On October 29th, 2014, the Antares rocket exploded on its launch pad, destroying thousands of pounds of supplies, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, and the fantasy that privatizing spaceflight could result in anything but failure.
The story of the Antares disaster begins in the late-1960s, when four Soviet Union test launches of the N-1 rocket engine design ended in failure. In 1972, the USSR decommissioned the failed engines. For over four decades, the N-1 engines lay rusting away in a storage locker in Siberia, until U.S. spaceflight contractor Orbital Sciences Inc. came along. Four failed launches and forty years of rust may have fazed other organizations, but not Orbital Sciences. Spurning state of the art, cutting-edge NASA technology, Orbital Sciences opted to jerry-rig the decrepit, half-century old N-1 Soviet engines into the design of its Antares rocket. Orbital Sciences says it is searching to find out what went wrong. They should not have to search very far. It’s one thing when a launch fails in spite of its designers; it’s an entirely different matter when a launch fails because of its designers.
Orbital Sciences holds a lucrative $1.9 billion contract with the U.S. government to launch rockets carrying supplies to the International Space Station. It seems as if US taxpayers are paying Orbital Sciences $1.9 billion to blow stuff up and decorate the night sky with pretty colors.
Contrary to the reassurances of the contracting industry, the almost-comedic incompetence that resulted in the Antares disaster is not an odd fluke confined solely to Orbital Sciences; rather, it is the logical result of perverse incentives inherent in the ill-conceived shotgun marriage between NASA and the private sector.
In 2011, congress voted to privatize the NASA shuttle program in order to cut spending and reduce the deficit. This motive is especially questionable given that the shuttle program accounted for but a mere 0.5% of the 2010 federal budget. Furthermore, privatization failed to reduce government spending; instead of paying NASA to do something, the government is paying a for-profit corporation to do the exact same thing. The Huffington Post reported that the contracts with private corporations to supply the International Space Station cost the same per pound of supplies as they had cost NASA prior to privatization. While NASA possesses decades of spaceflight experience, the foremost spaceflight experts, and the most cutting edge spaceflight technology known to man, the contracting industry is busy reinventing the wheel.
In theory, competition among corporations that doesn’t exist within NASA incents corporations to be uniquely innovative: the “invisible hand” of the free market will weed out failures like Orbital Sciences, while rewarding the corporations with the most efficient and cost-effective designs. In practice however, privatization creates a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of the quality of the product. This is because the government awards spaceflight contracts based not on performance, but on cost. It is codified government policy to give the contract to the cheapest bidder. Ostensibly, this means the most cost-effective corporations get the contracts. But reducing cost without reducing quality requires billions of dollars of investment and decades of research, which no companies in the upstart spaceflight industry have. The only remaining way for companies to get the job done cheap is by lowering quality in tandem with costs: corporations like Orbital Sciences are pressured by market forces to dramatically downplay their projected costs during the bidding process in order to win the contract. Then, the corporation that wins the contract is forced to cut corners and sacrifice quality in order to avoid cost overruns (by using decommissioned Soviet parts, for example). Moreover, this phenomenon is exacerbated because the corporations are owned by investors whose primary motivation is profitability. The lesser the portion of the contract spent by the corporation on the actual project, the more the portion pocketed as profits.
Some would argue that because shoddy contractors can be fired while NASA cannot, contractors are held to a higher standard of accountability, preventing quality reduction. However, in reality the opposite is true. After NASA’s Challenger accident, in which astronauts perished in a fire inside the compartment of the Challenger shuttle, there were endless hearings, relentless investigations, and personnel transfers. Because NASA was part of the federal government, Congress had the authority the strip it down to its wires to figure out what went wrong. But because contractors are not part of the federal government, they are subject to only superficial scrutiny at best. That Orbital Sciences was able to incorporate failed Soviet engines into its design without anyone raising a finger in protest is a testament to the utter lack of government oversight over contractor’s design process. After the Antares disaster, Orbital Sciences still holds a $1.9 billion contract with the U.S. taxpayer. Orbital Sciences is currently experiencing neither government investigations, nor hearings, nor consequences of any kind. Instead of government action, the same ‘wise men’ of Orbital Sciences who decided failed Soviet engines are a good fit for a rocket are conducting an ‘internal investigation’.
The actions of Orbital Sciences in the wake of the Antares disaster serve as further proof of the absolute absence of public accountability in the contracting industry. After the explosion, a spokesperson for Orbital Sciences issued an apology. It was not directed at the government, whose trust they had violated; it was not directed at the US taxpayer, whose money they had wasted; rather, it was directed at the commercial spaceflight speculators on Wall Street. Remember that contractors exist to reap profit. NASA, on the other hand, was created for the purpose of scientific advancement for the better of humanity. NASA is staffed by qualified, dedicated professionals, who are required to possess a master’s degree and pass a complicated regimen of government exams. While NASA is accountable to the American public, contractors are accountable only to their own lust for profit.