MORE THAN 50 years after Apollo 11 set down on the Sea of Tranquility, people still like to say, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t…?” Sometimes the phrase captures a sense of frustration, as in a recent newspaper editorial lamenting gaps in urban snow removal: “Why can’t they clear the sidewalks?!” More often, the man-on-the-moon trope gets deployed to remind us what great things human ingenuity—combined with massive federal spending—can accomplish. A 2009 book, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government, pretty much sums up that approach. When the Biden White House recently unveiled a new medical-research initiative, the project was dubbed—you guessed it—the “Cancer Moonshot.”
It’s easy to see why fans of big government programs like to hold up NASA as the gleaming archetype of bureaucracy at its best. The Apollo program really was one of humankind’s most inspiring achievements. But it was anything but a lean, mean operation. The effort that eventually put 12 men on the moon employed 400,000 workers and consumed up to 4.4 percent of the federal budget over a decade. Was it worth it? I think so. Was it a sustainable way to maintain a human presence in space? Not even close.
And have you ever noticed that those paeans to NASA’s can-do spirit tend to ignore the agency’s accomplishments since, oh, about the time Apollo 17’s crew left the moon in 1972? NASA’s post-Apollo history is a frustrating lesson in how a once-resourceful bureaucracy can get dragged down by, well, bureaucracy. NASA continues to do important work in space—including operating space telescopes and Mars rovers. Let’s call that Good NASA. But over the past five decades, the space agency has also demonstrated an alarming tendency to get bogged down in dead-end programs, lose track of real goals, and waste massive quantities of money. That’s Bad NASA. And anyone who claims to care about making government work needs to understand how Bad NASA got that way.
It wasn’t because it hired the wrong people. To this day, NASA is full of brilliant, dedicated professionals. But lack of focus and perverse incentives have taken their toll on the agency. Take the space shuttle. After Apollo, NASA knew it couldn’t keep launching gargantuan Saturn V rockets every time it wanted to put people and things in orbit. The reusable shuttle vehicle was supposed to be a reliable and affordable replacement. It was a good idea that just didn’t work. The shuttle turned out to be horrifically expensive to fly and far too prone to exploding in flight. It should have been retired after the 1986 Challenger disaster. But there was no replacement ready, and Congress wouldn’t let NASA move on in any event.
Lawmakers in Congress liked the shuttle not despite its huge expense, but because of it. The shuttle program involved hundreds of contractors and thousands of jobs, spread across some 36 states. That added up to a lot of politicians who could brag about bringing home the NASA bacon—and not too many advocates for a safer, more affordable approach. Even when Congress finally agreed to let NASA start developing a new launch system, it insisted the agency build the biggest, most expensive rocket possible. The most powerful lawmakers successfully demanded that the new rocket include specific components that just happened to be manufactured in their districts.
The program some called “Apollo on steroids” was controversial from the start. Various space experts (and even some NASA leaders) advocated killing it outright, but Congress prevailed. And presidents from George W. Bush to Joe Biden all promised that U.S. astronauts would soon be flying the new rocket to the moon—or even heading to Mars. The current version, known as the Space Launch System, has already soaked up $20 billion without ever leaving the ground.
This year, SLS (with its “Orion” crew capsule on top) may finally make it to the launch pad. The new rocket is a beast; in its ultimate iteration it will be even bigger than Saturn V. Unlike Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which recovers and reuses boosters and other rocket components to cut costs, SLS was designed by NASA to be fully expendable. And that makes it obscenely expensive. At a time when launch prices are plummeting around the world, SLS could cost as much as $2 billion per mission—a price tag that guarantees it will barely ever fly. Meanwhile, SpaceX has begun testing its next-generation “Starship.” This huge, fully reusable rocket will be able to do almost everything SLS does at a tiny fraction of the cost.
So why did NASA spend decades building an overpriced rocket that it doesn’t need and that it will probably launch only a handful of times? Because flying astronauts wasn’t the real goal. The program was designed to maximize jobs and expenditures, not to make spaceflight routine and affordable. That’s Bad NASA in a nutshell. Anyone who wants to put the government in control of, say, health care or energy infrastructure should study this lesson in how NASA almost entirely lost its ability to do the main thing it was created to do: fly people into space.
Fortunately, Good NASA still coexists. Even while the agency was doubling down on SLS, NASA leaders were simultaneously reaching out to SpaceX and other private space companies. As I wrote in a 2020 column, NASA forged a private-public partnership with SpaceX in which it pays the company a fee to launch cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. (The concept is a bit like chartering a fishing boat rather than trying to build and sail your own.) The SpaceX relationship is saving NASA billions. It also allows the agency to fly more missions than it could have flown with either the shuttle or SLS.
“What NASA does best is planetary science,” says aerospace consultant Rand Simberg, author of Safe Is Not an Option, a critique of the agency’s overly conservative approach to manned spaceflight. “What it does worst is develop and operate systems for human spaceflight, as exemplified by SLS/Orion.” Simberg and other “new space” advocates hope to see SpaceX—and other emerging private space ventures—continue giving NASA new and more efficient ways to accomplish missions. “I think the advent of Starship is going to allow NASA to do a lot more planetary science,” he says. In fact, the agency has already announced that it has selected Musk’s Starship as a potential lunar landing vehicle for future moon missions.
While NASA astronauts haven’t ventured beyond low Earth orbit in decades, the agency has achieved spectacular successes in unmanned exploration. Dozens of NASA space probes and telescopes are exploring the solar system and the universe right now. That’s Good NASA at its best. The Perseverance rover landed on Mars in 2020 and is conducting ambitious geological research. After many delays and cost overruns, the James Webb Space Telescope launched late last year and successfully deployed its enormous gold-plated mirror. It might turn out to be one of the biggest advances in space imaging since Galileo first pointed his telescope at the night sky in 1609.
Can NASA also reinvigorate its flagging human-spaceflight program? I think so. The key will be letting the agency focus on what it does best and leaving the rest to private industry. As Simberg and other experts advise, NASA should stop trying to build hardware and simply buy the services it needs from more nimble enterprises. It’s time to break up the NASA Industrial Complex. And while we’re at it, can we retire the idea that every national problem can be solved with a huge Apollo-style government program?
Exploring space remains vital, both as part of America’s cultural progress and for national defense. (Don’t look now, but China is trying to seize the high ground over our heads.) No doubt, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos will be launching more of their own private space missions. And that competition will be good for U.S.-based innovation. But NASA still needs to play a leading role in space exploration. Let’s just make sure we put Good NASA in charge. And let’s stop saying “If we can put a man on the moon…”
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