Bring on the nerds

Lost in Space: the fall of Nasa and the dream of a new space age

Greg Klerkx <em>Secker & Warburg,

The Space Shuttle looks what it is - a costly, inept, ugly, compromised failure to engage with the physical realities of space exploration. It is not, as promised, reuseable, as it has to be virtually rebuilt after every mission. It has only ever flown a tiny fraction of the missions of which it was once said to be capable. It is also obsolete, full of outdated technology. One refit of a shuttle involved ripping out 1,000lbs of 1970s wiring that was doing absolutely nothing. And finally, as the corpses of the crews of Challenger and Columbia will testify, it is very dangerous.

"What is the cause of the management's fantastic faith in the machinery?" Richard Feynman, the great physicist, asked at the inquiry into the Challenger disaster. One Nasa estimate had been that the agency would lose one shuttle every 100,000 missions. In fact, it has lost two in 113 missions. Feynman never got an answer because, as this book reveals, Nasa does not give answers.

Space has been one of the most startling failures of my lifetime. Once those heart-stoppingly beautiful Apollo rockets started flying to the moon, it seemed like just a matter of time before we would be flying to Mars and beyond. But in the 30 years since the moon landings, nobody has gone beyond earth orbit. In fact, billions of dollars down the line, nobody has done anything much.

There have been successes, such as the Hubble Telescope, heroically repaired after launch by a shuttle crew. But why did it need fixing at all? The recent pictures from the US landers on Mars are not much better than the ones we got from the Viking landers in the 1970s. Worst of all, the International Space Station, Nasa's big ticket to the future, is looking even more botched than the shuttle. One possibility now is that it will house only a crew of three and, as it takes 2.5 people just to run it, that leaves 0.5 to do the science. On present projections the ISS is a fantastically costly waste of space.

What happened? Nasa, writes Klerkx. There is no intrinsic technological reason why we should not be cruising the planets, if not the stars, by now. There is only a bureaucratic one.

Nasa launched operations in 1958 in a moment of national panic after the Soviets had launched Sputnik. Its brief was to beat the commies at the space game. This was modified by John F Kennedy, who committed the agency to getting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. It had its genius - Wernher von Braun - and it had the money. As the US progressively outperformed the Soviet Union, the question of who would win the space race came to seem increasingly academic.

The problem was that the Soviets had a greater genius. Sergei Korolev was the brain behind Sputnik, and he made Yuri Gagarin the first man in space. He also created rockets that remain the most reliable and cheapest way of putting payloads in space. If you want to put a satellite up, your best bet is still Baikonur rather than Florida.

The further problem was that, with colossal irony, the Americans took on the Russians by creating the Soviet-style bureaucracy of Nasa. Once the moon landings were finished, the agency did what all such organisations eventually do - it turned inwards. The world outside Nasa came to exist only as a threat. Klerkx documents how it stamped on every form of external competition, insisting the Mir Space Station be brought down unnecessarily and crushing the lovely Delta Clipper single-stage-to-orbit rocket. Most of this book consists of a dispiriting litany of Nasa's invariably successful attempts to extinguish all competition.

Why did it do this? Because, it seems, of the absurdly cosy relationship between Nasa and the giant aerospace companies and because of the shuttle. The shuttle took on a life of its own. It sucked up all available funding and created a commitment that made Nasa terrified of anything better and cheaper. The same process is now happening with the ISS.

In this climate, independent space initiatives are all but impossible. Klerkx describes many heroic failures. Usually what brings them down is the brother- in-law problem. Because Nasa is such a monopoly, anybody with expertise in the space business will either be working for it or have a brother-in-law who does. Corporate culture means that if you work for the agency, you believe it is the sole repository of space wisdom. All outside ideas are, therefore, greeted with scepticism.

Klerkx's solution is a wholesale privatisation of the space business. It is the only way to destroy the deathly grip of Nasa. The shuttle should be binned as soon as possible.

He is, he admits, a nerd and a space-nut, and a former manager at Seti - the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. He is, therefore, a bitterly disappointed man. The book is suffused with purposeful anger. This makes it a tough read for the layperson, as one ploughs through the corporate politics. He leavens the mix with reportage of his visits and encounters and, in any case, one reads with the certain conviction that this had to be said.

There is, I am sure, another side to this story. Is Nasa as bad as Klerkx paints it? Strangely, perhaps, I hope not. There is something about the memories of those Apollo rockets, about the rescue of Apollo 13, about those awesomely clever men who leapt cheering or weeping from their desks and screens at each moment of triumph or disaster, that I find consoling. They make the very acronym Nasa seem as romantic as the Mini Cooper, the Grateful Dead or Woodstock. But the truth is that, like them, it meant something only for a brief moment. Time conquers all. Nasa is dead. Bring on the nerds.

Bryan Appleyard is the author of Brave New Worlds: genetics and the human experience (HarperCollins)