Do We Need a Government-Build HLV?

Florida Today’s John Kelly asks an interesting question about NASA’s HLV rocket:

Why in the world is NASA developing its own supersized rocket when no fewer than three private companies already have one on the drawing board?

Decades of experience shows a big-ticket space project developed wholly by the government will:

  • Take years longer than estimated to complete.
  • Cost taxpayers billions more dollars than advertised.
  • Fly with less capability than originally envisioned.

Unless, of course, the government changes the way it deals with contractors on those kinds of projects.The difference that is being pushed under the new “commercial” space approach is not that NASA is using different companies. It’s that NASA is employing a different way of paying those companies.

The basic answer is: jobs. Long-term projects that pump billions of dollars into individual districts and states are good for employment — of constituents and members of Congress. Development expenses, operating costs and system capability are strictly secondary considerations. (Well, that’s not strictly true; Congress is insisting that NASA build a HLV capable of lofting 130 tons into orbit. Of course, that’s because they think it will force NASA into using shuttle- and Constellation-derived hardware that will keep money flowing and lots of people employed for a long time.)

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