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There were entire piles of these rocks, the remains of trees that had turned to stone after their organic material had been replaced by minerals.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.