The Space Shuttle versus the Airbus A380, an Economics Lesson

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2011

The Space Shuttle, a Public Sector Failure

People like to point to the Apollo Program as the ultimate example of the American ‘can do’ attitude.  Apollo put men on the moon and retuned them safely.  If we can do that we should be able to do anything.  Even cure the common cold.  If only we attacked our greatest problems today the same way we solved the moon problem.  With a great big government program.  That marshaled a vast network of private contractors.  Where cost was no object.

But that was the problem with Apollo.  Cost.  It cost in excess of $20 billion dollars in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Today that would exceed $130 billion.  At the peak of the program spending consumed nearly 5% of all federal spending.  We’ve come close to shutting down government over lesser amounts in budget disputes.  The numbers are huge.  In comparison, the big three of federal outlays are Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and Defense, each consuming about 20% of all federal spending.  Imagine the fireworks if any of these were reduced to 15% (a 25% reduction in spending) to pay for another Apollo Program.  Suffice it to say it’s not going to happen.

This is why we don’t have more ‘Apollo’ programs to solve our problems.  We simply can’t afford to.  And in case you hadn’t noticed, NASA discontinued the Apollo Program, cancelling three moon landings.  Because of costs.  These cost savings help fund Skylab and the next big project.  The Space Shuttle.  Which was going to fix the cost problem.  By paying for itself.  Based on the private sector model.  The reusable vehicle was going to shuttle payload to space for paying customers and earn a profit.  The program, then, would pay for itself once launched.  And consume no tax dollars.  That was the plan, at least. 

But the Space Shuttle had its problems.  For one it was very dangerous.  And it turns out that the first manned mission was likely to be a disaster (see Shuttle Debuted Amid Unknown Dangers by Irene Klotz posted 6/29/2011 on Discovery News).

What NASA didn’t know at the time was that there was only a 1-in-9 chance the astronauts would make it back alive. Managers put the odds of losing the shuttle and its crew at 1-in-100,000.

Safety upgrades, including those initiated after two fatal accidents, have made the shuttle 10 times safer than it was in its early years, but the odds of a catastrophic accident are still high — about 1 in 90.

That is the largely unspoken part about why NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet after a final cargo run to the space station next month.

The Space Shuttle was just too complex a machine to meet any of its original goals.  Two shuttles were lost.  And the Space Shuttle Program never turned a profit.  The program that was going to pay for itself along the private sector model didn’t.  It required tax dollars.  A lot of them.

… preparing the shuttles for flight is extremely labor-intensive, which drives its $4 billion-a-year operating expense.

This is why we shouldn’t ask for any more great big government programs.  Because they’re typically abject failures.  Few companies in the private sector can fail as grandly.  Missing their profitability goal in excess of $4 billion dollars?  Year after year?  Only government can do this.  For only in government can a failed business model survive.  Because only government can tax, borrow and print money.

The Airbus A380, a Private Sector Success Story

This doesn’t happen in the private sector.  Where such gross mismanagement would put companies out of business.  Because they can’t tax, borrow or print.  Well, they can borrow.  But not at the low rates the government can.  Such failure would force them into junk territory.  And with a proven track record of losing billions year after year, even that wouldn’t be an option.  No, the private sector has to do it the old fashioned way.  They have to earn it.  You don’t have to be perfect.  You just have to be profitable (see Damaged Qantas A380 Refurbishment Underway by Guy Norris posted 6/29/2011 on Aviation Week).

Work to return to service the Qantas Airbus A380 damaged in last November’s uncontained engine failure is underway in Singapore.

The aircraft, which was substantially damaged when the number two Rolls-Royce Trent 900 shed a turbine disc, is about to be placed on stress jacks for major repairs to the wing and fuselage. Work will likely include replacement or repairs to the number one engine nacelle adjacent to the number two engine which was destroyed. The number two engine and nacelle is also being replaced…

The start of repair work, covered under an Aus $135 million insurance claim, puts a final end to speculation that the A380 would be written off. Airbus meanwhile declines to comment on the implications for possible longer term redesign as a result of lessons learned from the incident.

The Airbus A380 is a complex machine.  It’s expensive to build.  And to operate.  But it packs in a lot of people.  So the airlines can recover their costs through normal passenger service.  By offering passengers tickets at affordable prices.  With a little left over.  So Airbus can afford to sell these expensive airplanes at affordable prices, covering their costs with a little left over.  So their suppliers can sell components at affordable prices, covering their costs with a little left over.  Companies make profits everywhere in the process.  To return to their investors.  To reinvest in their operations.  Or to cover large, unexpected cost hits.  Like Airbus and Rolls Royce did to keep Qantas a satisfied customer.

A380 product marketing director Richard Carcaillet says “the two preliminary reports so far have focused on the engine event. However if there are any lessons for systems and procedures then we will take action. But with the co-operation of Rolls-Royce we have put a line of defense into the Fadec (full authority digital engine control), so that in the event of detecting a similar condition it will shut down quickly,” he adds.

Rolls has “now inspected and modified the whole fleet,” says Carcallet. For the moment the fix is the revised Fadec software, though longer term design changes are also underway to the engine, he adds.

The updated software commands an engine shut down if it detects the threat of an intermediate high pressure turbine overspeed occurring. Rolls is meanwhile working on a longer-term redesign of the Trent 900 oil system, a fire in which triggered the event.

Rolls-Royce has also agreed to pay (US) $100.5 million compensation to Qantas.

This is how the private sector works.  The profit incentive makes everyone do what is necessary to please and retain customers.  And improve safety.  Because airplanes falling apart in flight do not encourage anyone to buy a ticket.

Bigger Programs only mean Bigger Failures

There’s a reason that the Shuttle Program is no more but there are A380s flying and making money.  The difference between the Shuttle Program and the A380 is that one was in the public sector and the other is in the private sector.  And guess which one is the success story?  The one in the private sector.  Of course.  This despite the A380 having far more competition in Boeing (in particular the Boeing 747-400 and 747-8) than the Space Shuttle ever had.

Moral of the story?  Keep government programs small.  Because bigger programs only mean bigger failures.  And more tax dollars pulled from the private sector to pay for these failures.

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