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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

Last Wednesday, in the Senate office building where it was designed, NASA announced the latest impending programmatic disaster in the name of “space exploration.” For those interested, there is a detailed description of the technical and political issues over at the NASA Spaceflight web site.

Many had thought (and many, though unfortunately not as many, had hoped) that the heavy-lift Ares V rocket had died last year with the cancellation of Constellation, the flawed Mike Griffin plan to implement George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. But the howls from the space-pork trough were loud, and last year, Congress passed a NASA authorization that required it to build something resembling Ares. But the authorization did not include sufficient funds to build it, and Congress  forced the agency to continue wasting funds on Constellation until this past spring, continuing the ongoing sabotage of our prospects in space.

Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), architects of the latest catastrophe, almost sprained their arms slapping themselves on the back at their bipartisan ability to force the agency to continue its slow-motion suicide:

“This is the biggest thing for space exploration in decades,” Nelson said. “Because of the delays in announcing this design, it is imperative that we work with NASA to assure that the new Space Launch System is pursued without further losses of time and efficiency, while relying on NASA’s world-class engineers and designers to continue U.S. leadership in space exploration,” said Hutchison.

Most of their colleagues on the relevant committees were equally pleased, but almost all of them have a pig in this fight:

Individual Republican members expressed variations on the same themes. “While I am pleased that the new system has been announced, it was long past due and I will continue to push this White House to comply with the law of the land and get America back into space,” said Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX). Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) had similar concerns: “Despite today’s announcement, I remain frustrated and deeply disappointed that the Obama Administration continues to delay the implementation of the human space flight program approved by a bi-partisan Congress last year.” “It is time for NASA to give Congress a schedule — a hard and fast timeline — so American taxpayers have no doubt how their money is being spent on this effort. The days of unaccountable calendar and cost overruns are over,” said Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL), who emphasized job creation in her statement as well.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), while saying he was “encouraged” by the decision, is looking for a clearer vision and mission for the space agency: “We need bold objectives and an aggressive timeline to captivate and excite Americans of all ages, and keep our nation first in Space as a matter of national security.”

But the NASA administrator basically gave the game away in his own comments at the presser:

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs,” he said, as well as “ensure continued U.S. leadership in space and inspire millions around the world.”

Emphasis mine. That’s what it’s all about. And note the vagueness of “U.S. leadership in space,” and “inspire millions around the world.” How? By spending tens of billions of dollars of money we don’t have on yet another rocket that Congress won’t appropriate enough money to build, and won’t fly for years, and when it does, will only fly once a year, or once every couple years (yes, the administrator actually said that) at a cost of billions per flight? All the while not funding critical technologies that might actually allow us to get humans beyond earth orbit; technologies like redundant commercial providers to orbit, propellant storage and transfer, planetary landers, departure stages, closed-loop life-support systems, and radiation protection.

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.”

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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