The crony capitalism represented by the failed “green energy” firm Solyndra has gotten a lot of media attention lately, but much lower on the public’s radar is a much bigger example of corporate pork over at the national space agency—and it’s bipartisan. Let’s call it Shuttlyndra.
Here’s how it works.
A little over a year ago, Congress approved a NASA authorization bill that mandated the agency to spend billions in taxpayer dollars over the next few years on a congressionally specified giant rocket with no defined mission and no budgets with which to build payloads for it.
This boondoggle, called the Space Launch System (SLS), is based on hardware derived from the now-obsolete Space Shuttle program. It is expected to have a minimum of $18 billion in development costs with a first flight six years from now. However, based on history, most expect that schedule to slip and the price tag to increase far above that by the time it is operational over a decade from now. NASA already acknowledges that it will only fly once every year or two, which means that each flight will cost billions.
The Space Launch System is supported primarily by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and has garnered support from others, such as Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for whom the project promises jobs in their respective states—at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and solid motor manufacturer ATK in Utah. Thus, some cynics have taken the acronym SLS to really mean “Senate Launch System.” Conveniently, it happens that some of the major campaign contributors to those senators are contractors who will benefit from the no-bid, sole-source, cost-plus, fixed-fee contracts for the system—under which they get paid for time and materials, not results. Note that, unlike Solyndra and other loan-guarantee programs, there is no chance of taxpayers ever getting their money back.
Meanwhile, following the long-delayed retirement of the Space Shuttle this past summer, we continue to have to purchase rides from the Russians on their Soyuz vehicle, at a price of $62 million per ticket to support our commitments to the International Space Station. In addition to shipping taxpayer dollars to Russia for the next few years, this also requires a continual waiver of the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-Proliferation Act, which bars the U.S. government from doing business with any nation that helps those countries obtain nuclear weapons or missiles; Russia has been helping Iran with both.
Contrary to claims that the “Big Monster Rocket,” as Senator Nelson dubbed it at the announcement a few weeks ago (let’s call it, aerospace style, the BMR), will enhance the nation’s leadership in space, the SLS will do nothing to address this bleeding wound in the deficit and in our national security. Clearly, a different approach is needed.
Last month, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on the Commercial Crew program, which will help solve this problem by developing multiple competitive commercial providers for crew transfer and lifeboat services. Sadly, there was much bashing of competition and private enterprise at the event by committee Republicans and supposed conservatives, including Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas. They were deservedly chastised by former Space Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., seemingly the only person on the committee who actually understands the problem.
Representatives from SpaceX and Boeing both testified that they could have crew-capable vehicles much sooner than NASA’s estimate of 2017, if adequately funded. Therein lies the rub. A couple of weeks ago, the Senate passed an appropriations bill that cut the 2012 Commercial Crew budget from the administration request of $850 million to $500 million. It’s possible that it will be cut even more in conference with the House, which only appropriated around $300 million. Last month, the NASA deputy administrator warned that this will result in at least a one-year delay that could cost another $450 million in payments to the Russians. Worse, the same bill fully funds the SLS/BMR.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all this is that such a vehicle isn’t even needed for space exploration. A couple weeks ago, the NASA Watch web site published a leaked internal agency document that showed that missions using existing launch vehicles (such as the United Launch Alliance Atlas and Delta, or SpaceX Falcon) to deliver propellant and other exploration hardware to orbit could not only save tens of billions over those that used a heavy-lift vehicle, but could get humans beyond earth orbit years sooner, while providing a robust market that would drive down launch costs for everyone, not just NASA. Rep. Rohrabacher had been demanding this rumored document from the agency for weeks, to no avail.
Recently, China demonstrated its first docking, a hint of a more cost-effective means of space travel. But, even as other nations race ahead, it’s clear that expanding humanity into space is not a priority for this Congress. Until it is, maintaining actual space leadership will always take back seat to faux leadership and high-tech corporate welfare.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He is the author of the weblog Transterrestrial Musings, and is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.