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Old September 24 2012, 03:50 AM   #181
gturner
Admiral
 
Location: Kentucky
Re: Envisioning the world of 2100

newtype_alpha wrote: View Post

There's one thing that occurs to me to mention at this point, an it's this: It's not that I believe that heavy lift vehicles don't have any place in the future of space exploration (the Falcon Heavy is almost that already). Actually, I'm coming around to the opinion that NASA has no place in the future of space exploration. Even when they have access to the best engineering expertise on the planet, they are politically and systematically prevented from ever doing anything that makes sense.
Part of that is explained by the completely different set of incentives of a government run program.

If the goals are relatively fixed, they can't make tremendous improvements (raising productivity per man or per dollar), because then either their staff or funding (actually both) would be cut. For example, if we'd developed a Shuttle replacement that used a tenth the manpower per flight, NASA would only need a tenth as many workers to maintain the same flight right and meet the same schedules. With 90% of the workers gone, so goes 90% of their managers.

Since most of an agencies budget is actually personnel (at some point, since machines can't cash checks) the means NASA funding would take a 90% cut, too. It would be viewed as a total disaster, and the unemployed workers and managers would throw eggs at the engineer who came up with the new system, as would NASA administrators who just saw their power, influence, and prestige erode away to nothing, as their once vaunted agency becomes the budgetary rival of the fisheries commission.

In contrast, a private sector company would jump on such a technological opportunity in a heartbeat, because their revenues derive from sales ($X per satellite delivered) and the lower satellite launch costs would increase the market for launches. Their high-labor, break-even financial position suddenly changes into a low-labor business with 90% profits on each sale.

You could swap the private sector manager and the NASA manager and it wouldn't matter, because in each case they're responding to signals, incentives, and rules in their respective political and economic environments.

The fundamental problem with NASA, like any government monopoly funded by the public, is that as long as they're not making a scandal they can keep on doing things in the same old inefficient ways, just like the DMV or other agencies. Sure, you could get a new driver's license by taking an iPhone photo of yourself and bouncing it against an automated computer system, shooting the new license to your printer, but then what would all the girls at the DMV do?

Private launch companies are the UPS and FedEx to the US Postal Service, and if they become e-mail too, it's all over for NASA, which can go back to being the space fisheries commission.
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