NASA's failure to find takers for six space shuttle and space station projects offered to private industry last year indicates there may be some things government can do cheaper.
Or it may be - as a recent White House panel indicated in suggesting a smaller space program less dependent on the shuttle - that shuttle projects aren't that good a deal.Among the $800 million worth of projects offered were the following:
An advanced solid rocket motor production facility in Yellow Creek, Miss.; a weightlessness laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston; a space station payload processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; a processing laboratory for observational instruments at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California; a robotic arm and a docking system for the space station; and equipment to make the shuttle able to fly 16-day missions.
"Private financing would have significantly increased the government's cost for some projects," the General Accounting Office reported in a recent report.
This report comes as somewhat of a blow to the Bush administration, which has made increasing private-sector investment a cornerstone of the U.S. space policy.
At the heart of private sector rejection of the projects was a perception that there were few or no commercial markets for them.
Financing proposals were received for the four construction jobs, but NASA rejected three because they would have been significantly more costly than if the money was provided by the government. Although the remaining project - private financing for a pallet to carry extra oxygen and hydrogen for long flights - also was more expensive, the GAO said NASA officials apparently felt the extra $16 million was insignificant.
Perhaps NASA is right in this instance. The broad scope of the nation's space program may not lend itself to piecemeal development, especially when there are few non-government applications available to generate a return on investment.
This may be a case where the general assumption that private industry can produce a cheaper and better product does not apply.