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.
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.