How to Fix NASA

NASA has plenty on its plate these days: it must resolve the future of the space shuttle fleet and the Hubble telescope, monitor the health of its two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and execute President Bush's recent directive to return astronauts to the moon in the next 15 years. But all that might seem trivial for the space organization when compared with the task of defending itself against a penetrating indictment in Greg Klerkx's new book, "Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age," (400 pages. Pantheon. $27.85).

Klerkx is a former manager at the SETI Institute, the Silicon Valley organization that uses radio telescopes to scour the cosmos, looking for signs of intelligent life in the universe. He's devotedly followed America's space efforts since the heady days of the Apollo moon landings but thinks that things have gone sharply downhill from there. The chief culprit: NASA, an organization that, Klerkx charges, not only can't think beyond its own self-preservation but effectively strangles all independent commercial attempts to change the dynamics of getting to space.

The book is an absorbing jeremiad for those who, like Klerkx, look beyond the PR shots of jubilant Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists rejoicing at the latest photos from Mars and wonder what happened to the real promise of the space age--sending humans beyond Earth's orbit. The book examines declining public interest in human space exploration since the Challenger disaster and profiles a host of promising entrepreneurial efforts that have been strangled by the barriers NASA erects to preserve the status quo. Klerkx reserves his greatest contempt for the space shuttle and the International Space Station, two massive, expensive programs of dubious scientific value and safety that have come to represent NASA's bureaucratic inflexibility.

In a recent interview from his home in London, Klerkx spoke to NEWSWEEK's Brad Stone about the new Bush plan, the most promising space startups and whether NASA deserves a break.

How much credit do you give NASA for its two Mars landings?

It's hard to land robotic probes on distant worlds. NASA had its fair share of problems but has also had successes like Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity. It's a triumph for NASA's robotics program, but that is very different from its human space-flight program. One would hope in the new Bush space plan, these kinds of missions continue.

On Jan. 14, President Bush laid out a bold vision for the future of human space exploration. How practical is that vision?

If you're interested in a future for human space flight, you have to start at a positive position on the Bush proposal. And then you have to ask the really cold-blooded questions. Can NASA do this? Do they have the technical expertise? Do they have the organizational system in place? If you consider the shuttle and space-station programs, it doesn't look good. Both have been consistently mismanaged. And from what I'm reading about how NASA is beginning to shape the new initiative, it looks like the same players and the same way of doing business. I think this plan has a chance of being funded for as long as Mr. Bush is in office. After that, if time and budgets are blown, subsequent congresses and presidents will say, this isn't what we ought to be doing with our money.

Is the plan enough to get people excited in human space flight again?

If there is one large philosophical flaw in the Bush plan, it is that by revisiting the kind of vision and the kind of process that drove Apollo, you can revitalize NASA and revive interest in human space flight. As long as people are only spectators, they will lose interest very quickly. One real bellwether on how this will go is whether NASA sticks to its commitment to fly Barbara Morgan [the teacher who was to have followed Christa McAuliffe into space]. If NASA sticks to its commitment, I would be more optimistic. If it does send people to moon, at least one should be someone who represents the general public, whether a teacher or a writer or an artist. It shouldn't be just the usual buzz-cut crew.

Why should NASA take the added risk of sending civilians when space flight has proven so risky of late?

Because NASA risks boring or alienating its paying public if that public doesn't connect to those doing the exploring. Sending Barbara Morgan and others like her would both raise the visibility of NASA's activities and send a message that the agency understood the very personal appeal, to many, of space flight.

Do you think the new moon/Mars plan spells doom for the shuttle or the International Space Station?

Backing out of the space shuttle and the space station may be the best thing that comes out of this plan. The space shuttle is absolutely a dangerous, unreliable and costly vehicle. If I had control of that project, I would make sure it never flew again. The next time there's a shuttle accident--and even if it flies through 2010, that's a lot of time for it to happen again--any plan that Mr. Bush has put in place will come crashing down. As for the ISS, they talk about it being completed in 2010. I'm not sure how quickly either one of those programs are going to end.

You write in support of an entrepreneurial space industry, but haven't most of those smaller companies failed over the last few decades?

There's a couple of ways to answer that criticism. I think the first is that the companies that have been successful with orbital launches (Boeing, Lockheed Martin) have benefited from a tremendous amount of government investment. So when NASA says, prove you can do what you can say you can do, they know that entrepreneurs are starting from a handicapped position. That said, you can take a company like SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, who started from a clean slate and brought in people who were ex-NASA and ex-big-aerospace, and in a very short period of time developed an orbital rocket for less than half the price of the nearest competitor. That is the kind of process NASA needs to emulate if it is going to fulfill its mandate and get the public interested again.

Later this year, someone could win the X Prize, the $10 million award for the first privately launched suborbital manned spacecraft. Do you think that could revive the public's interest and appetite for human space flight?

It will definitely pique public interest. Appetite would follow only if companies quickly use the winner as a template for vehicles that start launching more people for reasonable cost, and with reasonable assurances of safety. Obviously, any fatal catastrophe wouldn't help the cause, but as long as companies providing such services were clearly seen as paying close attention to safety, even fatal accidents could be overcome as they were in the early days of aviation.

Should NASA be disbanded--its resources and technology distributed to smaller agencies and companies?

Certainly, NASA could be productively disbanded, and indeed space travel and exploration might ultimately be the better for it. Here's a reasonable scenario: spin off Earth monitoring to the NOAA and unmanned exploration to the Jet Propulsion Lab; remake the Johnson Space Center as its own human space-exploration organization. Reevaluate what's left and fold it into the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, trimming whatever doesn't contribute to the following critical goal: lowering the cost of delivering mass to orbit. This would be done via in-house R&D and hard-cash incentives to spur smaller but potentially innovative players. Lowering the cost to orbit would help everyone, in every space sector, regardless of mission.

Have you heard from anyone at NASA about your book?

Not a word.