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(UPDATED) Pigs in Space: Utah and Alabama Repubs Lobbying for Space Pork

When is a “conservative” not a conservative? When it comes to space policy, and his state or district is getting its pork sliced too thin, apparently. (Watch Glenn Reynolds' interview with Rand Simberg here.)

by
Rand Simberg

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September 29, 2010 - 8:28 am
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UPDATE: The Senate bill to which the congressmen were objecting last weekend passed the House last night by a vote of 304-118, a much larger majority than the two-thirds required under the rules for it. While their arguments against the Senate’s NASA authorization bill remain ludicrous, it should be noted that the four congressmen in question did end up voting for it, adding to its overwhelming margin, and more in accordance with the principles that conservative Republicans claim to hold. For this they should be praised.

The change in space policy announced at the beginning of the year by the White House would affect many states with NASA centers and contractors. However, it would have a disproportionate impact on Alabama, where the Marshall Space Flight Center was developing the Ares rocket, and Utah, where the solid rocket motors for the Shuttle program (now ending) and the Ares would be developed and manufactured. The representatives for the affected districts would be expected to fight any such change — of course — but it’s been quite unseemly and dismaying to see some of the nonsensical arguments that they have been trotting out in defense of the status quo:

Although the Gordon compromise bill moves dramatically closer to the Senate figure on funding for “commercial” space efforts ($1.2 billion over three years, up from approximately $400 million in the House Committee bill, and close to the Senate figure of $1.6 billion), that is not enough for some in the “commercial” lobbying sector.

They want a monopoly on delivering cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). The Senate bill provides that monopoly. The plan proposed by the current NASA Administration, and enabled by the Senate bill, has:

– no minimum investment of company funds by companies who submit proposals for taxpayer funds,

– no government-vehicle backup (which is viewed as competition),

– no return to the Treasury from profits,

– and no requirements for the companies’ proposals to provide fixed-seat prices for crew to the ISS (in return for up to 99% taxpayer funding of their proposal).

First of all, note the scare quotes around the word “commercial,” obviously meant to cast suspicion on the true nature of these “monopolists.” Also, note that it’s not just “commercial,” but a “‘commercial’ lobbying sector.” As though it is in the lobbying business and simply rent-seeking, and not an industry endeavoring to provide a needed service to the government for a fee.

One would think that a conservative would be familiar with the meaning of the word “monopoly.” But since they apparently aren’t, I’ll provide one, from Merriam-Webster:

1: exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action

2: exclusive possession or control

3: a commodity controlled by one party

This is a word they use to describe multiple providers of a service to the government (and others). In other words, they consider an industry a “monopoly.” But do you know what’s a much better example of a monopoly? ATK, which is the only company in the world that makes large segmented solid rocket boosters.

In fact, and ironically, what they are really defending and attempting to preserve, though they pay lip service to the notion of commercial provision of space transportation services, is the NASA monopoly on the development and operation of launch systems for astronauts that it has retained for almost half a century.

This despite the fact that it is now a very mature technology, and a private provider will be doing a test launch of a capsule in November. Now if by that they mean the industry believes that it will be difficult to compete with a taxpayer-operated system, and thus hard to close their business cases, and would prefer to not be in such a situation, then perhaps they are guilty as charged — but “monopoly” is a very strange word to describe people with such a concern.

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