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(UPDATED) Pigs in Space: Utah and Alabama Repubs Lobbying for Space Pork

UPDATE: The Senate bill to which the congressmen were objecting last weekend passed the House last night by a vote of 304-118, a much larger majority than the two-thirds required under the rules for it. While their arguments against the Senate’s NASA authorization bill remain ludicrous, it should be noted that the four congressmen in question did end up voting for it, adding to its overwhelming margin, and more in accordance with the principles that conservative Republicans claim to hold. For this they should be praised.

The change in space policy announced at the beginning of the year by the White House would affect many states with NASA centers and contractors. However, it would have a disproportionate impact on Alabama, where the Marshall Space Flight Center was developing the Ares rocket, and Utah, where the solid rocket motors for the Shuttle program (now ending) and the Ares would be developed and manufactured. The representatives for the affected districts would be expected to fight any such change — of course — but it’s been quite unseemly and dismaying to see some of the nonsensical arguments that they have been trotting out in defense of the status quo:

Although the Gordon compromise bill moves dramatically closer to the Senate figure on funding for “commercial” space efforts ($1.2 billion over three years, up from approximately $400 million in the House Committee bill, and close to the Senate figure of $1.6 billion), that is not enough for some in the “commercial” lobbying sector.

They want a monopoly on delivering cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). The Senate bill provides that monopoly. The plan proposed by the current NASA Administration, and enabled by the Senate bill, has:

— no minimum investment of company funds by companies who submit proposals for taxpayer funds,

— no government-vehicle backup (which is viewed as competition),

— no return to the Treasury from profits,

— and no requirements for the companies’ proposals to provide fixed-seat prices for crew to the ISS (in return for up to 99% taxpayer funding of their proposal).

First of all, note the scare quotes around the word “commercial,” obviously meant to cast suspicion on the true nature of these “monopolists.” Also, note that it’s not just “commercial,” but a “‘commercial’ lobbying sector.” As though it is in the lobbying business and simply rent-seeking, and not an industry endeavoring to provide a needed service to the government for a fee.

One would think that a conservative would be familiar with the meaning of the word “monopoly.” But since they apparently aren’t, I’ll provide one, from Merriam-Webster:

1: exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action

2: exclusive possession or control

3: a commodity controlled by one party

This is a word they use to describe multiple providers of a service to the government (and others). In other words, they consider an industry a “monopoly.” But do you know what’s a much better example of a monopoly? ATK, which is the only company in the world that makes large segmented solid rocket boosters.

In fact, and ironically, what they are really defending and attempting to preserve, though they pay lip service to the notion of commercial provision of space transportation services, is the NASA monopoly on the development and operation of launch systems for astronauts that it has retained for almost half a century.

This despite the fact that it is now a very mature technology, and a private provider will be doing a test launch of a capsule in November. Now if by that they mean the industry believes that it will be difficult to compete with a taxpayer-operated system, and thus hard to close their business cases, and would prefer to not be in such a situation, then perhaps they are guilty as charged — but “monopoly” is a very strange word to describe people with such a concern.

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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