Out-of-this-World Pork in the Beehive State
Rep. Bishop may be right about this being a crucial fight for NASA human spaceflight, but not in the way he thinks. It is the congressional attitude of pork over progress that is likely to doom it, particularly in the coming austere budget environment. And to anyone familiar with the program and the technology, there is an amazing amount of palpable nonsense packed into that last sentence.
Some of the “unproven,” “private start-up technologies” to which he refers are the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV launch systems, which have essentially perfect records for years, and are used to launch billion-dollar satellites for both NASA and the Department of Defense. When he talks about “human-rated space travel,” he can’t be referring to the Shuttle, which never met the criteria for human rating, and which killed fourteen astronauts.
Seven of them were killed in 1986 by one of the costly solid rocket boosters that he is boosting. And while they do indeed need "more money," they need far less than the many billions that the Congressional Rockets plan will require. Sadly, to listen to them talk, you’d almost think that they were reading their remarks off of ATK letterhead -- which they probably were.
A heavy-lift vehicle isn’t needed at all for human space exploration -- on-orbit propellant storage and transfer is both necessary and sufficient to enable that. And industry studies have shown practical approaches using existing vehicles. The congressional insistence on maintaining the expensive Shuttle infrastructure is looking more untenable by the day.
The next and penultimate launch -- unless Congress actually appropriates funding for the extra launch the authorizers demanded in September, for no purpose other than to delay more layoffs by a few months -- of the Shuttle has been delayed again, into December and perhaps next year, due to cracks in the external tank manufactured by Lockheed Martin. We have been building these tanks for decades, and have still not resolved this problem, which will simply be carried forward into the new program, if it’s designed as Congress demands, and give us another finicky vehicle subject to these kinds of flight delays.
Fortunately, as noted above, the law does not require NASA to continue to derive the new vehicle from Shuttle bits. It must only do so if (as noted above) "practicable," and any sensible study result will show that it is not, relative to more modern and affordable approaches.
But expect Orrin Hatch, Rob Bishop, Jason Chaffetz, and other Utah representatives to continue to betray fiscal-conservative principles (and our prospects for affordable spaceflight) in favor of state and district jobs. At least, that is, until the Utah Tea Party decides that they will have to make more examples in the 2012 primaries.