SAS Political Action Alert: Call Your Congressman to Save NASA Commercial Crew

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Space Access Update #126  7/8/11
Copyright 2011 by Space Access Society

Contents This Issue:

– Political Action Alert: Support Funding For NASA’s Future – Commercial Crew & Space Technology
– Shuttle: Looking Back, And Forward

Political Action Alert 7/8/11
Support Funding For NASA’s Future: Commercial Crew & Space Technology

Action Summary:

Contact your Representative’s DC office Monday July 11th during east coast business hours if possible (by midday Tuesday at the latest) and ask them to tell the House Appropriations Committee leadership to support full funding for the NASA Commercial Crew and Space Technology programs.  Spend this weekend persuading as many of your friends, family, and acquaintances as you can to make the call too – numbers count!  (Scroll down to the “Background” sections for more on why these and why now, and “Action Details” for specifics on how to proceed.)


Background:

The Fiscal Year 2012 Congressional budget process is underway.  (The budget process will be ongoing for the next few months, since FY’12 begins this coming October 1st.)  All budget “appropriations” bills (where they write the actual checks) start this process in the House Appropriations Committee, generally in whatever Subcommittee covers the specific budget area.  In this case, NASA is funded by the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee.  Yesterday this CJS Subcommittee finalized its “markup” (rewrite) of the White House FY’12 NASA budget proposal.  These first-round results were not good.

(See yesterday’s Update #125 at http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau125.html for details.  Briefly, the Subcommittee markup funded both Space Technology and Commercial Crew at less than half what’s wanted – Space Technology got $375 million out of a requested $1.024 billion, and we now know Commercial Crew got just over $300 million out of a requested $850 million.)

The next critical step in the FY’12 NASA budget process will be the full Appropriations Committee markup of this bill, scheduled for next Wednesday morning July 13th.  This markup will be our first real opportunity to influence the contents of the bill.  This is why we need you to call your Congressman by Tuesday midday at latest, so there’s time for them to pass word on to the Appropriations Committee leaders.

We need as many of you as possible to call – numbers count.  There are lots of cuts coming this year, and the ones who protest the loudest, IE generate the most calls, are the ones who may get some of their funding back.  You don’t have to worry about having great sales skills to make this call, you just need to get the appropriate staffer (or their voicemail) on the line, then state what you want clearly enough that your call ends up counted in the proper column.  If you possibly can, get others to call too.  Numbers very much matter here.

Talking Points: Why These Programs?

NASA Commercial Crew Program:
– With Shuttle retired, America will totally depend on Russia to launch our astronauts to the Space Station, paying them hundreds of millions of dollars every year.  And Russia keeps raising their prices… up 175% in just six years, to over $60 million a seat and climbing.
– Full funding at $850 million will allow Commercial Crew to support the fastest possible development of multiple competing safe affordable US-made vehicles.
– Commercial Crew will create high-tech, high-paying jobs right here, right now.
– Commercial Crew is the quickest, cheapest way to close the Gap in U.S. human spaceflight and get maximum use out of our hundred billion dollar Space Station.
– Fully funding Commercial Crew will let multiple US crew vehicles fly…
..restoring US leadership in space.
..creating competition which lowers costs and drives innovation.
..providing multiple backups for better safety and less risk of delay.

NASA Space Technology Program:
– Basic space technology development has been neglected in the US for decades.
– NASA is still stuck with space technology developed in the 1970s.
– Fully funding Space Technology at 1,024 million will allow NASA to start making up for lost time across a wide range of high-payoff technologies.
– We’re barely ahead of Russia and China at this point. America must invest in new technology to regain our world technological leadership.
– New technologies like propellant depots and high-efficiency propulsion will dramatically lower the cost of sending astronauts further into the solar system.
– Developing new space technologies will also enable new US commercial space industries, creating even more US jobs and economic return from our space program.

Action Details:

– If you don’t already know your Representative’s name, political party and DC office phone number, grab an old utility bill and look them up via your 9-digit zipcode at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/findyourreps.xpd.

– Call their DC office.  (Be calm and polite throughout, please – the idea is to have your opinion heard, not to vent frustrations or make enemies.)

– Tell whoever answers the phone that you’re from the Representative’s district, and you’d like to speak to the person who handles NASA appropriations issues.  Ask for that staffer’s voicemail if they’re not available.  (If you’re given a choice between a NASA person and an Appropriations person, go with Appropriations.)

– Politely tell that staffer your name, that you live in the Congressman/woman’s district, and that you support full funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew and Space Technology programs.

– Then , if your Representative is a Republican, ask that they pass on your requests to Hal Rogers (R, Kentucky, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.)

– If your Representative is a Democrat, ask that they pass on your requests to Norm Dicks (D, Washington State, Ranking Minority Member of the House Appropriations Committee.)

– If your Representative happens to *be* Hal Rogers or Norm Dicks, congratulations!  Ask the staffer to pass on your request to the Congressman.

– If the staffer has any questions, answer them as best you can, then politely ring off.  (One specific question they may ask, given the set ceiling on overall available funding for this bill, is “what’s your offset?”  IE, what should they cut to get the money for your programs?  If, and *only* if, they ask you this, tell them you think Space Launch System could be cut back to a long-term research and study program without any great harm.)

– If you have any feedback for us after your call – things that worked, things that didn’t, interesting information – drop us a note at space.access@space-access.org.

Wrapup

The things we care about at NASA – Commercial Crew & Cargo, Commercial Reusable Suborbital, Space/Exploration Technology, Propellant Depots, etc, all things that bear on lower cost space transportation for the future – are being cut back.  If we take things for granted, those cutbacks could easily become outright cancellations.  Phone calls from you and your friends could make the difference.

Thanks!
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Shuttle: Looking Back, And Forward

The last ever Shuttle mission is now safely in orbit.  It seems a good time to briefly look at how Shuttle came to be, what Shuttle was and was not, and what all this says about NASA’s next move.

The key to understanding Shuttle is understanding the circumstances it was developed under.  Apollo’s triumph had just been achieved via a massive, maximum-priority crash program.  Once President Kennedy made the “before the decade is out” call, in order to make the tight schedule, the Apollo mission was broken down into the simplest possible pieces, and NASA was expanded many times over to overwhelm each piece with talent and resources.  At the Moon program’s peak, it employed over 30,000 people at NASA and many times that in industry, for a NASA budget that peaked at over 35 billion (current) dollars per year, all to put a pair of people on the Moon for a day or two six times.  Efficiency and low operating costs simply weren’t Apollo priorities.

By the 1970’s, Apollo had achieved its dual political purposes: Internationally, the US (peacefully) demonstrated to the world that in terms of sheer technological muscle it could massively out-compete the Soviet Union.  And nationally, Apollo paid for then-VP LBJ’s wrangling of Congressional funding support by reindustrializing a broad belt of the US South, scattering new centers of high-tech industry across a then-economically backwards stretch of the country.

Post-Apollo, two timeless truths took over: No large government organization ever voluntarily reduces its size.  And Congressional funders always want to know, “what has your organization done for us lately?”  The central thing to understand about Shuttle is that NASA ended up developing it with 2/3rds of its Apollo staff but only 1/3rd of its Apollo funding.  The results were, to say the least, uneven.

On the plus side, Shuttle was extremely versatile.  It had to be, given that it was the only new space transport NASA was likely to get for a while, and given that it also needed to at least nominally cover military and commercial missions to help justify its funding.  The wide range of capabilities incorporated into Shuttle was a major factor in the wide variety of space missions Shuttle was eventually able to fly, which led directly to the wide ranging national space operations experience base that (we think) is the program’s major positive legacy.

But post-Apollo Shuttle development funding was pared to the bone, and many of the tradeoffs made to minimize development cost inevitably raised operating costs.  Given the high staff levels on hand, solving problems by throwing people at them wherever possible was inevitable, which also raised operating costs.  Also, to get its commendable versatility Shuttle had to push available 1970’s technology right to the bleeding edge, which meant many of its components had very little safety margin.

This resulted in a fragile and not very safe vehicle, with two total losses in 135 flights.  This also sharply limited Shuttle flight rate, since for safety many Shuttle systems had to be torn down, inspected, and rebuilt after every flight.  (We note in passing that the odds of coming back in a box after one Shuttle mission were roughly comparable to those for a year’s tour in Iraq or Afghanistan during the hotter parts of those wars.  We have nothing but admiration for the people who knowingly stepped up to fly the missions (and do the tours) regardless.)

So Shuttle ended up expensive to operate and with a very low flight rate, which sharply limited its overall utility to the nation.  135 missions may sound like a lot, but over thirty years, it’s 4.5 missions per year – enough to gain precious experience, but not enough to support major space operations.  (There is a case to be made that Station taking almost twenty years and over a hundred billion dollars to complete was in significant part a result of Shuttle’s limitations.)  As for costs, there are many politically-generated lower numbers out there, but the one we trust is the overall Shuttle program cost in current dollars (near $200 billion) divided by the total missions flown (135) for a total cost per mission of close to one and a half billion dollars.

In sum, Shuttle was useful in greatly broadening the national space operations experience base, but at a high cost, both in money and in foregone opportunities.  The combination of Shuttle’s high ongoing operating costs and the lukewarm funding support (generated by its limited capability to support large new missions) led to an entire generation of NASA neither producing much new technology (technology money was routinely siphoned off to pay for overruns in the “more important” programs) nor succeeding in most of its attempts to take on large new missions.

In particular, Shuttle’s institutionalization of the Apollo manpower-intensive project model meant that new NASA initiatives were inherently handicapped from the start by a pernicious combination of high built-in overhead costs and (as time passed) over-bureaucratized project management that led to decades of failure.  This process recently culminated in the ghastly meltdown of Constellation – not the first time NASA has spent years and billions for nothing, but certainly the worst.

We see the ending of Shuttle (and the implied shutdown of much of what has been called the Shuttle-Industrial Complex) as a priceless once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake and revive NASA as a smaller, far more nimble and useful organization.  We do not know how to usefully reform NASA’s massively seized-up fifty year-old post-Shuttle bureaucracy.  Sympathize as we might with the individuals involved, laying the bulk of it off while cherry-picking core knowledge and talent for new replacement space technology and exploration organizations seems to us the only practical way to break NASA out of its current death-spiral of ever higher costs and ever longer delays.

The implications of the Augustine Commission Report were clear, for those with eyes to see.  NASA can no longer go on as it has since Apollo.  The logical end of that process is in sight: Many billions per year spent on projects whose flight dates recede at one year per year forever.

We’ll conclude by saying that Congress’s current attempt to keep as much of the Shuttle-Industrial Complex on the payroll as possible, tasking it to build and operate the large new Space Launch System booster while funding it at a level barely sufficient to keep the lights on in that massively inefficient organization, will at best lead to a repeat of Shuttle’s problems and another generation spent on hold.  At best – more likely it will destroy NASA, given that over the decades since Apollo NASA’s “best and brightest” have both thinned out considerably and also gradually become mired up to their eyebrows in a swamp of bureaucratic mediocrity.
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