This is a tale of a government investment gone far awry. Favored by politicians promising jobs in a high-tech industry of the future, and fueled by political cronyism, it consumed untold amounts of taxpayer dollars, with little to show for it, despite warnings by experts that its business plan was flawed.
No, it’s not Solyndra — it’s much worse, at least in terms of the amount of money proposed to be wasted on it, and in other ways as well.
Let’s call it “Shuttlyndra,” aka NASA’s Constellation, then called the Space Launch System, aka the Senate Launch System. The Solyndra scam wasn’t a federal contract per se — it was based on taxpayer-guaranteed loans, which meant that the taxpayers would never have to pay off if it had worked. Shuttlyndra isn’t just a contract, but multiple sole-source, no-bid, cost-plus contracts, guaranteeing that the taxpayer money will be spent. And because of the nature of the contracts, in which the contractors are reimbursed for time and materials regardless of results, and there is no real competition, there is an excellent chance that the taxpayer won’t get much for the money — at least if its predecessor program, Constellation, is anything to go by.
NASA spent ten billion dollars on Constellation over five years, and had little to show for it except a very expensive and flawed suborbital test of a dummy first stage, and a half-built capsule with uncertain requirements. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that anything has changed in terms of management at NASA to overcome the ongoing moral hazards that created the waste the first time. It is really an intrinsic feature of traditional NASA contracting that has resulted in failure after failure after failure of NASA programs in their stated purpose. These failures are never punished because in the minds of those primarily responsible for funding it on the Hill, the real purpose is that the jobs continue to flow.
The saddest thing, perhaps, is that, unlike the supposedly novel approach to solar cell production ostensibly being pioneered by Solyndra, it’s not even particularly high technology. The program is premised on the notion that we have to maintain the same decades-old “space infrastructure” that we’ve had since the 1970s, by continuing the obsolete and costly Shuttle technology into perpetuity. At least if Solyndra’s promises had been kept, we would have had a useful new technology. But all that SLS gives us is a heavy-lift vehicle that will fly rarely, for which no payloads have been defined or budgeted.
But the biggest difference between Solyndra and Shuttlyndra is the scale of the waste of taxpayer funds — and that’signoring the billions already wasted. Shuttlyndra is planned to consume eighteen billion dollars in the next few years, and much more before it can do anything useful. Compared to that, the half billion wasted on Solyndra is couch-cushion change. And Shuttlyndra will be the negative gift to the taxpayer that keeps on giving, eating up billions of dollars per year that could be spent on actual useful space hardware for sending humans beyond earth orbit, until it’s finally canceled (if the porkmeisters in Congress ever allow it to happen).
It was easy to see, even in prospect, that Solyndra was doomed to failure, to all except those who actually decided to throw taxpayer largess at it.