The failure of the space agencies 

by Adriano Autino

The European and U.S. space agencies entered a state of vertical ideological crisis, that will inevitably lead them to unprecedented strategic turns, or to the obsolescence of the role of the agencies themselves, as we knew them until now. 

Different for nature, composition and political strategies, the two agencies are united by a chronic incapability to warn in time the ongoing changes, also when they are epoch-making ones. I postpone to another article (and maybe I will ask for help to someone who knows better those realities) the analysis of the Japanese agency, recently renewed and that, for what I can understand, it appears more prepared, in comparison to the western colleagues, to the new opening phase. Another chapter, apart, they also deserve China, India and Brazil. 

Being about to this analysis, I have to make some necessary premise. Criticisms and not required suggestions are cause of bother for the bureaucrats, convinced that nobody can have ideas or points of view better than theirs, or even just different ones, but nevertheless pertinent and worthy of attention. There is also, in the space community, a significant current maintaining that we shall not give suggestions to the agencies. Helping the agencies in any way, means in fact to delay their extinction. I clarify therefore that I spend my time for the ones that - be they part or not of the bureaucracy - are not so obnubilated by the bureaucratic thought, thus they are able to consider different opinions. 

As to the destiny of the agencies, I am rather inclined to think that they have to spend the public money better than what they did until now: since Yuri Gagarin's flight to nowadays they spent a trillion of American dollars, and they have not lowered of one only cent the cost to orbit of one kg of terrestrial material! See also, at this purpose, the analysis made by Dr. Patrick Collins (SpaceFuture, NASDA consultant, teacher at the Tokio and  Azabu Universities, in Japan). This would be enough, for conscientious officials, to begin a balance of what it must be hold - at all extents - as a failure. But a bureaucrat consider himself well above any duty of service toward the sovereign citizens: he sees them as subjects. As an absolute monarch, as long as the fiscal yeld doesn't stop, he doesn't see any reason to put his own role in discussion! Rather, he will also try everything to find "reasonable" and "sustainable" motivations, in order "to sustain" his own chair and his own desk. Other people will have to face the crises and the market' ups and downs: the bureaucrats will affirm, not without a certain haughtiness, to be "super partes". Yes, their income doesn't depend on the market, and they are well able to consider themselves superior, and also to judge "venal" us, poor deadly ones. We that, in lack of orders, we risk to close our firms and we have to fight with the banks, the tax office and all the other powers, of a system that's very tender with the owners of great capitals (or at least a great appetite), and severe with the owners of few or none capital. Anyone can well understand as it can grow up, in the real society, the anger against the unmoveable bureaucracies: they are deaf to any demand, they stonewall and/or engulf any idea not born inside their back-garden. Nevertheless, I think that, dismantling a tool, we can clear its encumbrance, but we also loose its utilities: once dismantled the agencies, we could also realize that we don't have anything else to collect funds to support useful searchs, and this could even be a major cause, for missing the space economy train. 

Besides we would disperse a patrimony of scientific and technological knowledges that costed however quite a lot and, if we knew how to use it for real objectives, it would constitute a great wealth. It would be very better if not bureaucratized people would alternate at the direction of the agencies, people able of social analysis, and to reset up totally the strategy. 

To stay with the feet on Earth (and how could we do otherwise? ), if bureaucracies are "fireplaces that don't suffer smoke", deaf to any criticism until they are not touched in the economic side, why the hell they are in crisis? Simple: because they are broadly touched in their economic side! 

The reduction of the commercial space

NASA saw its budget curtailed by the Bush administration, in favour of the military engagement, first in Afghanistan and then in Irak, exactly while it was trying (with some success) to rebuild a post-cold-war mediatic image, thanks to the automated exploration of Mars. In 2004 the same administration played, to the heads of the same space agency, the wake-up of the "Moon Mars and beyond" plan. In practice: "please stop playing with the toy cars, and put again astronautics at the center of your strategy". The Chinese enterprise was needed, in order to arrive to so much. Sign - if we needed another demonstration - that the western political directions don't reason upon preventive analysis of what it happens on this planet, but only upon the received solicitations and the electoral surveys. Is it possible that everybody kept on amusing by an entertainment based strategy, until the Colonel Yang Liwei made his flight in orbit, last autumn? Yet, it takes more than two days to send a man in orbit. There was time enough to understand what the Chinese were preparing, and to reason accordingly on the western strategy, but our bureaucrats have slept blessed, until their "mother" did not kick them out of bed. While they were still, metaphorically, rubbing their eyes - and foretasting a substantial breakfast (read=a substantial budget increase) - here that, from the desert of Mojave, an annoying mosquito rised up: SpaceShipOne. And even more the multimillion agency's budgets are put in discussion, since SS1 repeated the enterprise of the NASA' X15 with just 30 million dollars! They can lift their eyebrows with sufficiency, on the costs of the Chinese enterprise, since the Chinese economy is not yet a fully market economy. But Scaled Composites is an American enterprise, and fully subject to all the laws of the market! Never as in this month of July 2004, those sirs must have feel the chairs tremble under the bottom, and all the looks on them, with sardonic expressions, say: "how much did you say that mission should cost?". 

To NASA, at least, some well precise tasks were assigned, and whoever will move to the White House (or will renew the contract for other four years) in next November, won't be able to take back. And the good American boys at least have this beautiful use: they are able to redirect and move very quickly.

ESA is very worse: it is completely lost in the fog. The series of negative events seems to be endless: the telecommunications' debacle and the subequent vertical fall of the launchers market; the general bending of the world economy after September 11th; the climate of continuous war that followed. And, recently, the European Union enlarged at 25 countries seems to be a factor of political uncertainty, more than a strong point. So the European Union risks to miss the great opportunity of a 300 million people market, in the paralysis and total lack of authority of the central government, elected by little more than 40% of the having right to vote. And however deprived of true decisional powers, wrt the member states. The great emphasis given to the widening of the union in the 2007 agenda, strategic four years plan of ESA, written in autumn 2003, plays nowadays as another factor of uncertainty. 

The process of concentration of the big European space industry, in action from at least 10 years, does not give any sign to reach to an end. The 2007 agenda clearly says that - as highlander - one only of them will remain. One only, gigantic, monopolist with a very huge appetite, will englobe Astrium, EADS-LV, Alcatel, Matra-Marconi and, in Italy, Alenia and Telespazio (already acquired by Alcatel). The big space industry, orphan of the commercial telecommunications market, is fully financed, nowadays, by public money, through the agency. The agency, therefore, could do anything but to seek for a new sure, abundant, source to (as we can read in the already quoted document) "to maintain the European space industry". 

A future in uniform? 

And ESA found it. In the 2007 agenda, a 23 pages document, the word "defence" appears 33 times, while the expression "human spaceflight" appears only 6 times, and always related to non European activities (United States, China, Russia). The strategic turn of the European space agency seems therefore traced with a certain precision: from the ideology of the so-called "sustainable development", that gave priority to earth observation and telecommunications, they pass to the safety, in the military meaning of the term. The basic philosophy doesn't change, therefore: they're always looking at their feet, rather than to lift the look to the endless universe. Rather than pointing to acqure new vital spaces and resources, to help the free development of the civilization, they prefer to observe the existing space. And they revert to the old obsession of the power: the military control. Nothing new, therefore, under the sun. If the cake doesn't grow up, the quarrelsomeness of the competitors will surely increase. And it will increase parallelly, therefore, the job for heads and martinets, both with and without uniform. 

In the same time, the policy of opening toward the small and medium enterprise is fading out, and the continuation of the same Aurora program is questioned, as well as other programs directed to accept ideas and study/research initiatives. The Galileo project obviously towers, so big and pretentious that does not even succeed in starting, despite the old dispute among Germany and Italy for the leadership seems to be resolved, in favour of the Germans, already since some time. 

Written in October 2003, the agenda quotes China only as a partner of the Galileo project. Just 8 months before the SpaceShipOne's enterprise, the vertexes of ESA didn't warn the need to notice the X-Prize, neither the job of many small firms, endowed with great ideas and great courage. They neither mention any reusable vehicle, though an ESA exponent, interviewed after the Chinese enterprise, ventilated the resume of the Hermes project (the European shuttle, canceled some 10 years ago). 

Any one can also see that, while for NASA the difficulty was (and is) "to undress the military uniform", ESA finds more difficulties to wear it. We read in fact, in a passage on the relationships among ESA and the European Union institutions: "The most important aspect of the evolution of ESA is its position, together with national agencies, in Europe. That position needs to be well-defined in the framework of European Union institutions, so that ESA acquires a legitimacy it still currently lacks in that context, having developed in parallel with their political construction. Such legitimacy is necessary so that ESA does not have to continue justifying time and again its role in the framework of the EU's sector policies, its role in the construction of a European defence policy, its role in relation to the Commissioner responsible for space, etc. This continual need to justify its role leads to inefficiency and stress, which work to the detriment of Europe and its citizens." But poor, poor bureaucrats! They don't feel enough cuddled and reassured, despite the fabulous salaries, the benefits, and, above all, the privilege to make the work that many - true astronauts, in the heart and in the aims, which would be proud to serve in those duties -envy them with all sincerity! 

Bewaring the thing from the point of view of the the European Union, the situation doesn't appear very different. If the approach is more "political", the substance doesn't change. In the "white paper" AEROSPACE 2003-33, bringing the date of November 11th 2003, the space expense is supposed to rise from the 2004 5.38 G to an amount between 6.6 and 8 G (in 2033). Though it reaches to explore a 30 year horizon, the document sticks not giving any weight to astronautics, if not as a marginal activity, concerning the "loyal collaboration" with the United States! The document candidly admits besides that "the human space flight and the exploration of the space have emerged as special elements from the process of consultation", but this doesn't mean at all that they will trouble, inserting such elements in the agency's strategies! 

As far as the 2033 objectives are concerned, the European space program includes the economic growth (but how to get it, if they don't foresee any true lines of industrial development?), the creation of jobs and the industrial competitiveness, nearby of course the mythical "sustainable development". This last is in phase of obsolescence, but still able to make damages. Here we find also the objective of a stronger safety and defense for everybody, close to the widening of the union crowned by success, the reduction of the poverty, and the aid to development. 

The ones who expected a bigger market orientation, more attention to the opening of space to the privates, more impulse to the astronautic technologies, for the space tourism and the geo-lunar infrastructure - i.e. a true politics of development - are, another time, served. Or, at least, until there the European Space Agency didn't arrive yet: on this side of Atlantic sea, the spoiled bureaucrats are slower to wake up than their United States colleagues, perhaps also because nobody handles to wake them up. 

The node of the development costs 

External observers, missing any familiarity with the design processes in the aerospace environment, are fully legitimated to be well confused. In the '990 years they assisted to the proliferation of the so-called "low-cost missions", in the name of the new philosophy: many small missions, instead of few high-cost missions. I need here to make a necessary premise. The items that keep high the space missions budget, in comparison to terrestrial applications, are, very schematically: 


the special hardware, cosmic radiations resistant, produced in rooms with high coefficient of cleaning, submitted to very rigorous vibration test and built with particular criterions of robustness, 


the documentation imposed by the quality standard methodologies, 


the tests imposed by the quality standard methodologies, 


the safety criterions and protection required for the human space flight, 


besides, naturally, the elevated cost of the whole bureaucratic "apparat". 

To realize the downsizing policy, NASA decided to act above all on two variables: it adopted commercial hardware components and it gave priority to automated missions. For ESA the jump was not so high, considering that astronautics was neither before a priority. It was, therefore, an exercise targeted to demolish the cost of the missions, without nevertheless demolishing the cost of one kg. to orbit. The solution was to sacrifice, once more, astronautics, in order to keep intact the government power on space. Perfectly abreast of the same philosophy that sacrified the development of the RLVs, in order to maintain the industry of the spendable rockets. Anyhow people prefer to watch Mars in TV than to go personally there. Perfectly "sustainable", little pollutant, certain surer, in comparison to the dangers of the true trip. But the "jolly good times" never last for a long time, unfortunately and luckily. 

China announces it's program of lunar colonization, and it completes a definite first step. Here that NASA has to remember (again) to be not only a government agency, but also a military agency! Until here everything well, from the point of view of the bureaucrats and of the military hierarchies, they see a new active role, and therefore growing budgets. 

But the really disruptive element is SpaceShipOne. This is difficult to explain in plain words to the public opinion: why the hell the NASA and ESA missions have to cost so much, if Scaled Composites has succeeded in reaching 100 kms height, with less than 30 M$? Let's make some "account in pocket", and to disclose at least partly the mystery. We take back the scheme of before, comparing two methods of job almost entirely antithetical, for missions with human crew. 

Obviously many comments can be made on the above table. As to the different setup, it can be reassumed in this: it is the difference between the artisan method of working and the one of the (expecially public) industry. 

Who could anyway expect that the craftsmanship would jump out, and really on the most technological frontier? Well, ladies and gentlemen, expected or not, here it is! It made its flight June 21st 2004. Apart all the considerations, the technicians of Scaled Composites don't enslave anybody but themselves, because they are convinced of what they do, and they freely invest their own hours and their own enthusiasm. 

We can call what emerges from such comparison a bigger maturity, of the artisans, above all for their ability not to be slaves of the quality methodologies, that certainly represent a remarkable incidence on the total cost of the project. I don't think that the Scaled Composites' designers - for the most part "wild old foxes" and "living legends" - is fasting of the quality methodological standards. But they know how much and whether to use it and how, to reach the objective without being buried by the paper. I am saying all this without knowing them and without having yet spoken with them, therefore I expect denials and corrections. 

The fact is that the quality standards currently used by the agencies, were born in the public context (aerospace and defense). Having no budget problems, they grew up at excess, keeping on branching and specializing the rules, traditionally giving more importance to the formal aspects than to the substantial one. A priestly caste of quality experts was formed, able to criticize the formal appearance of the documents, but not their technical content. The developed systems can therefore respect all the normative rules, and nevertheless not to be sure neither reliable. The loss of well two shuttles on five, and of a certain number of Martian probes, is the proof. In the house of ESA, the failures of Arian 5 amount to 21% (4 on 19 launches), highly overcoming the ones of Arian 4, 2,6% (just 3 on 114 launches!), sign that methodologies alone are not enough, or they became perhaps a more and more blocking boulder. Or probably, thing even more dramatic, they give the illusion of safety, reducing therefore the attention and the application of the human intelligence. Another ideological failure for the agencies, on which we all should reflect. 

The current quality standards represent, likely, the extreme hit of tail of the industrial age: the attempt to serialize the intellectual job (as it was made in the Soviet union, by the notorious GOST). The illusion that, writing a complete handbook for each design activity, it was possible to use little experienced workers, therefore perfectly interchangeable: the extreme mortification of intelligence, the triumph of the bureaucratic thought! 

It would be now finally time to reverse the rout: instead of keeping on proliferating standards, more and more diversified and detailed, increasing the rules jungle (and the consequent dismay of the ones who should apply them), let's start to think about their rationalization and reduction. A very minor number of rules, draft finally by the experience of designers, and not by "quality experts". Which moment is it better than now, for a true re-examination, considering that the success of SpaceShipOne is (and will be) there to see, still mediatically warm? 

An alternative agenda for agencies 

Since I always thought that a critical article without proposals is less than half of the possible contribution, I come to some ideas for a different role and a possible new strategy, more suitable to the challenges that our civilization is facing. 

A space program should integrate private investments and support from the community, according to some basic "user requirements", that I find logical to re-specify hereafter (please also see my paper for the IAF congress 2003 "Project & Test Engineering Methodology", presented at the 54th IAF Congress, Bremen 29/09 - 03/10 2003, on the quality of the space systems): 


Space Systems shall allow Mankind to establish as soon as possible self-maintaining bases outside of its birth planet. 


Space Systems shall be sure enough not to put in danger the human life in space, not more than it was in danger on the terrestrial surface.


Space Systems shall not cost so much to prevent, by facts, the development of a true Space Economy in short time.

The above basic requirements have a contingent character, but they will certainly keep their validity on a horizon of many centuries to come. We can add some other ones, children of the above three. 

In order to clear away the field from a possible misunderstanding, I don't believe that the engagement on the safety and defense front was entirely to be discarded. However it is necessary to well discuss its requirements, above all bringing the discussion out of the narrow circles of the political-military hierarchies. Such people always reasoned in a militarist optics, while, instead, the matter of the defense must be faced in an humanist optics. The same reaganian "star shield", being a purely defensive system, it was not so wicked as its detractors painted it. Being these ones aimed more by the worry that the American imperial power became unassailable, rather than by pacifist aims. The new space defensive systems should be targeted to the defense of the human life as supreme value, both the lives of "our" people and the ones of the "enemy". Another basic requirement is to avoid to put too much the nose in the private life of the sovereign citizens. 

It is therefore of vital importance, and priority, an ethical discussion, before embarking in the design of any defensive system. Furthermore, I am absolutely against that the defense becomes the strategic priority of the European Space Agency. If the big industry will have for a period to reappraise itself it is not a problem of mine. The big industry is, after all, endowed with a power of self-preservation entirely comparable to, if not bigger than, the one of the statist bureaucracies: it passes with boldness from the exaltation of the virtues of the free market (in order to have free hands when the economy is growing) to the robbery of the public money, when the phase is negative, blackmailing the community with the fable of the "jobs" to maintain. 

Shortly, the guidelines for a new European Space Agency, are the following ones. 

The EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY should begin a transition program, that brings it to split in two structures, endowed with wide autonomy: 


a structure of advanced space search, carrying on searches both autonomously, both subcontracting to contractors, also using methods more advanced than the EMITS database (by itself a not badly system, to make public the tenders), to favor the birth of search initiatives in the society, also by single people, endowed with good ideas and suitable preparation; 


a financial structure, to coordinate public and private investments, able to create investment funds and stocks to support (i) the validation of the astronautic technologies (ii) the birth of the astronautic industry; such structure should in short time to become financially autonomous, operating as a financial agency on the stock-exchange market. 

As to the priority thematic areas, I propose the following ones: 




to draw the philosophy of the space age, and to favor the development of a new metaphysics, a new vision of the open world, whose boirders are widened at least to the solar system; 


re-examination of the quality standard methodologies; 


to set methods of involvement of the people in the society, for the resolution of complex problems; 


to finance the art of the space age. 




reusable earth-orbit vehicles, for transportation of passengers and goods; 


suborbital flyers for passengers transportation; 


orbital and lunar structures and housing modules, space hotel; 


reuse and disposal of the space wastes; 
- validation and development of the inflatable and chemically rigidizable technologies; 
- lunar colonies. 

BIO-ASTRONAUTICS - objectives:


artificial gravity, to prevent the bony and muscular deterioration; 


protection from the cosmic radiations; 


production of water and oxygen in artificial environments, copying and accelerating the natural processes; 


artificial ecosystems in closed environments, using the International Space Station as research laboratory. 



solar power harvested in space, both for terrestrial and space clients; 


solar power produced on the moon, for lunar, earthling and space clients;  


industrial production of micro-gravity products; 


zero gravity hospitals; 


disposal and storage of dangerous wastes; 


dangerous industrial productions move in earth orbit.  




astronomic observatories on the Moon and in the points of Lagrange; 


research laboratories on the Moon and in the points of Lagrange; 


wide range researches on the benefits and on the conveniences of the zero-gravity; 


researches for the terraforming of extraterrestrial celestial bodies. 

Obviously I am not speaking to cancel all the existing stuff (telecommunications, earth observation, various experimentations). But it is time to acknowledge that such themes are no more priority, and that the above listed ones have to be first. 

To those gentlemen who believe to be by law owners of any idea, only because they occupy a desk where institutionally the ideas should be born, it is required, first of all, an exercise of humility. There are people who, since years, carry on an independent philosophic, politic and economic search on the space topics. It is from such a search that they draw their ideas, and who could develop such ideas better than them? Many recent events are giving proofs that we are right. I am not suggesting to the bureaucrats to go home, leaving their place to others, but only to accept the concept that there are, out of agencies, a rich and  prolific elaboration. They should look very much more for the collaboration of the ones who studies and undertakes for true passion. Otherwise they could fail again, as, on the long distance, whoever places himself below the minimum necessary ethical level that his own age requires will fail. The post-industrial societies can exit ahead from the current crisis, and to be again the cultural vanguard for the whole civilization (as they undoubtedly were during the industrial age) only if they will be able to complete a decisive ethical step. And a simpler and more transparent method for recognizing the paternity and the ownership of ideas it constitutes an essential precondition of such ethical step. 

Another ideological failure would not be only yours, since it would revert on the whole civilization. Of yours (and our) successes, instead, we all would be proud! 

[023.AA.TDF.2004 - 25.07.2004]