Dreaming up the shuttle was the crucial decision for NASA. By the 1970s, manned space flights were coming to a boring end. People were getting tired of watching the simulated space capsule and the endless countdown, while commentators rambled on about rocket fuel and Christopher Columbus. NASA was also surprised that their polls revealed one out of four Americans (and 65 percent of the people in Morocco) didn’t believe that anybody had been to the moon, while many of the believers didn’t care.
NASA was one of the better agencies in the sense that it had been relatively efficient, had incurred few cost overruns, and the results of its work were out there for everybody to see. But it also faced a special problem–while HUD doesn’t have to worry about whether improved housing will be a long-range goal, the waning interest in space exploration forced NASA to be more inventive in its public relations than most other agencies.
The answer to NASA’s problem–the space shuttle–emerged from a “brainstorming session” held at its secluded Wallops Island facility. There is a crucial point in any agency’s history when the fan mail starts thinning out and Congress begins to ask questions, and it is at this point that the strongest supporters of bureaucratic survival take eloquent command. A critical turning of the tide occurs, for what was once creating an agency to further a program becomes creating a program–any program–that will further the agency. The space shuttle filled such a need.
Launched from the drawing board, the first version of the shuttle was a $15-billion Buck Rogers model, which would be linked to a $14-billion space station. The shuttle was supposed to transport flight crews and supplies to the space station and on to other lunar and planetary bases that NASA envisioned.
While the TV possibilities for the shuttle were obvious, opposition began to emerge soon after Congress and the public began to get tired of Mission Control. In 1970, an amendment against the shuttle very nearly carried in the House. NASA had underestimated the change in mood and had to scale down the whole space venture.
When faced with such congressional challenge, NASA began to shift ground, reverse field, run in circles, and make noise–much like a goose protecting her nest from an attacking weasel. The agency had first explained the shuttle as the savior of manned space flights, but when manned flights became unpopular, the shuttle quickly turned into both a manned and unmanned vehicle. Such contradictions in the shuttle’s specific mission made NASA retreat to loftier and vaguer purposes, like “a continued presence in space,” explaining that the “shuttle will do many useful things.” NASA interpreted those things to mean all the potential virtues of any space exploration–to bring back rocks, to figure out the secret of the universe, to find ways to cure diseases, to satisfy wanderlust, to establish military superiority, to serve science, the Army, the people, and a whole lot more.
As the shuttle became a manned-unmanned craft, it also evolved into a military-unmilitary vehicle. This was the result of another dilemma–since racing the Russians was no longer a very interesting purpose, the agency had to fall back on national security to some extent, but not so much that people would accuse it of being an adjunct to the Pentagon. Space has always been a game of inches, and in this case, the military aspects of the shuttle couldn’t be downgraded too much, and they couldn’t be emphasized too much, either. NASA resolved this by deciding that the shuttle would be to the Air Force what a cab is to a commuter who missed his train–it could be whistled up once in a while, but otherwise would not be needed. Officially, NASA maintains that alterations for military use of the shuttle have not added to the cost, but the Air Force admits to spending more than $2 million on shuttle feasibility studies. And while Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans last year refused to term the shuttle an essential military requirement, the NASA press kits included a statement by Seamans that said in part: “We… are also interested in its … potential as a means for performing our military missions more effectively and economically… and we are pleased that the present vehicle is configured to meet present DOD needs.”
The shuttle continued to take on more uses as NASA attempted to gather in more supporters. In fact, the shuttle exhibited much greater flexibility and adaptability under congressional attack than it would ever need to survive in space. When doubts were expressed about the amount of tonnage that the shuttle would throw into space (using NASA’s figures, critics pointed out that the shuttle would put nearly 10 times more junk into space than NASA had in any year thus far), NASA merely shifted its calculations around or altered its press releases to emphasize something else. When other details about the shuttle were questioned, NASA retreated into economics and the fact that the shuttle could be reused over 100 times.
The economic arguments are the hardest ones for NASA to pull off. When the purpose of any government program is under direct attack, the agency in question usually discovers that it is a living bargain, a way to save money. But, the question for NASA is: a savings over what? Even a NASA official admitted that “a bargain in bananas only represents a savings if the customer needs bananas.” Following NASA’s argument, the way to save on the shuttle is to adopt a more grandiose and costly space program for the shuttle to economize on. A series of economic studies commissioned by the agency clearly indicates that a saving in operation could only be gained by a massive increase in space activities through the 1980s.
What is the shuttle really going to cost? After scaling down its original plans, NASA says a mere $5.1 billion, and if you ask any congressman, he will most likely answer, “about $5 billion.” But what NASA does not say is that this amount covers only the cost for shuttle development, and not its operation and use–something like telling the backer of a compulsive gambler that the price of a night in Las Vegas is the cover charge at the casino.
Furthermore, the initial $5.1 billion will provide only two shuttles, which may or may not even be operational, depending on which NASA spokesman you happen to be talking to at the time. NASA projects some 580 shuttle launches over the next 12 years–which means that at least another four vehicles, and possibly six, will have to be built at a cost of $400 million each. This will add at least $1.6 billion to the total shuttle bill.
Then there are the launch costs, at $10 million a shot, which pad the price by another $5.8 billion. Payload costs, using NASA’s conservative estimate of $1,000 per pound, will add at least $20 billion more. That leaves us with a $32.5-billion expense for what is being called a $5.1-billion total cost.
But even $32.5 billion is not the grand total. It assumes that NASA’s very rough estimates of component costs are accurate. Cost overruns today are the rule, and many knotty technological problems remain to be solved before the shuttle gets off the ground. In a recent report the General Accounting Office pointed out that new projects result in an average overrun of 40 percent.
But just as NASA had turned back congressional challenges to the practical uses of the project on the grounds that it would at least save money, the agency countered the GAO by saying that money was not the most important thing about the shuttle. NASA has dismissed other criticism in similar fashion. Since the purposes of the shuttle are left so vague and diverse, NASA can turn on its critics as not having the broad competence to evaluate them, or it can merely pronounce that critics are wrong. When the National Academy of Sciences reported that the shuttle concept was “too vaguely defined with respect to cost and engineering to permit a realistic assessment,” NASA attacked the findings as “erroneous” and out of date.
Scientists, including Professor James Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belt, Thomas Gold, director of Cornell’s Radiophysics and Space Research Center, Brian O’Leary, an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell and former scientist-astronaut, have all questioned the program. The objections of scientists like these have been simply brushed off by NASA as “beyond the technical competency” of the individuals.
When the Air Force’s favorite study group, the RAND Corporation, looked at the shuttle and announced that it would have to be justified on some basis other than cost, because it was not a cost-effective item, NASA and the Air Force disowned the study as outdated. When a 1971 analysis by the Federation of American Scientists found the program of questionable value, NASA simply ignored the findings.
Scientific debates, however, are largely irrelevant to NASA and the work of its 228 media experts who get out the changing space message. You don’t see any of the PR people coming on the screen when NASA is congratulating all its employees who help launch the rockets, track the astronauts, and make space exploration possible. NASA doesn’t introduce its poster layout man along with its rocket-fuel specialist–but the PR people have done the job of insuring NASA’s actual survival on their $2-million-a-year public relations budget–supplemented by $3.4 million for educational activities. NASA has put out a torrent of booklets and pamphlets on the space shuttle. For general readership, it published For All Mankind–Space Progress to the Year 2000, prepared by former NASA administrator Dr. R. O. Paine (now a vice president of General Electric). Paine opens the first chapter with “Three score and seven years ago, the Wright brothers’ crude bi-plane,” and by the next paragraph he has the reader face to face with the shuttle: “the DC-3 of space.”
The agency does not hesitate to explain itself, especially to future voters. A high school student’s recent request for information elicited a voluminous bundle of publications weighing two-and-a-half pounds. Not all the publications had a price tag, but those that did totaled $3.70. The packet included:
It is hard to decide whether all this propaganda works, because NASA is not willing to take the risk that it might not. For all its justified faith in public relations, the agency sometimes makes sure of the result beforehand by manufacturing not only the message, but also the people who are supposed to be taken in by it.
For instance, when the space shuttle was debated on the NET program “The Advocates,” NASA sent along a back-up team of eight Washington experts and primed them with the latest sales pitch. During the actual taping in Los Angeles, NASA agents packed the house with employees from the local NASA contractor, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Later, an “Advocates” spokesman, commenting on the overwhelming support of 16,000 listener votes for the shuttle, said the program drew the second-highest response in “The Advocates” history (usually viewer response runs under 5,000 votes for both sides of any debate.) The NASA inspired ballots, he said, were products of an organized effort to promote the shuttle. Jack Anderson reported that General Electric, for one, circulated a flyer to its employees urging them to vote for the shuttle in “The Advocates” poll.
The press, normally skeptical of government’s efforts to sell itself, responds to the NASA barrage about the same way as the pre-arranged supporters responded to “The Advocates” poll. NASA invests an extraordinary amount of taxpayer dollars in providing the press with color pictures, movies, luncheons, trips to launches, handshakes with astronauts, and even strawberry cubes uneaten by the Apollo team, encased in lucite. The payoff is that the open press goes along with few questions asked. For example, the Washington outlet for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, the now-defunct Washington Daily News, recently published a space shuttle supplement fat with space company advertisements and filled with praise for the shuttle. Not a question or objection was raised.
What NASA’s middle-echelon people do for the public and the press, its top people do for Congress. Prior to the vote on this year’s authorization bill, members of NASA’s congressional liaison group fanned out through the corridors of congressional office buildings, clutching packets of material for some members of the Senate committee and other selected congressmen who could be counted on to come through for NASA. These packets contained speeches, fact sheets, and careful rebuttals to any arguments that might arise on the House floor in a last-minute attempt to kill or delay the shuttle.
NASA’s real forte with Congress is timing. It managed to have the authorization bill for the 1973 space program debated and voted on in the House while the Apollo 16 astronauts were still on the moon. House members listening to the debate were treated to sporadic accounts of the moon landing, and also to a number of up-to-date reports–conveyed by NASA–on the well-being of the astronauts, who were then experiencing troubles with their spacecraft.
The agency even got the astronauts to send Congress a congratulatory message before they left the moon. There was this interchange between the astronauts and ground control:
CAP COM: This looks like a good time for some good news here. The House passed, space budget gets the 277 to 60, which includes the votes for the shuttle.
DUKE: Now. Wonderful, wonderful. Tony, again, I’ll say it, with that salute, I’m proud to be an American. I’ll tell you–what a program and what a place and what an experience.
Just as NASA’s men were out in space for the first vote, they were back to address Congress moments before the House was scheduled to give its final approval. The space appropriations bill then passed handily. Earlier that day, the astronauts had showed a select group of congressmen color movies and slides of their recent trip, and after the presentation, the Apollo crew stood around and shook hands with legislators and their staffs in a House reception room.
That kind of pressure becomes more and more necessary as NASA wiggles toward survival, smokes out its critics, and mysteriously shuffles all its indispensable needs. This year NASA arbitrarily dropped a number of programs, an abrupt shift that dismayed many of its friends in Congress. Very simply, NASA felt that future funds should be funneled into the shuttle. Such administrative twists have been pulled by NASA before, but this kind of maneuver is not without hazard. For example, The New York Times reported that Senator John Pastore, chairman of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee, was angry after the abrupt cancellation of the NERVA nuclear rocket: “This committee was told time and time again that it [NERVA] was an essential program. We’ve spent $1.4 billion. . . then we willy-nilly … abandon the program.” A prudent silence was NASA’s only response.
There is little doubt that the space shuttle will be built. And it is almost equally certain that costs will far exceed both NASA’s estimates and what most congressmen think it will cost. Thus, Congress will find that it has unwittingly bought a $30-billion or $40-billion program that will make it just that much harder over the next dozen years to shift domestic priorities.
Part of the reason that NASA gets what it wants from Congress is the special appeal of its celestial missions and its earthly junkets. In July 1969, Congress was toying with the idea of canceling several meetings so that NASA could take all 435 members of the House to Cape Kennedy to view an Apollo mission. Cost-conscious Rep. H. R. Gross put a stop to the visit, but hundreds of congressmen and their families have been feted by NASA on innumerable “inspection visits.” Nobody seems to know what part of the space budget the money comes from.
But there is a more important reason for congressional support–politicians’ special weakness for the jobs argument. New jobs turn into votes, and few industries are in worse shape than aerospace. It was recently reported that contracts and subcontracts for the shuttle are spread out among 48 states. The creation of jobs should be a very important function of the federal government. But the question that is almost never asked is: Can this money be spent on a more useful project which will also result in the creation of more jobs? NASA can successfully argue that the shuttle will create 200,000 man-year jobs, even though space spending is one of the most capital-intensive areas of all. No one thinks to point out that $1 billion spent in housing, for example, creates 66,000 more jobs than $1 billion of space spending.
There is nothing unusual about the way NASA sells its programs to the public and to Congress. Every government agency tries to do the same. It just happens that NASA pushes its programs particularly effectively. It is Congress’ job not only to control the agency’s overzealous selling to the public, but also to make sure it isn’t taken in by the agency’s own puffery.
Les Aspin served for 22 years as a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin before becoming President Bill Clinton’s first secretary of defense.