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Out-of-this-World Pork in the Beehive State

How the Utah congressional delegation is betraying fiscal conservatism.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

December 1, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) seems to have no qualms about either strong-arming federal agencies to supply pork to his state, or to vociferously take pride in such actions.

In a meeting at NASA headquarters a week and a half ago with other members of the Utah delegation (including his junior colleague, the departing, ousted-by-tea-partiers Senator Bob Bennett), he reportedly bullied NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver, to ensure that any new rockets the space agency designed are built to congressional specifications.

At the beginning of October, following passage of the new NASA re-authorization bill, the senator gloated about his success in inserting language in it that he hoped would guarantee continuing contracts for ATK, the northern-Utah manufacturer of the Shuttle-style solid rocket boosters.

“Though we will have hurdles to face in the future, the House passage of the Senate bill builds a foundation for the future of the civilian solid rocket motor industry in Utah,” Hatch said. “This was a collaborative effort, and I’m grateful to members of the Utah congressional delegation for their hard work and support on this legislation.”

Hatch was successful in getting language inserted in the bill which details specific payload requirements for a heavy-lift space launch system that, Utah industry experts agree, can only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors like the ones manufactured by ATK in northern Utah. The legislation further requires NASA to use, to the extent practicable, existing contracts, workforces and industries from the Space Shuttle and Ares rockets, including solid rocket motors. The bill also requires an operational capability for the space launch system by the end of 2016. This deadline makes it very difficult for the development of an alternative system which does not use solid rocket motors.

Emphases mine. One wonders what industry experts from other states might think. I have my opinion, and I don’t agree. As for the words “to the extent practicable,” more to come, below.

Thursday’s meeting seems to have resulted from the recent award of a dozen contracts (including one to ATK) to provide data for trade studies that NASA plans to perform to determine the best design for the new heavy-lift launch system that Congress insists that NASA build, despite the fact that there is neither a mission planned for it, nor payloads designed for it, nor money with which to develop and build them. Hatch and the other rocket scientists on the Hill seem to be concerned by NASA’s language in its announcement of the rewards that the studies

…will include heritage systems from shuttle and Ares, as well as alternative architectures and identify propulsion technology gaps including main propulsion elements, propellant tanks and rocket health management systems.

“Aternative architectures” probably raised a red flag with them, implying that the final study product might not be Shuttle derived.

In defending their home-grown pork, the delegation issued statements that were … well, let’s just say uninformed, so as not to impugn their honesty.

The idea of alternatives to shuttle- and Ares-derived concepts, both of which used solid rocket motors, is anathema to the Utah senators and congressmen. “I join my colleagues in admonishing NASA to strictly adhere to the law and use solid rocket motors in the development of the new Space Launch System,” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) said in the statement. “Today’s meeting confirms that we are in a long-term fight over the future of NASA’s manned space flight program,” added Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). “I remain very concerned that NASA continues to delay the transition from Constellation systems toward the new heavy-lift program while they needlessly explore private start-up technologies that remain unproven, require more money and are unfit for human-rated space travel.”

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