Blame Congress and Pork, Not NASA

by Rand Simberg

Rory Cooper’s criticism of the space agency today is notable not so much for what it says, but for what it leaves out of the story. Beyond that, it gets several things factually wrong.

The Obama administration has been an ongoing policy disaster on almost every front, but space policy is one of the few things that it has gotten at least partially right. It is also one of the few areas in which it can legitimately say that it inherited a mess that it attempted to fix, in the face of resistance from the porkmeisters on the Hill. I would also note that while Cooper’s litany of criticism of many of General Bolden’s statements is justified, the fact remains that for all the talk about “Muslim outreach,” there is nothing in the budget for it, and most of the nonsense that comes out of the administrator’s mouth is politically correct lip service, and has nothing to do with what the agency is actually doing. That said, let’s review Mr. Cooper’s misstated and incomplete narrative:

President Obama’s NASA unveiled its new rocket system designed to lift man into space sometime after 2021 with no clear mission or objective.

This is just the latest in a long string of embarrassments for NASA since Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver took over.

. . . Bolden introduced a manned-space-exploration plan that is bewildering and lacks credibility.

The new Space Launch System (SLS) replaces the former Constellation program. Constellation was a two-vehicle system designed to carry a crew atop an Ares I rocket and carry heavy-lift cargo in an Ares V rocket. SLS is also a two-vehicle system with a nearly identical heavy-lift rocket, and a redesigned crew vehicle that resembles the Ares IV first seen in 2007.

Since this system so closely resembles its predecessors, Constellation’s purpose apparently wasn’t as misguided as the president has implied for the past two-plus years,.

However, under Constellation, the first manned test flight was scheduled for 2015, with a crew mission later that year, a cargo flight by 2018, and a man back on the moon conducting experiments for later flights to Mars by 2019.

Under the new Obama SLS system, the first unmanned test flight is in 2017, the first manned test is in 2021, and a possible mission to an asteroid is scheduled for 2025. The “gap” of America’s ability to put man into space grew from four years under President Bush to ten years under President Obama.

Obama and Bolden added at least six years to both the manned flight and mission schedules in exchange for what? A possible asteroid as the first stop instead of the moon?

Mr. Cooper gets the basics wrong in his description of both Constellation and SLS. Constellation wasn’t just the Ares I crew rocket and Ares V (not Ares IV — it had to grow to a five-segment solid to meet its performance requirements) heavy-lift launcher — it also included the Orion crew module to be lifted by the Ares I, and an Earth departure stage and lunar lander, called Altair. It was all of the transportation elements deemed necessary by Bolden’s predecessor to get NASA back to the moon, but only the Ares I and Orion were under active development, because not only was there no budget available for the other elements while NASA was still operating the Shuttle and the International Space Station, but there weren’t even adequate funds to develop the ones that were being developed. Mr. Cooper doesn’t mention the results of the Augustine Panel in 2009, which concluded that Constellation was not affordable with any budget that NASA could realistically expect to get, and that the program was overrunning its budgets and its schedule was slipping more than a year per year, with first flight not to be reasonably expected before the end of this decade, during all of which time we would continue to be dependent on the Russians for access to space.

#more#I don’t understand what Mr. Cooper means when he writes that “SLS is also a two-vehicle system with a nearly identical heavy-lift rocket, and a redesigned crew vehicle that resembles the Ares IV . . .” The Space Launch System (aka the “Senate Launch System”) announced last week does bear a resemblance to the Ares V (not Ares IV), but that’s a natural consequence of its design criteria, as I’ll get to in a moment (actually, it looks like a photoshopped Saturn V from the sixties with a couple modified Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters bolted to the sides). But the heavy lifter is not the crew vehicle. If by this he is referring to what is now called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the heavy lifter is greatly oversized for the mission of delivering a crew to orbit. Orion could go up on a Delta IV, and much sooner than the SLS will be ready to fly.

The reason that it has no clear mission or objective is that it was forced on the agency by the Congress a year ago, in the absence of any actual mission requirements, in the NASA authorization bill. Or rather, it has only one mission requirement, as I noted a few months ago:

. . . it’s the next requirement that’s the real one, as far as Congress is concerned:

(3) Transition needs.–The Administrator shall ensure critical skills and capabilities are retained, modified, and developed, as appropriate, in areas related to solid and liquid engines, large diameter fuel tanks, rocket propulsion, and other ground test capabilities for an effective transition to the follow-on Space Launch System. (4) The capacity for efficient and timely evolution, including the incorporation of new technologies, competition of sub-elements, and commercial operations.

All of this is code for “preserve the Shuttle infrastructure and all the jobs associated with it.” And the notion that this would ever be amenable to commercial operations, particularly in light of the fierce competition it will have from true cost-effective commercial operators, domestic and foreign, is ludicrous.

(Emphasis added.) The SLS is not an “admission” that Constellation was a good idea after all. It is simply the agency’s good-faith attempt to adhere to an awful law. If the proposal “lacks credibility,” it is because Congress has put the administrator in an impossible situation. It demands that he build a rocket to congressional specifications for which NASA has no defined need, or budget for payloads, and that he do it with inadequate funding, setting the agency up for failure just as Mike Griffin did with Constellation. And even if it ever does get developed, each mission with it will cost billions. It does nothing to make human spaceflight more affordable, which should be the most important goal if we are serious about it.

He goes on, implying that Congress is the solution, rather than the problem:

Rep. Bill Posey (R., Texas) said of the new SLS plan: “[T]here is still a lack of vision, and no clear mission.”

Then, earlier this month, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas) and Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) accused Obama of attempting to “sabotage” his own program by “inflating cost estimates.” Days later, the cost numbers apparently added up when NASA lowered their estimates.

First, Bill Posey is a congressman from the Florida Space Coast, not Texas. Senators Hutchison (who is retiring next year) and Nelson (who is likely to be defeated next year) are the rocket scientists behind the design of the Senate Launch System. They insisted that NASA spend three billion on it and Orion just this year alone, making it in effect the biggest earmark in the budget for a business case that won’t close (think of it as “Shuttlyndra”). NASA didn’t “inflate the cost estimates” — they came up with an estimate to accelerate the schedule so it might have meaningful capability sometime in this decade. When Congress screamed about it, they went back to the more sedate one. Booz Allen Hamilton came out with an independent cost assessment that indicated NASA’s cost estimates in the out years were optimistic. But Senators Hutchison and Nelson (and Hatch and Shelby and others with pigs in the fight) insisted on a bipartisan basis that NASA move forward with their rocket to nowhere, because all they care about is jobs in their states this election cycle. And the rest of Congress doesn’t care at all, because space policy isn’t very important in the context of trillion-dollar deficits, a stagnant economy, and a meltdown of the Eurozone.

Meanwhile, the most near-term solution to eliminating our dependence on the Russians is to accelerate the Commercial Crew activities, for which the administration requested $850M for 2012. For a few billion (as opposed to the tens of billions that the SLS will cost), we could have multiple competitive commercial providers of access to and from the ISS and low-earth orbit within three years. These would include Boeing and the United Launch Alliance with their reliable Atlas and Delta rockets, and actually spawn a useful new industry with competition to drive down costs, enabling innovative and affordable means of serious space exploration in the next decade through which America could once again lead the world. But the House appropriated only about $300M for it, and while the Senate version of the bill appropriates $500M, it holds $200M of it hostage to progress on the SLS. Yesterday, the relevant House authorization committee had a show hearing featuring the first man and last man to walk on the moon, for no apparent purpose. All of which indicates that for all their noise about losing leadership and risks to our national security, the legislative branch continues to be profoundly unserious about our future in space.

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