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The White Elephant in NASA's Living Room

Space policy has not traditionally been particularly partisan, but amidst the ongoing fiscal battles, the recent congressional attempts to write an authorization bill for NASA have generated some unusual (for space policy) rancor between the Republicans and Democrats on the relevant committees. There were two points of contention: one about the agency’s direction, and the other about the budget with which it would carry it out.

Rather than visiting an asteroid, as was proposed early in the president’s first term after cancellation of the Constellation moon program, NASA and the administration’s latest proposal is to capture one, and bring it to the vicinity of the earth and moon, where it can be studied up close by humans. Perhaps we could develop techniques for mining it. The goal would be to demonstrate our ability to divert such objects if one were to threaten earth (the one that injured hundreds in a blast over Russia early this year could have killed tens of thousands had it exploded closer to the ground), and also investigate the possibility of providing abundant new resources for use in space, and perhaps on earth. This would be necessary to make space development affordable.

Congressional Republicans have never been happy with what they perceive as the administration’s abandonment of George W. Bush’s moon program, and the new asteroid proposal did nothing to assuage them. They insist, instead, on a return to the moon, and in late July, on party-line votes, both the authorization and appropriations committees in the Republican-led House prohibited any agency expenditures on the asteroid mission.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem inclined to properly fund a lunar project. Over in the Senate earlier in the month, the major issue wasn’t over what NASA would do, but how much money they’d get to do it. Space committee Republicans, including Ranking Member Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, insisted that NASA not be authorized to spend more than allowed by the sequester, while Democrats, led by Chairman Bill Nelson (also of Florida), insisted that an authorization bill (which doesn’t provide actual funding, but only allows NASA to spend what is appropriated) didn’t have to be bound by it. In that case, the minority Republicans lost, again on a party-line vote. If there is to be a NASA authorization bill this year (there often isn’t), it will have to be reconciled in a conference between the House and Senate.

But all the fighting over destinations and budgets is a diversion from the agency’s real problem, which is bi-partisan. With the exception of House Science Committee Vice-Chairman (and former chairman of the space subcommittee) Dana Rohrabacher of California, both the House and the Senate insist that NASA build the Space Launch System (SLS), a huge rocket for which it hasn’t sufficient budget, and for which there are no identified or funded payloads or missions.  It’s been almost three years since the rocket was initially designed in the Senate (hence its nickname by its detractors as the Senate Launch System). Even with a just-completed Preliminary Design Review, NASA has never provided a firm cost or schedule for it. This is unsurprising because despite claims made by its supporters, its primary purpose is not to send humans to other worlds, but to continue to send billions of taxpayer dollars to the states and districts in which the contractors of the cancelled Space Shuttle reside. For that end, an annual congressional appropriation, with no long-term plan, is sufficient.

Others, of course, have provided a cost estimate for it. In late July, at the weekly on-line publication The Space Review, a compelling analysis was put forth revealing that each rare flight of the vehicle (the first one to not occur until at least four years from now) will cost several billion dollars, or over twenty thousand dollars per pound of payload. NASA had no direct response, because the analysis is correct.