Henry Vanderbilt on NASA Budget: Meh!

The latest update from Henry Vanderbilt, who thinks that Congress is plowing billions into a rocket that will never fly….

Space Access Update #123  4/14/11
Copyright 2011 by Space Access Society

NASA Exploration Funding: A Setback 

When NASA questions come up in the US Congress, there is an unfortunate tendency for the majority to defer to a handful of their colleagues who sit on the various NASA oversight committees.  Unfortunate, because recently that handful seems to be abusing the majority’s trust to advance its own short-term regional advantage.  They’ve been trampling the national interest in a viable affordable NASA space exploration program and in overall national technological competitiveness.  They’re trading both of these for never-fly home-town jobs programs.
Which is another way of saying that, despite growing public (thank you!) and media pressure, the FY’11 fund-the-whole-government-through-September Continuing Resolution (CR) that the House passed today earmarks over three quarters of NASA’s Exploration funding for SLS and MPCV.  You may recall (see our Updates #121 and #122 at http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau121.html and http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau122.html for more background) that “Space Launch System” and “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” are thinly disguised no-bid revisions of the massively unaffordable Constellation program’s Ares 5 heavy-lift booster and Orion crew capsule. 

We do have to admit we’re impressed, though.  Most Congressional earmarks are for a few millions, but these guys think big – out of $3.8 billion total for Exploration, $1.8 billion is earmarked for SLS and $1.2 billion for MPCV.  In a year of tight resources and fiscal strain, this earmark is so large that apparently the rest of Congress are having a hard time understanding (or believing) what they’re seeing – so far, at least.

Put another way, SLS and MPCV are being earmarked nearly 80% of the NASA Exploration total, leaving only a small fraction for what Exploration *should* be doing – finishing Commercial Cargo (COTS), getting Commercial Crew (CCDev) well started, supporting a robust Exploration technology program, and beginning the serious planning to do, you know, some actual exploration.  This bill also essentially zeroes out the more general Space Technology item that had been slated for half a billion under the Aeronautics line.

The importance of these shorted technology programs is much larger than meets the eye.  Bloated never-fly megaprojects have been eating NASA’s new-technology budgets for decades now, and the technology cupboard is bare.  One example: The same type of medium-performance storable-toxic-propellant rockets used to return the Apollo crews from the Moon had to be baselined for Constellation forty years later, because forty years later NASA still hadn’t funded development of modern higher-performance alternatives.  Some hasty attempts were made to catch up – but these too ended up starved to help pay for Constellation’s massive overruns.

This has been going on agency-wide, for decades, and is a major reason why the rest of the world has pretty much caught up with the US in aerospace technologies.  This loss of high-tech edge has a major ongoing impact on US economic growth, on the trade balance, and on defense preparedness.  A few hundred million annually for Exploration Technology, for Space Technology, and for NASA OCT’s (Office of the Chief Technologist) new Technology Roadmap could make a huge positive difference for this country going forward.  Hijacking that money to continue never-fly home-town jobs programs for another few years is a crime against the future of this country that we can no longer afford.

Mind, some who’ve supported these earmarks are well-intentioned.  There’s a widespread belief that in order to have a space exploration program, NASA must operate its own large boosters and manned capsules.  No big boosters, no exploration, so the unthinking belief goes.

The facts are otherwise: NASA at this point is no more capable of building its own boosters at any sane price than it is of building its own custom airliners.  If it tries, it will fail, protractedly and expensively.  If it somehow eventually succeeds, it will at that point be utterly unable to afford anything to launch on those boosters, because the in-house booster program will have eaten all available funding and more.

The belief that if NASA just builds a large new booster, a viable exploration program will somehow follow, is unfortunately no more rational than the Pacific Islander belief after WWII that if they just cleared runways and built faithful-enough wood-and-thatch duplicates of the old US supply-base control towers and radars, the airplanes full of cargo would return.  To be blunt, in both cases we are talking about a “Cargo Cult”.  Building a new Saturn 5 will not bring back the glory days of Apollo, no matter how hard anyone wishes otherwise.

NASA’s only rational alternative is to build its future exploration around the vastly cheaper available commercial boosters, plowing the savings into resuming advanced technology developments which will then feed back into both further savings in exploration costs and into improvements in the nation’s overall technological competitiveness.

(See http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau121.html and http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau122.html for background and further reading.)

Unfortunately, once the House reported out this version of the FY’11 CR Monday night, it was too late to get this fixed.  The NASA oversight porkers got their way behind the scenes, at a time when most in Congress just want to get the FY’11 CR done so they can move on to all the other issues they have stacked up waiting.  Absent an unlikely last-second hitch in the Senate, NASA will have to continue trying to make sense of a nonsensical policy for the remainder of FY’11.  Money tweet: “Congress demands NASA build 130 ton HLV by 2016. In related news Congress demands rainbow farting unicorn super soldiers with laser horns.”

This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do, however.  FY’12 starts October 1st, and the debate on the FY’12 budget will go into high gear the instant the FY’11 CR is passed.  These SLS and MPCV earmarks will be back – and we intend to be there ready and waiting.

We ask that those of you who are with us in being seriously angry over these earmarks make the time in coming weeks to engage your local Congressional delegation – Representative, Senators  – and let them know in no uncertain terms that deferring to their colleagues on the NASA oversight committees is no longer acceptable, that some of their colleagues are selling out the future technological competitiveness of the country for short-term home-town jobs programs, and that the SLS/MPCV earmarks must be stopped so that NASA has a chance to provide this nation the vigorous affordable exploration program and the fast-paced broad-front advanced technology development it deserves.

Call, write, buttonhole at local political events, engage staffers and build relationships – whatever it takes to get the message across in the coming weeks:  Kill the SLS/MPCV earmarks and let NASA do the jobs the American people need and expect it to be doing.  We may not be able to stop this nonsense for the remainder of FY’11, but FY’12 is only months away and the debates are already starting.  This time, let’s not allow undeserved deference to the NASA committee porkers let them get away with it.


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