Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

Lost in Space

We’re wasting billions on rockets to nowhere

Almost half a century after the first man went into orbit, and at a time when the federal government is so deeply in debt that no expenditure can be allowed to pass unexamined, it is long past time to get serious about space — about what it is we hope to accomplish there, and about the best means of achieving it.

The last time space policy topped the national agenda was 42 years ago, when the crew of Apollo 8 circled the moon, took that iconic picture of Earth from space, and returned home. That was the mission that won the space race against the Soviets, because that’s when they gave up and started to pretend that they had never been in a race at all, a fiction the American Left was eager to perpetuate. The subsequent lunar landings were an afterthought, propelled only by the momentum of a huge federal program that had essentially been canceled in 1967.

Since that time, NASA’s sending people into space has been primarily a matter of national pride, not national interest. And because space policy is not particularly important, it has been abandoned mostly to those in Congress whose constituencies have the biggest economic stake in it — those whose loftiest interest is not in opening the high frontier but in preserving high-paying government jobs on Earth, particularly in Alabama, Utah, Florida, Texas, and other places with space-program work forces dating from the Cold War.

There is no better example of this situation than the political antics that followed the report of a 2009 presidential blue-ribbon panel warning that Constellation, the program designed to get us back to the moon, would inflict horrific costs on the federal budget. Each lunar mission would cost billions of dollars, and the project wouldn’t be operational until the 2020s or 2030s. On Capitol Hill, those warnings were largely ignored by the bipartisan space-policy establishment: For many of them, what gets built and whether it ever serves any useful purpose is much less important than where it gets built, how much money is spent on it, and how many people the project employs.

In response to the Constellation report, senators slipped language into the 2010 appropriations bill that prevented NASA from canceling or stopping work on any element of the program. Later, Congress passed an authorization bill that required NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, that has no identified payload or mission. The only requirements are that it be built from “shuttle legacy hardware” (to be delivered under existing, expensive contracts) and that it be operational by 2016. The bill failed to stipulate sufficient funding to accomplish that goal, and there is no accompanying appropriations bill to provide even the inadequate funding the legislation calls for, because the entire government is operating on a continuing resolution until March 4. Because of the restrictions imposed earlier by the Senate, NASA can’t even cancel the existing Constellation contracts and shift those resources to the new rocket that Congress is now demanding it build.

#page#Sen. Orrin Hatch and other members of the Utah delegation began a campaign in November demanding that NASA “obey the law” and press forward with the Constellation project. Florida’s Sen. Bill Nelson recently made the same demand regarding SLS. But given the Catch-22 nature of the conflicting mandates, such demands are absurd.

And even if they weren’t, they still would have nothing to do with building useful and cost-effective space hardware. The best way to do that is to purchase launch services on the private market, as proposed by the administration last year. This has several advantages over NASA’s traditional way of doing business. One is that private launch firms can be held to a single, fixed price for a particular mission, and held accountable should the results be unsatisfactory; the alternative is the usual NASA practice of paying its contractors on a cost-plus basis, which not only guarantees their profits but gives them incentives to inflate their bills, and offers very little in the way of accountability. Private launch firms generally have a few different kinds of multi-purpose vehicles that they use for a variety of commercial and government payloads, whereas NASA generally has its equipment purpose-built to the specs of a particular mission — a much more expensive proposition.

As illustrative of our space program’s inefficiency, consider that we remain without cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station. We thus pay tens of millions of dollars per year to Vladimir Putin’s government for the use of its Soyuz spacecraft, and we pay another way too: In order to legally procure Russia’s services, we must waive its requirements under the Iran/North Korea/Syria Non-Proliferation Act.

Congress wants NASA to develop a new rocket, with development costs in the billions costs and a likely per-mission expense of more than $1 billion, eventually to end our dependence on the Soyuz. Compare that with the mere $300 million NASA has spent on its contract with Space Exploration Technologies, which in December launched a new rocket and a new pressurized capsule in a flawless flight. To properly deliver a crew to the space station, it needs only the addition of an escape system for emergencies. Boeing is working on its own capsule, which could be launched on an existing rocket. Such programs could also provide the basis for the cost-effective access to space we need to send astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit.

Congressional Republicans want to return federal spending to 2008 levels. Reducing NASA’s budget to 2008 levels would require a cut of a little less than $2 billion — about the cost of the “Senate Launch System,” conveniently enough. Which is to say, unlike many other government agencies, NASA could be brought in line with Republicans’ budget priorities just by cutting a wasteful, counterproductive program. That would be a good first step toward transforming NASA from a high-end jobs program and congressional pork chute into an agency that identifies and achieves American goals in space — an expression of our national greatness, not of our political dysfunction.

– Mr. Simberg is a consultant in space technology and policy, and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He writes at

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