Congress’ Misleading Human Spaceflight Development Chart

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

The Congressmen who are calling for a radical reorganization of NASA believe shifting oversight to a board of directors co-appointed by the President and Congress, allowing the space agency’s administrator to serve a 10-year term, and altering the budget process would insulate NASA from political upheavals caused by changes in Administration and give it a more stable funding profile that would limit cost overruns and mismanagement.

The Congressman released a chart showing canceled human spaceflight development programs over the past two decades that they say have wasted more than $20 billion.  The chart, and the politics behind the proposed reforms, deserve some closer scrutiny. We’ll look at the chart in this post.

Shuttle, ISS and Visiting Vehicle Development Programs

COTS

The chart incorrectly lists SpaceX’s program as incomplete. SpaceX has completed its COTS obligations and is moving forward with NASA’s blessing to fly commercial resupply missions beginning next month. The confusion is apparently caused by the out-of-date chart, which hasn’t been updated in two years.

Rocketplane Kistler’s COTS contract was canceled due to the company failing to come up with matching funding. NASA’s financial exposure there was fairly minimal. Given the way the program was structure, NASA had the power to cancel the agreement when it wasn’t working rather than to continue on. That is actually a good thing.

NASA awarded a new COTS agreement to Orbital Sciences Corporation, which will be testing its Antares rocket and Cygnus freighter in the coming months. Since Orbital started much later and could finish COTS only months after SpaceX, the effort seems to be coming along fairly well.

COTS also is an example of a program that was started during one administration (George W. Bush’s) and continued without disruption during a second (Barack Obama’s). The program seems to have been managed effectively by the space agency. Although NASA did end up spending more on the program than planned, the companies also had to put their own funding in. The government’s financial exposure was limited.

So, why are SpaceX’s and Orbital’s COTS efforts even shown on a chart full of canceled development programs? How are they part of the $20 billion that have been wasted?

Space Transportation and Exploration Development Programs

Ares I and Ares V

The Obama Administration did cancel Ares I and Ares V program. However, only the Ares I stayed dead. The Ares V was resurrected into the Space Launch System with a very similar design and most of the same contractors and NASA centers.  There were development disruptions, but the funds spent on Ares V were hardly thrown away because the work completed fed directly into SLS.

Now,  there’s a larger debate to be had on whether Ares V and SLS have been a waste of money. Critics say the shuttle-derived vehicle architecture favored by Congress saddles NASA with a rocket that is too expensive to develop, build and operate. They also say that the selection of this approach is more designed to maintain high employment in key states and Congressional districts than it is about giving NASA the tools it needs to effectively explore deep space.

That was certainly the argument the Obama Administration made in cancelling the Ares I and V programs. Congress didn’t see it that way and forced the Administration to continue Ares V under a new name. That’s a normal political process that has gone on since the days of the early Republic.

The irony is that the proposed reforms, which would shift power to board of directors co-appointed by Congress with an administrator serving for 10 years, would do little to address that issue. In fact, the new structure would make it nearly impossible for a presidential administration to cancel a program even if it was failing. This is why the reform effort is likely to fail as well; no president would be inclined to approve such a shift of power.

Orion

I’m not really sure why Orion is even on the chart. The Obama Administration’s efforts to cancel it failed due to Congressional opposition. The program has been renamed as the Multi Purpose Crew Module (or Orion MPCV) and its mission has been strictly focused on beyond Earth orbit exploration.  Other than that, the program has continued on largely as before; the funding spent on it before the Obama Administration took office was not wasted.

X Vehicles

A number of X-vehicles are listed in this category. The X stands for experimental. By their very nature, one would expect that a number of these projects would be canceled or otherwise not come to fruition.

I share Congress’ frustrations that these projects weren’t completed, but I’m not sure the proposed reforms would necessarily prevent future cancellations resulting from mismanagement, cost overruns, limited NASA funding, and the need to fund other more important priorities (e.g., space station construction, deep space vehicles and heavy-lift rockets).

Research and Technology Programs

NASA Institute for Advance Concepts

NIAC was shut down toward the end of the Bush Administration. However, it did fund useful research, so the funding was not wasted. Further, it has since been replaced by the similarly-named NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which has picked up where NIAC left off. In fact, research projects funded by NIAC are eligible for grants under the new program.

The new NIAC is part of a broader push by the Obama Administration to re-invigorate NASA’s technology research efforts. There is solid Congressional support for this effort, albeit not at the levels proposed by the Obama Administration.

The proposed reforms might result in a more stable long-term research effort. However, that depends upon the priorities of the administrator and the board of directors. If they’re not supportive of strong funding of these efforts, then vital research could be neglected for a decade.