Space policy isn’t typically high on the voters’ agenda, but this year, the issue has been a venue for pork-filled congressional antics of the same type as those that, come November, may send several House members packing — especially Democrats.
In February, NASA announced a change in direction. Their previous plan had involved building an unaffordable new rocket, Ares I, for its own use, in order to get astronauts to low-Earth orbit. The new NASA plan is much more cost-effective; better yet, it’s a baby step toward a market-based approach to space. It involves using competitive and redundant commercial providers to get astronauts into orbit. This approach isn’t entirely new for NASA — the agency has for years relied on commercial rockets to deliver its valuable and costly satellites and space probes to their destinations. The new policy also has a precedent in the decades-old Civil Reserve Air Fleet, in which commercial airlines are used to deliver military personnel and equipment to military theaters.
But Congress has different ideas for the space agency.
While some congressmen were bemoaning the supposed “end of U.S. human spaceflight,” an authorization bill was proposed in the House that would essentially force NASA to resurrect the Ares program (though still without enough funding to successfully execute it). The House bill also slashes the requested budget for paying commercial companies to deliver astronaut crews into orbit. If passed, this bill would effectively extend for years our dependency on the Russians to keep the space station running, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars not available to our own space industry. (It would also force the U.S. government to continue to waive Russia’s responsibilities under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, or INKSNA.)
The space subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.), tried unsuccessfully to ram this bill through the House in August. Next week, her committee will try again. Why are they doing this?
It would appear to be a combination of nepotism and pork.
Representative Giffords happens to be married to Mark Kelly, an astronaut who has been assigned to the next (and possibly last) space-shuttle mission this fall. Kelly also worked on the old NASA program (not the Ares rocket, but a related part) and has been an outspoken advocate for that unsustainable approach. Yet Representative Giffords has not recused herself on this issue, let alone declined the committee chairmanship, despite the clear conflict of interest.
Another space subcommittee member, Alan Grayson (D., Fla.), the caustic congressman best known for his inflammatory remarks during last year’s health-care debate, doesn’t appear to have the same sort of personal conflicts of interest that Representative Giffords should be embarrassed by. But he cares deeply about defending his home state’s pork. He treated NASA administrator Charlie Bolden quite rudely in a hearing last February, and he has called the proposal to let private companies deliver astronauts into orbit a “shot in the dark.” (This criticism makes no sense, since some of these companies, such as the United Launch Alliance, have proven themselves time and again, while NASA has failed for decades to develop a new human launch system despite wasting billions of dollars on many attempts.) The subcommittee’s vice-chair, Rep. Donna Edwards (D., Md.), has made similar harsh and uninformed statements.
In the coming days, the House will attempt to reconcile this awful bill with the one passed a couple months ago by the Senate. While the Senate bill still shortchanges the much-needed steps toward a market-based approach, at least it allows them to proceed on a slightly reduced budget. The Senate has threatened that any House bill not resembling its own will be dead on arrival in conference, but it would be better if any sort of compromise along these lines could be avoided altogether. NASA has operated many years without an authorization bill with no discernible negative impact on its performance, and this year above all years, it would be better to have no bill than this one.
— Rand Simberg, who blogs at Transterrestrial Musings, is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security.