NASA’s private sector shows government can get more for US buck
Over the past decade, America has made great strides in space. Roughly 10 years ago, we remained mired in a costly era of reliance on the aging, unreliable, and increasingly expensive Space Shuttle for transportation into space. Sometimes we were even forced to rely on Russian rockets to haul American astronauts into orbit.
In 2022, things are different. Where the cost per kilogram to orbit was a whopping $55,000 on the Space Shuttle, pioneer private-launch company SpaceX has dropped it by a factor of 20, to about $2,700 per kilogram. SpaceX has done this by developing fully reusable rockets, fast-turnaround technology and much leaner staffing than NASA and its army of old-line defense and aerospace contractors. Its new launch vehicle, Starship, is expected to lower costs still further, perhaps as low as $200 per kilogram. And SpaceX is only one of many companies doing this.
It’s a historic triumph equaled by no other nation, and it’s also a victory for free markets over government bureaucrats and their hangers-on. It deserves more attention, and now it’s starting to get some.
“Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age” is the memoir of Lori Garver, former deputy NASA administrator under President Barack Obama and a major figure in promoting the development of commercial launch companies. (The other such figure is her counterpart in the Trump administration, Dr. Scott Pace, who pursued a very similar policy agenda).
Garver (and Pace) set out to change the role of government. Instead of the Apollo model of big government programs micromanaged by NASA and implemented by big corporations joined at the hip to the agency, the goal was to duplicate what the government did for aviation in the 1920s and 1930s: provide incentives and get out of the way. The Kelly Air Mail Act provided contracts for hauling mail by air, with rewards for getting it there faster and more reliably. NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, provided technical assistance, but private companies designed aircraft and figured out how to do things better and cheaper. And they competed in commercial markets, not just for airmail contracts.
NACA’s advantage was that it worked on a blank slate. But space exploration under NASA degenerated into a political game that, as Garver recounts, was focused more on extracting the maximum number of taxpayer dollars than on actually accomplishing much of anything in space. When the Obama transition team, headed by Garver, tried to gather data on what NASA was actually doing in key programs and how much it was costing, NASA and its contractors went out of their way to stonewall. Before it was over she got death threats.
The truth was, NASA was happier working on a “space program” that didn’t actually go anywhere than with the idea of having to compete in a commercial market. Happily, the government shifted much of its procurement to a more commercial model: It told contractors what it wanted and paid them to deliver it, with payment largely contingent on results. It’s worked so well that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is now decrying the traditional “cost-plus” arrangements that encourage contractors to spend more and more money as they deliver less and less.
(This week’s big space news, the amazing images from the Webb telescope, shows us what NASA does best and should focus on: Abstract-science projects that might have no short-term payoff, but have clear goals and relatively modest budgets.)
“Escaping Gravity” is full of depressing stories about the machinations of lobbyists, members of Congress, astronauts and complicit members of the press to resist any changes to the status quo. It’s a book that anyone interested in space, or in the operations of the federal government in general, should read.
But there’s a point here beyond space and rockets. The phenomena that Garver identifies in the space area — bureaucrats working hand-in-hand with contractors, members of Congress and the press to feather their nests, suppress competition and ultimately prop up a system that delivers little for taxpayers and citizens — exist throughout federal government. Everywhere you look, bureaucrats care more about budgets, and having a pleasant life, than doing the jobs they’re supposed to do.
That’s because incentives matter. A company that has to compete in the marketplace can only succeed by delivering a better, cheaper product than its competitors. A bureaucracy or contractor that has to compete for government funding can only succeed by being good at working the funding process. If you’re good at that, actual results don’t matter.
As the national debt skyrockets and trust in government plummets, we need to find a way to make the rest of the government do as well as the parts Lori Garver describes. And we need to do it soon.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is the founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.