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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

Bio

September 29, 2010 - 8:28 am
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And what are they demanding of these “commercial” companies? That they make their own dollar-for-dollar investment in the systems to match government funds. In fact, at least one of them has essentially done this, though there was no requirement for it. But why are they demanding this? When NASA hands tens of billions to one of their standard contractors for its labor to build their own launch systems, they make no such demand. Why, when the amounts of money are much less (a few billions for multiple providers), do they suddenly become so parsimonious with the taxpayers’ money? Could it just be an excuse?

And what do they mean when they say that there will be “no return to the Treasury from their profits”? What are they expecting? Does the Senate bill exclude these “commercial” companies from corporate income tax? I’ve looked through it, and I can find no such provision.

Let me explain to them what is really happening here, and why “commercial” is a red herring.

We have invested a hundred billion dollars in a space station, with commitments to international partners that we will continue to participate in it through at least the next five years, and probably longer if the new plans hold, which includes getting our astronauts to and from it, and ensuring that there is a lifeboat available for crew at all times. We have been purchasing the latter from the Russians for years, since it became permanently inhabited, and we will have to start purchasing rides from them as well starting next year, when the Shuttle is retired (as planned by the Bush administration six years ago). NASA’s planned vehicle to solve this problem wasn’t going to be ready for at least seven years, even if properly funded, and neither the past budgets or the new proposed ones properly fund it. And even if it could, it was going to cost tens of billions of dollars for a program with many technical issues, and one that would have been horrifically expensive to operate even if successful.

In contrast, the “commercial” providers — Boeing, the United Launch Alliance (which has been successfully delivering billion-dollar satellites for years), Space Exploration Technologies, and others — could eliminate our need for Russian services within five years.

The issue isn’t whether it is “commercial” or not. It’s the nature of the contract: a traditional cost-plus contract in which the contractor is reimbursed for time and material regardless of success versus a fixed-price contract with milestones.  The incentives to increase costs to the taxpayer with the former are obvious, and explain the out-of-control nature of NASA’s development programs.  With fixed price, the contractor is paid for performance rather than reimbursed for costs, and the amount of profit is none of the government’s business, but it spends a lot less money.  This has worked successfully in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract (note the lack of scare quotes around “commercial”) and it is the model that would be used for commercial crew as well.

A true conservative would be applauding such an approach as both being more effective and more tight-fisted with the taxpayers’ money. And I’ll bet in other circumstances, Representatives Chaffetz, Bishop, Aderholt, and Griffith would be cheering it, and not attempting to make such nonsensical arguments to defend a big-government status quo (and to attempt to get people to vote for their own version of a NASA authorization bill on Wednesday, rather than the Senate version, which is the only one that has any hope of being passed).

So why are they not cheering it? Could it be because they represent Utah and Alabama?

Nah. That’s probably just a coincidence.

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Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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