JOIN EHA

DONATE

Published by EH.NET (February 2000)

Joan Lisa Bromberg. NASA and the Space Industry. New Series in NASA

History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999. X + 247 pp. Preface,

Tables, Figures, Notes, Bibliography, and Index. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN

0-8018-6050-4.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Roger Handberg,

handberg@pegasus.cc.ucf.edu, Department of Political Science, University of

Central Florida.

Dealing with NASA’s Most Important But Least Valued Activities

Readers interested in space policy and especially the workings of NASA will be

very interested in this well conceptualized volume. NASA conducts a number of

activities in the

space realm spanning human space flight, space science, and commercial

activities. Most accounts of NASA’s work focus upon the first two to the

neglect of the third. Joan Bromberg provides an overview of the travails of

NASA in fostering the commercial development of outer space. Until Sputnik

flew in October 1957, no space industry by definition could exist. NASA,

through its programs and initiatives, started the development process, drawing

defense contractors in different directions than their early exclusive focus

upon the Department of Defense.

Her analysis focuses upon the broad contours of that effort, using case studies

as examples of NASA interactions with the commercial sector and the fruits of

those efforts.

NASA in her judgment has encountered great difficulties in remaining a

significant player for a diverse set of reasons. First, the commercial sector

as it matures moves in pursuit of its specific needs, ones that NASA does not

necessarily encourage or desire. Second, NASA, for reasons of its self-image

and agenda, has lost leverage because the commercial sector perceives with some

justification the agency as attempting to pursue its agenda of human

space flight using their fiscal resources. Third, NASA’s self image and

behavior

tracks that

of an R&D organization with an engrained disdain for merely applied activities.

In NASA’s value hierarchy,

commercialization ranks low always subject to the more critical needs of R&D.

This can be seen most clearly in the struggles over commercializing the

technologies that NASA has developed. The agency and its personnel have

essentially been uninterested or insufficiently interested to make

commercialization work systematically. This disinterest could be seen in the

recurring reorganizations that have occurred, effectively reshuffling the deck

chairs but not changing the agency’s culture. Fourth, the agency’s budget

continues to recede so that the contractors (the core constituency of the space

industry) seek other avenues especially the growing internationalized

commercial sector. This means the agency is losing its ability to influence

behavior.

The result, according to Bromberg, is an agency losing the ability to influence

its environment; critical players are too disaffected to accept NASA’s leader

ship. The agency is not ineffectual just perceived as too excessively self

interested to be trusted. Both Congress and the commercial sector hold this

distrust. For example, the agency is perceived as attempting to entice the

commercial sector to pay for

the space shuttle’s replacement, an option resisted by outsiders who are more

focused upon economic viability questions than flying humans into orbit.

Consequently,

the X-33 program becomes more fragile technologically since the focus from

NASA’s perspective is not economics but continued assured access to space.

This translates into pushing the envelope developmentally since operating costs

are not central to NASA’s concerns. Industrial views are ultimately and

intimately driven by cost factors since at

some point they must make a return to justify continuing. Bromberg in her

analysis reinforces the perception of a government agency struggling to remain

relevant in an era in which government is often thought irrelevant or

counterproductive. In the space

industry context, this struggle is sharpened by the recent boom in space-based

communications applications. Entrepreneurs now perceive NASA as hindering

progress rather than a technology enabler.

The larger insight provided by this volume is the role NAS A played in

formulating and directing the creation of a space industry. The agency along

with the Department of Defense was central to that effort but the agency by the

1970s was losing control, a situation reinforced by the Space Shuttle

Challenger accident in January 1986. The shuttle’s failure forced commercial

players to look elsewhere for space lift and, by extension,

opened the door for competing views of how the field should be organized and

operated. Since the Reagan administration, NASA has been

under heavy pressure to be economically relevant in its activities. The

difficulty was and is that there exists no clearly defined mechanism by which

development and later commercialization or privatization of space technologies

occurs.

NASA perceives such transfers as someone else’s problem or else an attack upon

the agency viability (remember in 1981, the rhetoric was abolishing the agency

by eliminating its programs) while the private sector sees the agency as a

hindrance and defender of the status quo

. Joan Bromberg describes and analyzes these and other problems succinctly in a

well-organized work.

The book is well researched, being supported by a NASA history grant, with

access to archival materials not normally available or cited. The author does

a fine job of bridging the problem of detail versus a larger sweep of events.

Her thrust is to stay with the larger picture since that is the story rather

than the obsessive focus upon individual events. The work amply illustrates the

interesting fact that the space age is moving toward the half-century mark,

meaning that some perspective is now being obtained.

That will be especially critical over the next decade as NASA struggles to

define itself in a world in which commercial space applications grow in

sophistication, number and usefulness. Readers will come away with a firm grasp

of the difficulties inherent in directing economic and technological change

given the unknowns that exist in predicting the future.

That future includes an expanding internationalization which further

undermines NASA’s efforts at directing the future of the American space

industry. When NASA began in 1958, the goal was American dominance over

commercial space, those days are now numbered, meaning the field is in flux

with multiple players pursuing separate agendas. NASA’s focus now becomes

carving out a niche that facilitates the opportunity to pursue the human

exploration and exploitation of outer space. That quest permeates all its

activities as this volume amply documents.