Out-of-this-World Pork in the Beehive State

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) seems to have no qualms about either strong-arming federal agencies to supply pork to his state, or to vociferously take pride in such actions.

In a meeting at NASA headquarters a week and a half ago with other members of the Utah delegation (including his junior colleague, the departing, ousted-by-tea-partiers Senator Bob Bennett), he reportedly bullied NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver, to ensure that any new rockets the space agency designed are built to congressional specifications.

At the beginning of October, following passage of the new NASA re-authorization bill, the senator gloated about his success in inserting language in it that he hoped would guarantee continuing contracts for ATK, the northern-Utah manufacturer of the Shuttle-style solid rocket boosters.

“Though we will have hurdles to face in the future, the House passage of the Senate bill builds a foundation for the future of the civilian solid rocket motor industry in Utah,” Hatch said. “This was a collaborative effort, and I’m grateful to members of the Utah congressional delegation for their hard work and support on this legislation.”

Hatch was successful in getting language inserted in the bill which details specific payload requirements for a heavy-lift space launch system that, Utah industry experts agree, can only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors like the ones manufactured by ATK in northern Utah. The legislation further requires NASA to use, to the extent practicable, existing contracts, workforces and industries from the Space Shuttle and Ares rockets, including solid rocket motors. The bill also requires an operational capability for the space launch system by the end of 2016. This deadline makes it very difficult for the development of an alternative system which does not use solid rocket motors.

Emphases mine. One wonders what industry experts from other states might think. I have my opinion, and I don’t agree. As for the words “to the extent practicable,” more to come, below.

Thursday’s meeting seems to have resulted from the recent award of a dozen contracts (including one to ATK) to provide data for trade studies that NASA plans to perform to determine the best design for the new heavy-lift launch system that Congress insists that NASA build, despite the fact that there is neither a mission planned for it, nor payloads designed for it, nor money with which to develop and build them. Hatch and the other rocket scientists on the Hill seem to be concerned by NASA’s language in its announcement of the rewards that the studies

…will include heritage systems from shuttle and Ares, as well as alternative architectures and identify propulsion technology gaps including main propulsion elements, propellant tanks and rocket health management systems.

"Aternative architectures" probably raised a red flag with them, implying that the final study product might not be Shuttle derived.

In defending their home-grown pork, the delegation issued statements that were … well, let’s just say uninformed, so as not to impugn their honesty.

The idea of alternatives to shuttle- and Ares-derived concepts, both of which used solid rocket motors, is anathema to the Utah senators and congressmen. “I join my colleagues in admonishing NASA to strictly adhere to the law and use solid rocket motors in the development of the new Space Launch System,” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) said in the statement. “Today’s meeting confirms that we are in a long-term fight over the future of NASA’s manned space flight program,” added Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). “I remain very concerned that NASA continues to delay the transition from Constellation systems toward the new heavy-lift program while they needlessly explore private start-up technologies that remain unproven, require more money and are unfit for human-rated space travel.”

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.