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The Biggest Federal Earmark Plods On

Will the Senate’s “big monster rocket” eat the space program?

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

September 20, 2011 - 12:00 am
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This vaunted “exploration” program is going to absorb all available funding in a constrained fiscal environment (not to mention the pressure of other out-of-control NASA programs), leaving nothing over for actual space exploration, let alone space development and settlement, which is the only reason ultimately to send humans into space. And for the supposed conservatives and Republicans who continue to support it, it is a continuation of the betrayal of their otherwise-stated principles, and a failure to recognize that the Apollo era is long over.

Fortunately, there are a few voices of sanity. Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California (whose district contains some Boeing facilities) is willing to call an earmark an earmark:

“Nostalgic rocketry is not how great nations invent their future,” proclaimed Rohrabacher.

“There’s nothing new or innovative in this approach, especially its astronomical price tag, and that’s the real tragedy. Unfortunately, after a number of years, perhaps during development or after just a few flights like Saturn, budget pressures will bring this program to an end. Jobs that some politicians are bragging today about saving will be gone, while the new jobs based on new technologies and new enterprises will remain uncreated, because we chose repeating the past over inventing the future.”

The Tea Party in Space, an organization formed to apply common-sense fiscal principles to space policy along the lines of general Tea Party beliefs, isn’t happy:

This project with the BMR [big monster rocket] will consume the HEO budget much like JWST consumes the astrophysics budget. There will be no exploration. If you look carefully in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 you will see NO funding for exploration hardware. So when the SLS launches it will cost you and me, $18 billion dollars. This is a rocket without a mission.

The Space Frontier Foundation, an organization devoted to opening up space to settlement, is outraged:

The Space Frontier Foundation called Wednesday’s announcement by NASA that it will attempt to build Congress’s giant monster rocket a disaster that will devour our dreams for moving humanity into space. Rather than breathing life into a dying space program, it may well kill new initiatives to greatly expand US space exploration and settlement efforts.

“It is a sad day for our space program,” said Rick Tumlinson, cofounder of the Foundation. “The amazing possibilities offered by engaging commercial space to lower costs and develop a sustainable long term infrastructure to support NASA space exploration, settlement and a new space industry have been trumped by the greed, parochialism, and lack of vision of a few congressional pork barrelers intent once again on building a government super rocket. We’ve been to this party before, it was a bust then, and it will be this time as well.”

The Space Access Society is similarly unimpressed:

We thoroughly expect that SLS project cost will grow and schedule stretch, just as Constellation program costs and schedule did.

We predict that at some point, it will be as obvious that SLS will never fly usefully as it was obvious that Constellation was going nowhere, and SLS too will be expensively cancelled. We hope that SLS will go away before it’s wasted even more scarce dollars (and impacted even more actual useful NASA projects) than Constellation – but we wouldn’t bet on it at this point.

Norman Augustine, who led the panel that uncovered the problems with Constellation two years ago, is neither pleased nor optimistic:

“I haven’t had the chance to do any detailed engineering, so I don’t know if their timeline is possible or not,” he said. “It seems like it should be, if given adequate funds. The particular design they’ve come up with sounds to me, on the surface, to be reasonable. It’s not terribly different than some of the options we looked at on the committee. The real issue is going to be whether there is adequate money in the budget to do all of this, and whether we will have the staying power to continue to put adequate money in the budget.”

“…I would emphasize that I don’t know the background of what has happened. With that caveat, I would observe that even as powerful as the United States Congress is, it can’t legislate engineering. Engineering deals with Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is a very fair, but unforgiving judge. You just cannot legislate engineering.”

Sadly, this seems to remain a Congress, on both sides of the aisle, that believes there is nothing that cannot be legislated. But there’s a collision on the horizon with fiscal reality, and almost certainly a new Senate (definitely minus the retiring Senator Hutchison, and perhaps absent Senator Nelson as well) coming next year. Perhaps the best headline for yesterday’s story was from a wag who tweeted: “NASA Announces Next Rocket To Be Canceled In A Few Years.”

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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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