Congress Flunks Math 101 — Update No. 2,703,843

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.



  • the “commercial space” has a poor or no future in this decade because there’s a poor or no “market” for these vehicles

    the suborbital vehicles are very dangerous since they’ve nearly ZERO safety systems, so, the FAA will never allow them to fly with tourists to 65+ miles of altitude

    the “orbital market” for manned vehicles is very very small since, in this decade” there’ll be just ONE place to go in space, the ISS, that is an “home for six” for a total of only 12 astronauts per year with crew rotation, also, this market has only ONE customer, that is NASA

    of these 12 astronauts per year, eight will be european and russian that will always fly with the cheap and reliable Soyuz and ONLY four astronauts per year, two per mission, will be american

    well, since, until 2016, there will be NO commercial alternative for reliable manned vehicles, NASA has already signed a deal with Russia to carry ALL its astronauts to the ISS with the Soyuz, then, if one or more commercial vehicle(s) will be ready available and reliable, NASA “could” use it/them to carry some of all its atrsonauts to the ISS between 2017 and 2020 when NASA will withdraw from ISS and the space station should be decommissioned, if not burned in the atmosphere

    so, the total number of american astronauts that should fly to the ISS in 2017-2020 will be 16 for a total number of only 8 missions/spacecrafts, then, not enough for SIX vehicles: Soyuz, Dragon, Orion, BlueKliper, DREAMchaser and CST-100

    also, the company that should cover up to 100% of this very very small market clearly is SpaceX since it started to develop rockets and capsules eight years ago and, if all tests go well, it is pretty close to send its operational cargo-Dragon to the ISS from 2014-15, also, if SpaceX will receive enough government funds, should be able to finish the development and tests of the crewed Dragon to launch them to the ISS with astronauts around 2016-2017

    all other commercial space companies have little or no chances to compete with SpaceX mainly since they started to develop their spacecrafts from few years and need too much time and money to reach the SpaceX level

    of them, Blue Origin seems be the most away from this target since it should likely be able to launch something real in orbit only by the end of the decade when there will be no longer market for commercial capsules

    and also all other competitor should fail their goals because … the 30 tons Orion will not have a man-rated rocket to reliably launch it with a crew before 2022 (when the $L$ should be available) the DREAMchaser is derived from an old and very badly designed NASA project that has never flown and never will fly (due to several technical and economical reasons) while the CST-100 and Atlas V duo (very probably) hides a BIG BUG that may kill the full project before kill a full crew of astronauts

    and not less foolish is the Stratolaunch project funded by Paul Allen and supported also by Mike Griffin and Burt Rutan

    in other words, the commercial space isn’t a real market but just a game for rich guys like Bezos, Allen and Branson … 🙂

  • Warshawski

    Doug, I agree. It is amazing how some politicians can allegedly support free enterprise and capitalisim yet insist that the only way into space is government controlled program which will be slower, more expensive and probably not as safe as the comercial option it is attempting to strangle. Getting comercial crew capability will save the government billions in development compared to SLS/Orion and hundreds of millions on payments to Russia as well as opening new industries.
    Although initially comercial space will not boom it will gradually increase over a number of years as at first only ultra rich adventures go. But as experienced is gained and development costs paid off individual flight costs rill reduce making it more affordable. Look at aviation as an example initially the play thing of the rich it is now a common mode of transport. Comercial Crew has the potential to be the starting point for new industries,

  • NASA has ALREADY awarded to Russia ALL the manned spaceflights to the ISS until 2016

  • Steve

    Doug, very good article. I am a 50 something year old guy who has been a life long Republican. But maybe not too much longer. This commercial space issue has demonstrated clearly to me that I can no longer be a member of this party. There are only two possible explanations for the Republican position; 1) they are only concerned about directing money to businesses that pad their pockets or 2) they are pathetically stupid. Either explanation is bad. I am a man now without a party. The times are ripe for a new political party that is rational and smart.

    gaetano marano, I have read many of your posts over the past several months. I am curious if you think life will exist after the ISS. All your positions are only supported by a premise that there will be nothing after the ISS. I certainly hope you are wrong for the sake of the future of mankind.

    God speed to folks like Musk, Bigelow, and the many others who are investing their own fortunes and sweat to make a future for mankind that is not bound to this earth. The earth is a great place, but unfortunately it is finite.