By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was up on the Hill today for back to back meetings of House and Senate committees that oversee his budget. Based on the (predictable and utterly depressing) feedback he received, its clear that key members of Congress failed Math 101 (and a few other courses) in college. It’s the only real explanation for many of their inane utterances.
The Great Budget Raid That Wasn’t (So Big): Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison kept complaining that the proposed budget cuts spending on the Space Launch System and Orion by $300 million in favor of funding commercial crew. In fact, the cut to the combined programs is roughly half that amount. The confusion apparently results from a new accounting arrangement that separates the ground infrastructure costs from vehicle development. (This arrangement was demanded by Congress in the last budget.)
NASA has shifted more money to ground infrastructure to prepare for unmanned tests in 2014 and 2017 and slowed down development of Orion to match the slower pace of SLS. But, the cut is not nearly as bad as Hutchison is alleging. And we’re in a tight fiscal environment.
It’s hard to believe these programs can’t get by on $2.92 billion dollars. How much is enough for this program? We’ve already spent billions on it with exactly one launch of not even a full rocket.Pay Us Now or Pay Putin Later. Hutchison and other elected representatives were skeptical of increasing the commercial crew budget from $406 million to $830 million. Bolden said it was the only way to prevent the return to flight from sliding further to the right from its now planned year of 2017.
The math here is as simple as it is compelling: NASA has to pay more money to the Russians for crew transport for each year the program slips. So, Congress either pays up now to fund American companies or funnels money to Russia later. Which do you think would be more popular with taxpayers? Which is the most effective for the nation?
Instead of the right thing, our esteemed representatives are insistent upon raiding commercial crew to pay for vehicles that can’t fly with astronauts for nearly a decade.
“I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.” Aside from Hutchison’s multiple failures at basic math, she also believes that the Orion and SLS vehicles could serve as a backup to commercial crew even though they won’t be ready to fly until 2021. As long as Orion is tied to the heavy-lift vehicle, there’s no chance in hell of it being an effective backup.
You could always decouple Orion from SLS and launch crews on Delta IVs with the vehicles fueling up for beyond Earth orbit flights at orbital fuel depots, then why do you need the SLS in the first place?
Hutchison is retiring from the Senate in January. It can’t come soon enough.
Monopolies are Cost Effective. There’s a lot of pressure from Congress for NASA to select one commercial crew provider now. Aside from destroying the entire purpose of the competition and eliminating the goal of redundant access to space, this would in all likelihood significantly drive up costs by creating a monopoly.
The oddest thing is that free-market Republicans seem to have the greatest difficulty grasping these essential facts. These are the guys who love competition and want to privatize as much of the government as possible.
The other odd thing is that Congress is demanding NASA do this for safety reasons. It seems that given the limited budget Congress has provided for this program, NASA has had to use looser Space Act Agreements instead of the more rigorous and costly Federal Acquisition Regulation approach. Well, whose fault is that?
Congress has thrown up every roadblock possible to try to destroy this program. It provides too little money and asks too much of NASA. This practice has held the space program back for decades. And Congress just never learns anything from the past.