Shuttle Privatization Must Go All the Way

Recently NASA has embarked on a bold new course for reducing the operating costs of the Space Shuttle. In 12-15 months, the shuttle program will be restructured under a single prime contractor, much like what was done with the International Space Station program. This is expected to save up to a billion dollars by the turn of the century. The exact particulars of how to do this are still being worked out, as Congress is trying to decide how fast the privatization conversion should proceed, while maintaining adequate margins of safety. Meanwhile, the daunting task of deciding which of more than 40 firms will be involved in the restructured program, four of whom want to serve as prime contractor. Regardless of who becomes prime contractor, or how fast the restructuring takes place, NASA and Congress must at some point be willing to let the shuttle program stop being a "program," and let it be completely privatized.

The shuttle must truly for once be allowed to earn its own way and stop being a burden on NASA and taxpayer alike. Can the shuttle be operated solely by the private sector? The answer I believe is a resounding YES! In the past, critics of privatizing the shuttle have claimed that it is too expensive for any one company to fly on their own, often citing the 500 million to 1 billion dollar cost estimates; however, these cost figures are often fallacious because estimate providers tend to average the number of flights flown against the development costs, as well as the overall total spent on flight operations in the program. Further, these estimates include the cost of whatever payload is on board, their processing costs, and mission costs too! Many of the estimates do not look at shuttle processing costs on a year to year basis. In the last five years there has been a 30% cost reduction in shuttle operations and development. That is a nearly one billion dollar reduction from fiscal year 1990's $4.1 billion budget.

Furthermore, the shuttle flight rate has stablized at about 7-8 flights per year. So if the flight rate is stable, and the budget reduced, the cost per launch is therefore reduced. Even though the shuttle is a complex vehicle, the costs involved do not so much depend on the launcher as they do on how it is currently being flown. Much of the costs that critics cite are in the excessively redundant bureaucratic oversite that NASA has placed on the shuttle, especially in the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy. Much of this oversite is not needed given the fact that the shuttle system has undergone extensive upgrading over the years. Some of these upgrades were implemented in the two and a half year stand-down after Challenger. Others such as the Block I and II main engine upgrades and the Glass cockpit are in various stages of implementation. In addition there are modifications made routinely based on flight experience. All of these help to reduce costs and make the shuttle safer and more robust to fly. Even still, NASA continues the practice of tearing the system, in particular the orbiters, apart after every flight. What needs to be done is let whatever firm that is selected as prime contractor take over all responsibility for the shuttle once Space Station assembly is completed. Even before then, let the prime contractor start carrying commercial communication satellites on the shuttle again, except on dedicated government missions. The Air Force also must be made to swallow its pride and admit that the Titan 4 is a boondoggle, both economically and reliably. They must buy commercial shuttle missions without bias, the way they do with Atlas and Delta. The prime contractor must also have the right to fly the shuttle without any crew if necessary. This will reduce costs by not having to train a crew for every mission, and it would reduce liability should an another accident occur. The prime contractor should also be allowed to determine the commercial shuttle's flight rate based on safety and should be allowed to reopen the Vandenburg launch pad to their specifications so the shuttle can fly polar inclinations. In time, paying passengers should be allowed on flights when possible, and the prime contractor could even start the first private astronaut corp. This would pave the way for regular routine passenger service if the commercial RLV (reusable launch vehicle) effort succeeds. Other advantages to a fully commercial shuttle would be keeping the most capable vehicle on orbit and the shuttle orbiter intact and operational should NASA's budget continue to be slashed further. The commercial shuttle's ability to retrieve and repair satellites would also be economical, and would be a unique service provided by the shuttle. Launching and building man-tended facilities would also be another shuttle unique service.

If the shuttle is able to hold its own against the market forces, there should be nothing to stop the prime contractor from building new orbiters to supplement the fleet, either to increase flight rates (lowering costs) or to replace any orbiter lost due to an accident. Eventually, we may even see the current SRBs replaced with liquid, or hybrid boosters.

All this depends on of course on whether or not NASA and Congress truly have the courage to go all the way with privatizing the shuttle and releasing it from the expensive shackles of government bureaucracy.

Mike Dicenso Journalism Senior