I told this story at the ISPCS meeting last month, so pardon me if you have heard it already.  It is a mostly true story.

Recently I traveled to a somewhat remote government facility.  At the mid-day break in our meetings, the facility director took us to the cafeteria where the food was excellent and very reasonably priced.  Then he surprised us with the story of how hard it had been to keep the cafeteria open.

It seems that the government regulations on cafeteria operators are quite lengthy.  There are requirements to buy the food ingredients from certified vendors to ensure high quality of the food.  There are requirements to post the nutritional content of the foods so that the customers can make informed choices about their meals.  There are requirements to provide “healthy choice” meals which must meet certain defined nutritional content.  A whole lot of common sense, very good requirements that almost anybody would agree are reasonable.

The outcome was that no operator could run the cafeteria there at a profit.  After going through several operators, the director had to provide almost $200 k a year to keep the cafeteria open.  Then the budget cuts came, and without the subsidy, the cafeteria closed.

Then, the facility director noticed that every day just before noon, a food truck appeared just outside the security gate of the facility and many of the employees would go outside the gate to purchase food from them.  This family owned operation did not provide “healthy choices”; they sold what the people wanted to buy.  The family owned operation did not buy their supplies from certified vendors; they went to the local grocery stores where the employees also bought their food.  Nobody got sick – after all the state still inspected the operation, just not the feds.  Nobody asked to see the nutritional information on the food. In fact the only problem was that there was a traffic jam at the security gate every noon-time, and a fair amount of lost productivity resulted from employees traveling down to the off-site food truck.

So the innovative, flexible facility director made a command decision; he invited the food truck operators to come into the empty cafeteria and sell food there; all of this under a non-standard contract mechanism.  Interesting, yes?

So the result; cafeteria food that was popular, even sought after; low prices; and a profitable business with the food truck proprietors making a reasonable return on their investment and labor.  No government subsidy required.  No traffic jams, no lost productivity, and everybody was happy.  Free enterprise at its finest! 

This is a mostly true story, after all.

So what do we learn from this?  Government requirements, even apparently good ones, come with a price.  Flexible, nimble commercial operations working in the competitive market can provide services and products tailored to their market better than government planners can mandate. 

Does this have anything to do with human spaceflight? 

You bet it does.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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15 Responses to Requirements

  1. Beth Webber says:

    “Does this have anything to do with human spaceflight?
    You bet it does.”

    Great! Lets hope it does indeed.


  2. It reminds me of Al Gore (back when he was Vice President) when he went on Letterman holding an ash tray, bragging about how his program to streamline government had dramatically lowered the cost of ash trays for federal buildings. Letterman said something like, “But smoking is banned in federal buildings, so why are you still buying ash trays for them?” Zing…

  3. Dave says:

    Human foodflight?

  4. Andrew W says:

    All very sensible, It’ll never catch on.

  5. jimhillhouse says:

    I find it worrisome whenever anyone in business makes the argument that by lessening regulations, the cafeteria will once again open, to use the analogy of Wayne’s post. Regulation is a straw man; it is not what is keeping us from the world envisioned by Clarke and so many others. That falls to physics and the technology to more efficiently overcome it.

    The oil & gas industry is a very highly regulated and profitable industry. Its profitability is a direct result of technological breakthroughs and market demand for their goods, not less regulation.

    The regulation argument is predicated on commercial crew providers launching crews to ISS or space hotels faster, better, and cheaper than would be the case were NASA to continue its dominant role in HSF while providing a safety record commiserate with that of NASA’s. Some might say such defines an overly constrained problem. Others say that the American people must accustom themselves to greater risk in spaceflight…good luck with that.

    To really answer the question of market sustainability, demand, we can simply acknowledge that were COTS and CCDev funding axed tomorrow, neither SpaceX nor Sierra Nevada nor any of the other players, save Virgin Galactic, would be able to find investors sufficient to maintain operations. Just as with the commercial satellite launch participants in the late 90’s, the current crop of “commercial” spaceflight players would go out of business. Why wouldn’t investors, institutional or otherwise, rush into this funding gap and make a Buffett-Goldman type deal?

    Because any due diligence effort by investors would reveal that the space access industry isn’t profitable. And that fact has nothing to do with over regulation and everything to do with where we are now technologically.

    • waynehale says:

      Most really new industries have a hard time selling investors on the business case. I think commercial human space travel suffers from that problem to.
      By the way, having done quite a bit of work lately in the oil and gas business, I can clearly report that they are nowhere nearly as regulated as NASA human space flight programs. Not even close.

  6. Everyone wants NASA to figure out how to invest manned spaceflight with more safety than we’ve had with the commercial airline industry. For example, no one tells the airliner manufacturers that they must have redundant flight control. And we get insurance for our “survivors”. Without gravity to ensure a timely closure to engineering failures, the substantive insurance policy is very different. Plainly that’s not what we need.

    • waynehale says:

      There are lots of government requirements (aka FAA Regulations) for commercial aircraft flight control systems. So I’m not sure that I understand what you are trying to say.

  7. Jim Nobles says:

    Wayne, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you think, right now, is the chance that the old guard will paperwork Commercial Crew to death?

    • waynehale says:

      Old guard? No, its just a natural consequence of where NASA has been. It will take extensive leadership attention to prevent the total suffocation of the Commercial Crew endeavor by government imposed requirements and “nice to have” paperwork.

  8. P. Savio says:

    I now bet that SLS will fly before any Manned COTS flight. Seems the budget for Commercial Crew has been slashed – so unless SpaceX or Boeing goes it alone I can’t see how they can provide manned services prior to 2017.

    • waynehale says:

      I think Jeff Bezos could fund Blue Origin without government help and build a viable spacecraft and launch vehicle. Don’t think the rest of the folks can make that investment without government support. Somebody recently told me that the government has always invested in transportation – canals in the early days of the republic, then railroads, later airports and interstate highways.

  9. It’s sad but true, no bucks, no Buck Rodgers. Call it a failure of vision, call it a failure of leadership or call it a congressional FUBAR, NASA has failed to develop a national mandate that extended beyond one presidential administration. Commercial space flight is not seen in Washington as the next evolution in spaceflight, but rather a budget cutting measure. Thus when the Minibus was passed this last week, commercial funding was cut in half roughly to the level of the cost of a single Space Shuttle flight. SLS and Orion were funded not because of any merit they may, or may not have, but rather because they are jobs programs in the states of key senators. It is true the private sector can generally produce economies when given end performance standards, rather than component and stage requirements. Yet NASA must establish the vision and the goal which congress can buy into that allows private sector investors to get serious about. Given the annual budget uncertainty you will never get much beyond the “billionaire believers” who can self fund for the most part. Constellation surly was flawed, but it was a long term national vision adopted, if not fully funded, by congress. A new administration comes in and quickly the perfect became the enemy of the good and we have, the 2011 Minibus to nowhere.

  10. Marcus Derby says:

    Have just read this piece, and you’re right, it says it all. I hope the sentiment is expressed during the upcoming HSF meet soon.

    Kind regards,

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