsors, but the American people will not contribute to the space program any longer. Without immediate results that may affect their lives, they will lose interest. Lacking continuous funding, the businesses in charge of the space program will surely go bankrupt. The space program and the pursuit of the exploration of the universe will be lost.

Privatization Turns to Commercialization
NASA clearly stated its feeling that the space program will proceed beyond privatization. Daniel Tam was appointed to the position of Assistant to the Administrator for Commercialization. Tam's job description includes "aggressively seeking opportunities to increase commercialization of NASA infrastructure, operations, and technology" [5]. The USA also has strong visions of a commercial market to make money off the space program. Their projection of the future sees the space program ending up somewhere between a privatized government function and a commercialized business venture [4].

The danger associated with commercialization of the space program occurs when profit is put before science and exploration. If privatization turns into commercialization, space will become polluted. Satellite billboards will orbit the Earth flashing their neon messages in the night sky.

Eventually, some hope that space will become the next vacation spot. Hotels and tourist attractions will appear, and along with them, the garbage that the tourists leave behind [8]. One article suggests that space be used as a mausoleum. Instead of burying dead bodies, they will be launched into space [9]. This could do serious damage if some of the discarded matter collides with a satellite or other spacecraft.

A more serious result of commercialization is the nonchalance that might develop toward the seriousness of space travel. Ransom Wuller, a lawyer from Illinois who is leading the national ProSpace lobby, had a very dangerous comment. Wuller said, "I would propose putting the [space] shuttle up for auction" at least one of them "and seeing what it would fetch" [8]. Wuller demonstrates an attitude puts no concentration upon who would be most suitable to control a crucial part of the space program. The highest bidder seems his key interest, leaving engineering concerns out of consideration.

The Issue of Safety
In September of 1996, the USA announced its priorities for Space Shuttle operations in this order: safety, meeting mission objectives, and reducing cost. Engineers familiar with the operations of the program were transferred from Rockwell's NASA Shuttle Logistics Depot (NSLD) to work as employees of USA [3]. But the expert opinions of the engineers might not prevail over business decisions after privatization takes place. NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) is skeptical of the results of commercialization on the human space flight program. In a report released in February of 1999, there were signs of decreasing the size of the current workforce and also a hiring freeze. ASAP is afraid of the "possibility that NASA senior managers in the future will lack the hands-on technical knowledge and in-line experience to provide effective insight" [8].

Disaster has already occurred due to engineering concerns falling second to business decisions. The Challenger accident that occurred on January 28, 1986, was a result of upper level officials dominating over the engineers. Rocket engineers knew that the mission was extremely dangerous before the launch ever took place. They were concerned that it was too cold of a day for the Shuttle to blastoff safely. However, their concerns somehow never reached the NASA officials who gave the go-ahead for the flight [10].

Later, on November 23, 1997, a less disastrous incident occurred pertaining to the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Workers responsible for attaching the Shuttle to the carrier 747 omitted a set of washers from the attachment apparatus. Had Atlantis fallen off, damage would have been done to the $2 billion spacecraft and most likely also to its carrier plane. The major issue with the incident is that senior officials signed the paperwork verifying that the mounting had been properly installed. Some take this incident as a sign that NASA is moving too quickly toward privatization. Both the Challenger disaster and the Atlantis incident both occurred while NASA still had at least some control over the Space Shuttle operations. The Atlantis incident was a lucky flight. This occurrence could serve as proof that history repeats itself if proper attention is not given to Space Shuttle operations.

As with many government agencies, NASA is not alone as a victim of politics and bureaucracy. When reviewing the chronology of USA's formation and early actions, a curious trend is apparent (Appendix A). The first entry to the time line occurs in August of 1995 when Rockwell and Lockheed Martin decide to form a joint venture, the USA. These two companies had been established as the leading contractors for Space Shuttle operations at NASA. The next item states that on August 21, 1995, there was a briefing at Johnson Space Center, which introduced NASA's desire to transfer the Space Shuttle operations to a single contractor. In September, NASA reviews several proposals from several companies, including Rockwell and Lockheed Martin's USA. On November 7, it is announced that NASA had chosen to accept USA's proposal. Then, on November 22, Rockwell and Lockheed Martin sign the official agreement to form the USA [3].

Is it merely a coincidence that Rockwell and Lockheed Martin agreed to form the USA and then immediately afterwards NASA decides to open up Shuttle operations to private companies? It seems that NASA was going to transfer human space flight operations to USA regardless of the other bids that they took in for review. Once NASA waited enough time to look over the proposals, they accepted the one from USA, an organization that was not officially in existence yet. The USA was not even approved by the Federal Trade Commission until nearly one month after the decision was made.

Another interesting article describes the Pentagon's position on the Space Shuttle program. The author makes mention of the Pentagon's silent efforts to "undermine the shuttle program and the revolving-door relationship between NASA officials and shuttle contractors, notably Rockwell International and General Dynamics" [10]. This statement only brings up the question of NASA's intentions for privatization. It now seems obvious why NASA agreed to accept the USA's proposal for taking control of Shuttle operations, considering its relationship with Rockwell.

During the 1980's, NASA did not have any clear-cut goals in mind for the space program. The agency was full of internal conflicts, and their only regard was to maintain its earlier esteem in the public eye. They merely survived on "public relations extravaganzas" [10]. NASA has had a history of being tossed around by political and bureaucratic compromises. During the Nixon administration, major safety features, including an emergency escape system, were omitted from spacecraft designs as they seemed to be too expensive. James Fletcher, NASA Administrator, is reported to have consciously and willingly altered consulting studies to increase the estimated flight rates for the Space Shuttles. Former science advisor to President Reagan, George Keyworth, was quoted as saying, "Of all the organizations that I have dealth with" I have seen only one that lied. It was NASA. From the top to the bottom, they lie"[10]. The author of this article says that it is a shame that the devastating Challenger accident had to bring the cold reality to the hopeless romantics of the space dream.

President Reagan also contributed to the political muscle that affected NASA and the space program. When his opposing candidate for office, Walter Mondale, began pressing education in his platform, Reagan felt that he had to do something to promote education as well. Originally, a journalist was supposed to be the first "citizen in space" [10]. Reagan helped to change that plan, and Christa McAuliffe, the high school social studies teacher, was assigned to the flight instead.

The privatization of NASA is an idea surrounded by an incredible amount of uncertainty. Although NASA and the federal government seem to promote handing the space program over to the private sector, there seems to be very little proof and reasons given as to why it has to be done and why it will work. They simply impress the idea of streamlining the federal budget and providing opportunity to business.

The skeptics, on the other hand, have much reason to doubt the good of privatization. NASA's recent actions toward giving the space program to private business has not proven to be conducive to the development of a competitive market. Rather, it seems to be dividing up the space program and creating little monopolies in the individual areas. Also, commercialization is in the minds of the planners. This becomes dangerous when profit prevails over engineering, and more seriously, safety. Already, in the earliest stages of privatization, we have seen the potential for disaster in the Atlantis incident. The motives of the federal government and NASA are also uncertain. NASA decisions have been determined by politics and corrupt forces before; it is a definite possibility that the movement toward privatization is another one of these cases. For all these reasons, privatization should be considered a dangerous endeavor.

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