I will take a radical approach to the problems with Shuttle, NASA, and the space program. That approach is: kill 'em all, and let God sort 'em out.
Very few will, I think, disagree with the contention that Shuttle, as presently constituted, is an overpriced, overrated, obsolete piece of junk. Everyone from Nixon to Carter (and their minions) demanded new and increased capabilities in it, whilst simultaneously cutting R&D budgets. We might view in it the same light as a dancing bear – the amazing thing not being how well the bear dances, but that it dances at all. Very well, I say; ground them. Put the remaining orbiters in the Smithsonian, either as valiant efforts or as bad examples. But let’s not even think about flying one again.
Now, Shuttle II (or XXII), SSTO, laser launch, ocean-launched Orion, or bloody-minded stone slabs activated by human sacrifices performed by druids might – almost certainly would – perform better than the current Shuttle design. We do not, however, have any of those. The principal reason that we do not is NASA. It has long since mutated from a goal-oriented organization into a sclerotic bureaucracy whose mission – never mind the nominal purpose for which it was created – is first to continue to exist, and second to expand to the limits of available funding. As is my wont, the solution that I offer is nasty, brutish, and quick, if not short: abolish NASA, fire everyone from the guys sweep the floors down to the administrator, and blacklist them to prevent them from ever working for the U.S. government again. Period. End of sentence.
(As a side issue, I have no problem with simultaneously creating some institution – call it a Job Court – to decide if the blacklist of a specific individual is unjustified and should be lifted. OTOH, if the bill that abolishes NASA also mandates the death penalty for anyone who even suggests such a thing, I’d still accept it. We established some little while ago that “I was just following orders!” is not an acceptable defense.)
As for the space program as a whole: it doesn’t exist. We do have a job-guarantee program for NASA bureaucrats and aerospace contractors; the space program, however, was hijacked by Kennedy to provide a meaningless Cold War propaganda spectacle, further perverted by Johnson, and killed by Nixon (who had the good sense or good luck to realize that an Apollo-style program to land on Mars was not the way to proceed, although to his infinite discredit – in this area – he accepted Shuttle).
So, how do we create a space program? We will start by creating a new agency (it’s OK; remember that we’ve already abolished NASA. No new agencies until we do, however). Let us call it, for the sake of discussion, the American Space Technology Research Agency, or ASTRA.
ASTRA will be divided into two branches. One branch will be the Goal Certification Bureau. This will be a very simple thing. Something like Jerry Pournelle’s prize program will be adopted. A concrete goal will be announced – putting eight people simultaneously on the Moon, keeping them there a month, and bringing them to the Earth alive, let us say – a prize will be given for say – again, let us say, ten billion dollars, tax free – and the GCB will do nothing but decide if the goal is met. No interim funding, no “give us a billion dollars up front and we’ll try”. Some second and lower prizes might be established, to allay fears of being a day late and a dollar short in achieving the goal, but no awards for partial completion of a goal.
The second branch will be the Experimental Projects Program. In each project, the XPP will design a spacecraft – which could be anything from a flying stovepipe to a generation ship for interstellar colonization – and test it to destruction. It will then take all that the data on the mistakes and shortcomings in the design and construction, and build a second one. That one will be tested up to, but not beyond, its limits. (We should know its limits. If not, we didn’t learn enough from destroying the first one, and everyone involved in designing the second one should be hanged.) If the Smithsonian wants a clean machine for display, we can build a third one, fly it once, and hand it over as a “working craft”.
And that’s the end. The technology goes in the “open file”. No patents, no trademarks, no six-month battle with the FOIA and a team of lawyers, ideally not even a lock on the filing cabinet. Anyone, American or not, can have all the information. They shouldn’t even have to ask for it in detail; just “Gimme what you have on the X-35 project” should be enough.
(It will be objected – and rightfully so – that there are some projects which should be kept classified. Excellent; let the Air Force – or the Space Force, if we really think one is needed – dip into the “open file”, take what it needs, and develop its orbital interceptor in total secrecy. But the Air Force should do it, not ASTRA.)
Incidentally, no real X project has been flown in decades. The best thing to do, in my view, is to openly acknowledge the subversion of the space program by Kennedy, and destroy all the technical data gained since 1960. Burn the papers, microfilms, and magtapes; hire some husky illiterates with sledges to smash the hard drives. Level the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and the Johnson Space Center in Houston (sowing the ground with salt would be going a little too far; besides, it would be a waste of perfectly good salt). We’ve already fired and blacklisted everyone who works for NASA now, so no one at ASTRA can draw on direct knowledge of prior state of the art). The “human factors” data – physiological, psychological, motivational – can be kept; it might not be exactly what we would like, but it’s there, and at worst will be harmless.
And that’s it. Realistically, ASTRA will have to have at least five people in it; the administrator, the deputy administrators of the GCP and the XPP, and one tech for each to do the grunt work (the administrators aren’t – or shouldn’t – be useless; they’re there to make sure that funds don’t get diverted to Apollo: The Next Generation or the First Church of Gaia, and to terminate – perhaps with extreme prejudice – anyone who tries).
Any request for more than five people should be viewed with suspicion. The goal is not empire building, or even to implement SDI or explore Mars via robot (the funding for that can come from the NSF). The goal is to research and provide rewards for developing the technology needed for space programs – not to develop that technology, government bureaucracies are terrible at developing technology – but merely to provide the incentives for doing so.
There will not be, and shouldn’t be, a space program. There will be dozens of space programs – the Air Force’s, the telecommunications corporations’, the people who think that they know how build private launch systems (and they may be right), and the hucksters selling tickets for weekend tourist excursions. Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend. Let those who are right be allowed to demonstrate it.