Petrified Congressmen Delay Commercial Space Efforts

Petrified wood (Credit: Jon Sullivan)
Petrified wood (Credit: Jon Sullivan)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

On Sunday, I dropped by Bob’s Army Navy Store in Mojave, hoping to pick up a pair of good binoculars for the SpaceShipTwo flight scheduled for the next day. Although my search was in vain, I did visit the area on the west side of the building where there are a variety of rocks for sale.

There were rocks of every kind: large rocks and small rocks, crystals, rocks with scaly lizards scurrying underneath to escape from someone who was equally afraid of them. I was fascinated. I had no idea there were that many types of rocks. Or that people would want to buy such things in large numbers. What would they use them for? I was stumped.

What really caught my interest, though, was the petrified wood.

There were entire piles of these rocks, the remains of trees that had turned to stone after their organic material had been replaced by minerals. They had somehow retained their original appearance as living beings even though everything that made them alive was sucked out of them eons ago. It was cool.

I recalled all this two days later when I read the latest commercial crew news from NASA. The latest update led me to believe that something similar has happened in Congress, with some mysterious process turning the logic centers in the brains of Congress representatives to stone. They have the appearance of living, thinking human beings capable of complex problem solving, but their political positions have somehow become frozen in place.

What resulted in this sad conclusion was the following piece of news:

NASA has signed a $424 million modification to its contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) for full crew transportation services to the International Space Station in 2016 with return and rescue services extending through June 2017.

The reason for this contract extension is very simply: Congress has repeated cut the Obama Administration’s request for the Commercial Crew program, typically by $300 to $400 million each year. With each reduction now, there is yet another delay in fielding crew vehicles and an expenditure of a similar amount on the back end to ensure our astronauts can reach the space station.

Why Congressmen are so intent on paying Russian contractors for these services rather than funding American companies such as Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation to develop the same capability is a big mystery. It has mystified me for years.

My best guess is that Congress is both skeptical of the viability of commercial crew and petrified (in an emotional and political sense) of the changes the program could bring if does succeed. People who are equally afraid of both success and failure have a tendency to freeze. They don’t take risks and cling to what they know best — however outdated, self-defeating and short-sighted it might be.

Congress is clearly stuck in that very position. Sadly, there is little indication that the recent successes of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation in the commercial cargo program has swayed very many people in Congress that commercial crew can succeed. I might be wrong on that assessment, but the early statements on the FY 2014 budget are not encouraging.

  • mattmcc80

    Last week, at a budget hearing, Richard Shelby in his opening remarks said “This budget focuses, I believe, too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles”

    That’s not scepticism, that’s unambiguous opposition. Of course, this is from an Alabama representative. Where’s SLS being built, again?

  • Nickolai

    Really? The “fiction” of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles? So five Falcon 9 flights have all been a lie?

    Furthermore, commercial crew is about more than the LV, it’s mostly about the capsule. Dragon isn’t fictional, and I believe Boeing and Sierra Nevada are making good progress on their designs. His position seems completely unsupported by the facts.

  • What have facts or logic to do with congress votes? As clearly demonstarted by “saving” $300 million in comercial crew funding only to spend $424 on Russian launch services because of delays in comercial crew there is no logic.

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    I would beg to differ, yes indeed older generations of peoples tend to lean towards things they know best, however knowing that NASA is subject to what the government tells it to do regardless of which political party is in power at the time may be something to consider. I am not bashing either parties, but really when you think about it what is a congress mans’ main purpose in life? To get re-elected, so whenever there is a smashing success in one party’s policymaking the opposing party will try anything to mitigate its effectiveness until the next voting cycle, so then the opposing party can use that “ineffective” policy as a bargaining chip. Thereafter if the opposing party wins majority vote they can turn-around dismantle the previous policy and make a replica (or alternative) to show its party’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, the roles are now reversed and now the previously majority party will go in opposition until then next flipping voting cycle. I think that when it comes to space development we cant have two pilots fighting for the flight controls every 4 years because that can lead to stagnation or something worse.

  • Shelby is an example of someone who doesn’t think it will succeed and is terrified that it could.

  • Nickolai

    With your comment, and Robert’s, I’m sad that politics in this country have gotten so bad that they bring out this much cynicism in ordinary people 🙁

    That doesn’t mean that either of you are wrong, but when it comes to the space program I think the relevant point is that the interests of a congressman are, by definition, narrow. They represent one district, and if that district employs space people than of course whatever they can do to twist the arm of NASA to continue to employ these people is a victory for them. The incentive for them to think on a nationwide level is simply not there, more or less by design, but that’s a different point.

  • mode1charlie

    It’s impossible for anyone paying attention not to draw the conclusion that Republican leaders are simply now incapable of basing their policies on evidence or reason. It is sadly transparent that they have become the party of unreasonableness and cynicism; unfortunately this is no longer something that can be explained away or denied. The emperor has no clothes.

  • Andy

    How about giving Dick Shelby the Ludovico treatment with JFK’s Rice University speech on repeat?

    “So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.”

  • cosmic

    I think they should all just vote to dissolve the union then.

  • Paul451

    Next time, ask about coprolites. It’ll give you another good metaphor for Congress.

  • BoldEagle

    If the Spanish had managed Columbus the way the US government manages nasa’s manned space efforts, once Colmbus had discovered America and returned to Spain, he and all other Spanish explorers would have been told by the Spanish King and Queen to retire to the countryside and never go to sea again unless they use an English dinghy.

  • Paul451

    Similarly, if 14th century Chinese exploration had been managed like the US manages NASA, when the fleets returned, the mandarins would have… oh wait, never mind.

  • It is not just Repiblicans, there are Democrats supporting the this b*## @^%t as well.

  • mode1charlie

    To whom are you referring? Sen. Nelson? He may be pro-SLS, but he was against the commercial crew downselect proposal. Overall, Dem support for New Space is less robust than one might hope, but nowhere will you find Dem statements as aggressively ignorant as Sen. Shelby’s.