The Biggest Federal Earmark Plods On

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.