The White Elephant in NASA's Living Room
Many space advocates are dismayed not just at the appalling costs of the system, and the fact that its gaping maw is absorbing every dime that might otherwise be going to actual missions, but that, according to multiple studies both internal to NASA and in private industry, it is not only unnecessary for human flights beyond earth orbit, but its use dramatically increases their costs. It would be much cheaper to use vehicles already in existence, such as the United Launch Alliance Atlas or Delta, or the SpaceX Falcon 9. Use of a new vehicle being developed by SpaceX, called the Falcon Heavy, currently planned to fly next year, will reduce the cost per pound of payload to a thousand dollars or so, a factor of twenty less than that for SLS.
Worse, some SLS advocates have been eying the chronically underfunded budget of the Commercial Crew program, needed to quickly end our dependence on the Russians for International Space Station support. It's made all the more urgent by Moscow's continued international obstreperousness despite the administration’s “reset” a few years ago, as a cookie jar for their own boondoggle.
Why is our civil space policy so dysfunctional, in terms of bang for the buck? It is because, since we beat the Soviets to the moon, over four decades ago, human space flight has lost its importance. NASA has come up with no good reason for manned space flight other than for national prestige, which many on the Hill seem to think can be maintained simply by having a large state enterprise building big rockets to nowhere. This lack of importance increases opportunities for rent seeking on the part of contractors and their captive congresspeople, since few pay attention to what they’re doing. With exceptions (such as Representative Rohrabacher), the people who seek assignments to the space committees are not those who care about space, but rather, those who care primarily about the space contracts that feed their constituents. Any actual progress in space, as far as they’re concerned, is just gravy. The issue is rarely discussed in terms of political ideology -- left or right, Democrat or Republican. All tend to agree on how to divvy the pork, which is why the partisan nature of this year’s debates has been unusual — a result of the unusually tight budgets and a visceral antipathy on the part of Republicans to any policy emanating from this White House, even when (as can occur if rarely) it is sensible.
Conservatives-in-name-only like Alabama’s Dick Shelby and others should be making space policy a true ideological issue, and argue for a space program with American values, rather than the continuation of a democratic version of the Soviets' state-socialist enterprise with which we beat them to the moon. That means free enterprise, commercial activities, competition, deregulation -- buttressed by the kind of basic technology development that NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, performed to launch the commercial aviation industry a century ago. But don't expect them to do so, and until they do, or are replaced, Washington will probably continue to ignore the white elephant sitting in our space policy’s living room.