More Nonsense From Congress

“This show ain’t no good.” Elvis cancels The Scratchy Show. (Credit: The Simpsons/20th Century Fox)

Jeff Foust has a long and rather depressing accounting of the Senate hearing on NASA’s budget yesterday.  Some of the nonsensical things that were said:

Sen. Richard Shelby: “Mr. Administrator, I believe that the core mission of NASA is to build cutting-edge systems that allow us to expand our knowledge of the universe.”

Shelby’s “cutting edge systems” involve a monster Space Launch System (SLS) based on shuttle booster technologies designed in the 1970’s that will cost a fortune to build, maintain and operate.  In fact, it’s so expensive that we won’t be able to fly it very often, limiting our ability to explore the universe.  The other cutting edge system is a massively expensive capsule system that looks like a much larger version of Apollo but will be capable of carrying all of four people (only one more than Apollo). Developing Orion is taking about 10 years.

Of course, SLS is being developed and built in Shelby’s state; hence, we have Sen. Shelby’s formula:

Massive Federal Spending + Home State Jobs = Cutting Edge Systems

Sen. Shelby: “This administration, I believe, seems to think that NASA’s job is to use taxpayer money as venture capital to support speculative commercial companies, the future Solyndras of the space industry.  When is this administration going to get the message that the Congress, I believe, is not willing to subsidize so-called commercial vendors at the expense of NASA’s core mission of engineering and exploration?”

Solyndra! Oh, zing!  Good one!

Here’s the reality: one of the winners is very likely to be Boeing. And it will fly its vehicle on Atlas V rockets built in Alabama by ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. None of those companies fit the Solyndra model.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison: “I do support commercial crew. However, I think NASA is continuing to throw money at too many companies with a hope of flying astronauts and not doing what it has done, which is to undertake a study for the commercial crew similar to what you’ve done with Orion and SLS, including an independent analysis of options and then funding the programs that NASA believes have the most hope of gaining what we all want, which is the quickest American provided commercial crew vehicle to the Space Station as possible.”

KBH doesn’t appear to understand the value of competition or the benefits that come with setting overall goals and letting the companies come up with the best ways of meeting the requirements. The study suggestion seems especially pointless; NASA is perfectly capable of evaluating the proposals that come in and deciding which ones are the best.  The idea smacks of a top-down approach to developing these vehicles that would be counter productive.

NASA’s return to flight has already slipped a year to 2017 due to Congressional cuts in the commercial crew budget. It’s not clear how Hutchison’s study suggestion would really solve that problem. Meanwhile, Congress continues to lavish funds on SLS and Orion, which will not fly with people for another 9 years.


Sen. Barbara Mikulski: “I happen to support the commercial endeavor for both cargo and crew. I think it’s bold, I think it’s promising, but I’m concerned that it’s behind schedule. My concern is that now the best-case scenarios about the launch for these is 2017. We’ve extended the life of the space station to 2020. Isn’t this a hell of a lot of money for a three-year effort?”

Oh, this is ridiculous. You can’t cut the Administration’s request for commercial crew in half and then complain when the schedule slips. You were told that would happen at the time. You’ve also been told that everyone is looking to extend the station until 2028. And that this program will enable private space stations like the ones Robert Bigelow is building.

But, as long as we’re complaining about spending a lot of money on short missions, $8 billion seems to be a hell of a lot of money for a telescope that’s going to operate for five years. But, because it’s managed by Goddard in Mikulski’s home state of Maryland, we have to continue to fund it no matter what damage it does to the rest of NASA’s budget or other programs. An entire Mars effort is getting zapped to pay for it.

  • mike shupp

    I’m a tad more charitable. Those senators, after all, do have NASA facilities in their backyards. It’d be unnatural if they’d not graviate to committees and subcommittees that affect NASA spending and operations; some of their constituents might legitimately feel ill-served if their Congressmen disdained to speak in their behalf; and truthfully, you could lay off all of NASA’s remaining contractors and all of NASA’s civil servant workers and I doubt you’d reach a body count of over 250,000; these days, it’s a pretty good month if fewer than 350,000 people are added to the unemployment rolls. All that screaming and hollering at SPACE POLITICS and other web sites about pork barrelling and NASA being used for job programs, and the sad reality is that other than a few minutes of local TV coverage, NASA’s impact is basically too small to be noticed — I assume this is appreciated by those screaming the loudest at SPACE POLITICS.

    So, Congress critters are behaving like watch dogs, running about barking ferociously, biting at intruder’s pants legs, pissing on lamp posts and the occasional shrubbery, generally looking for attention. And not changing much.

    It’s going to be 8-10 years before the US is out of its current financial hole — more, if we have another recession before 2020, which is a reasonable expectation. It’ll be 6 years or so before we’re forced to make decisions about keeping the ISS going, 6 years or more till commercial flights to ISS have proven the value of the concept or failed. It’ll be 10-20 years at current rates before the Russians or Chinese start pressing beyond US capabilities in space. It’ll be another decade before the aerospace industry shrinks and consolidates again, takes another 50 % cut in manpower, pensions off the last of its babyboomer engineers and replaces them with cheaper new graduates or H1-B workers or clever software. It’ll be 7 or 8 years before most US voters see any particular point in advertising US space accomplishments to an unconcerned world.

    And so on. We’re in a kick-the-can-down-the-road period of history. Some stuff gets started. Some stuff gets cancelled. Nothing gets finished, nobody wants anything to finish, and that’s likely to be it for a good long while, and the behavior of Congressmen shows they recognize it. So they get irritating at times? It’s part of their jobs. Don’t take it personally.

  • Marcus Zottl

    When I read that people think, that talking nonsense is part of a politicians job, it just shows me how broken the system has become…

    btw: that is of course not only valid for the US, but pretty much around the world. Over the last decades, it seems that the job of politicians has changed from acting in the interest of the people and the country to acting in the interest of their bank account and putting local issues above (inter)national issues (as a very short sighted means to pretend to care about the interest of the (local) people.

  • Reusables Forever

    And, of course, the Shelby formula also reads:

    Massive Federal Spending + Home State Jobs = Job security for Shelby

    Let’s also be clear: NASA and Congress both understand the concepts of budget and head count but haven’t a clue as to what profit and return on investment mean.

  • “Shelby’s “cutting edge systems” involve a monster Space Launch System (SLS) based on shuttle booster technologies designed in the 1970′s that will cost a fortune to build, maintain and operate.”

    And it originally was sold to us because it was *not* cutting edge.

    Shuttle-derived launchers for Constellation were originally presented as proven technology that could be turned into launchers that were ‘safe, simple, soon.’

    I can’t speak to the safety of the SLS son-of-Constellation, but if it gets done, we can only hope that it’s better at safety than it so far seems to be at ‘simple and soon.’