Mo Brooks’ First Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill (Programs in My State)

Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)

Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) has introduced a measure that would prevent the Obama Administration and any future president from canceling the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle programs without Congressional approval while freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars to be applied to those programs.

Bill H.R. 3625 targets terminal liability funds that Orion and SLS contractors are holding in reserve in case the government decides to cancel these programs for convenience. The measure says that “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are unavailable for meaningful work on these programs.”

The measure would void any provisions in existing contracts that set aside termination liability funds, and prohibit the Administration from canceling these programs without Congressional approval. If Congress agreed to the cancellation, it would authorize additional expenditures to cover termination costs at that time.

Brooks has been a major supporter of both programs. He represents Huntsville, Ala., where the SLS is being designed at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

The bill says that the SLS and Orion programs — which are receiving a combined $3 billion annually — have been underfunded and are running behind schedule. And, in any event, program cancellations are rare.

“According to the Government Accountability Office, the Administration procures most of its goods and services through contracts, and it terminates very few of them. In fiscal year 2010, the Administration terminated 28 of 16,343 active contracts and orders—a termination rate of about 0.17 percent,” the bill states.

In 2010, the Obama Administration canceled the Constellation program, which included the Orion crew vehicle and the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles. Congressional action saved the Orion program while the Ares V heavy lift rocket became the Space Launch System.

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  • therealdmt

    This thing may fly yet.

    It’ll be an anchor about the neck of NASA and the emergent commercial space industry, but it isn’t necessarily going to just go away.

  • Peter

    It’s easy to bad-mouth this program but the U.S. is ahead of other nations in getting a next-gen system built and tested. The jury is out but I don’t think SLS will ever be as fiscally painful as the Shuttle was. And it can actually go places…

  • Aerospike

    nothing about SLS is “next-gen”, at least not if we are talking about technological generations.

  • therealdmt

    Peter, I respect your opinion and somewhat share it. SLS will be better than nothing — it will (if built) allow some cool things to happen that we’ve otherwise only dreamed about, such as missions to Earth-moon L points, asteroids, and maybe Mars and/or a return to the moon.

    The questions I ask are these:

    1) in what way is the SLS “next generation”? – As I see it, it largely uses hardware designed in the 1970′s to recreate the capability we had half a century ago in the 1960′s.

    2) Couldn’t we do much better by unleashing the power of private enterprise? But if fledgling private enterprise has to compete with subsidized government services when the main customer at this point is the government…perhaps we’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg — while it’s still just a gosling. (i.e. – there won’t be any golden eggs, just a giant government created simulation of a goose).

  • Peter

    my bad: Let’s replace ‘next-gen’ with ‘safer/more-payload-to-orbit’…

  • therealdmt

    Now Orion does bring some new capabilities over Apollo – modern flat screen instrumentation/displays that save critical space vs. a plethora of old mechanical instrumentation, immensely more computing capability (as is natural), mixed gas air instead of pure oxygen, and solar panels that can provide power indefinitely instead of fuel cells that could only last around two weeks. Nothing amazing — there’s no bathroom (let alone shower) or sleeping quarters or galley, or even a simple airlock to facilitate spacewalks (the entire cabin and all occupants will have to be exposed to hard vacuum for any spacewalk). No mechanical arm. No science racks. No reuseability.

    It’s somewhat of an improvement on Apollo, but that’s not much to say for half a century of spaceflight.

    And worst of all, there are alternative capsules that can do the same (Dragon) or some of the same (Boeing and Dream Chaser) for much, much cheaper that are similarly as far along in their development. Heck, they’re even planned to be reusable.

  • therealdmt

    Sorry about kinda jumping on you, Peter.

    I’m a space fan/advocate too, just like everyone here. It feels weird to be rooting against NASA’s biggest program. It’s just that the NASA/government way, which did so much, has been stagnating for decades now, and our lives are passing by without things dreamt of long ago being accomplished. Even NASA knows this — they want commercial crew. NASA largely wants to facilitate something bigger than themselves, but they’re being forced to keep everything in-house through a funding system that has been shown to be flawed.

    And yet, I’d be cheering out of my mind watching an SLS launch (in person, if at all possible!) heading off for Mars!

    I’m definitely conflicted over this whole SLS thing. I don’t think it’s the best way at all, but if it has to be done, then let’s DO it. It could, with international participation, lead to amazing thi

  • therealdmt

    -ngs. But not the vibrant economy that would make humanity’s presence off Earth truly sustainable.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’m just not sure this is going anywhere. Providing he received enough votes to get the legislation passed in both the House and Senate, I don’t see why the President would ever sign it. This just seems like a significant shift of power over a major program to Congress. As a matter of principle, I have a hard time seeing any president signing away that sort of power.

    I doubt there would be enough votes to override a veto, especially with the Senate in Democratic hands at least through January 2015. Even if they lost the Senate, there might be enough votes to sustain a veto.

    Brooks has introduced this before, I’m not sure if it was an independent bill or part of the appropriations bill for NASA.

  • Peter

    No need to apologize. I feel exactly the same way. Commercial crew is exciting, as is Planetary Resources. SLS has potential; I hope we see it. An aside: I do hope the Russians and Americans stay partnered post-ISS…

  • Brainerd

    Oh, spare us. SLS and Orion have ZERO potential. Neither are reusable and both of them have had plenty of chances since the idiotic VSE and ESAS were announced and canceled. It’s over. This is a last ditch effort to save them.

  • Brainerd

    It’s easy to bad mouth the US space program because it is eminently badmouthable. I call NEWBIE! Do some research before you post to experts.

  • Hug Doug

    just to quibble a bit – Orion does have a toilet, and last I heard it’s still meant to be reusable (heat shield aside).

  • Hug Doug

    i think you’re right about both points.

  • therealdmt

    Oh, okay – good catch. And, practically-speaking, a MAJOR point in any vehicle that can’t pull over to the side of the road (preferably at a rest stop!). Definitely an improvement on Apollo there!

  • delphinus100

    Making government programs ‘unkillable’ is bad precedent in general…

  • delphinus100

    I remember plenty of projects that ‘could’ have been done with a Saturn V as well, but only two of them actually occurred: Human Lunar landings (which also had all the other hardware funded and development at the time), and a single-launch space station (done almost as an afterthought).

    And I also remember that we didn’t even use up the production run of Saturns that we had. Even Skylab’s Saturn was originally meant for a cancelled Lunar mission.

    Where are the actual (not speculative) programs, and the actual *money* for them, that require this beast? What *will* (not could) we do with this, beyond possibly a repeat of Apollo 8 with longer orbital stay times, if we get it?

  • Eric Thiel

    I have the same problem. As expensive as I find the SLS, i still want to see it go to deep space if it is built.

  • delphinus100

    Re-useability went out the window with the airbags for ground landing, when NASA admitted they couldn’t make an upper-stage, air-startable version of the SSME for the Ares-I second stage. The performance reduction from switching to the J-2 meant downsizing from a 5.5 meter to a 5 meter capsule diameter, and a number of other weight reductions, including air bags (similar to those still on the LEO-only CST-100).

  • delphinus100

    The only effect it’ll have on manned Commercial space, is that SLS supporters in Congress want to raid Commercial Crew for funding (which has always gotten about half of what it annually needs)….even if it just means one more month’s worth per year of the current SLS budget.

    But the true, unsubsidized SLS launch costs make it hopeless as a commercial launcher…and with the possible exception of Bigelow Aerospace’s largest inflatable module, I know of no commercial payload that can’t ride on something that isn’t smaller and (except Falcon Heavy) already in production/operation.

    The DoD has been clear that it doesn’t need anything that size, either. NASA is the only possible customer…and a reluctant one, at that.

  • 50clyme

    I am no expert, but even I understand that SLS is a money-pit. If NASA (senators) would allow private space government rated crafts to hoist them into the sky that would allow more astronauts doing scientific experiments and free up money for some truly next generation technology.

  • Peter

    It would be sad and pathetic if all we end up doing is orbiting the moon a few times. Is it *that* tough to land on the moon?

  • Hug Doug

    i think that’s what he meant by “anchor” lol.

  • Hug Doug

    no, as far as I’m aware, it is still the plan to re-use Orion capsules after fishing them out of the ocean. all the electronics that would get damaged from salt water are inside the pressure vessel.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    It’s not so much that it’s tough, although it is. It’s more about scraping together enough cash to build the mission hardware. A launch system is not mission hardware. A launch system does only 1 or 2 things: 1) it places payload into LEO, 2) it propels that payload beyond LEO. In the case of scenario 2), the upper stage of the launcher could be said to be mission hardware, in that it is the propulsion module that takes the actual mission payload beyond LEO – hopefully we can all agree that just getting to LEO does not qualify as a deep space exploration.

    Getting to the first launch of SLS and Orion is going to cost upwards of $20,000,000,000; with additional flights helping to spread the development costs over several missions.
    Using Falcon Heavy (which admittedly has not flown yet) in its most expensive configuration, $20 billion buys you nearly 8,000 tonnes of payload in LEO. If you attempted to launch that much mass to LEO using SLS, you could at least double that cost. Also, I bet if you went to SpaceX to purchase 135 flighs of FH with an option to purchase another 135, you could probably get a healthy discount. In terms of payload to LEO, SLS is the best part of one hundred times more expensive than FH.

    DragonRider will match or exceed Orion for seating and re-entry speed capability, and is designed to loiter for 2 years in space (or at least, on orbit). And instead of costing $10 Billion, it will cost in the region of $100 million or probably less – that’s 1/100 the cost. And let’s be honest about it, Orion is not a long duration deep space multi purpose craft. It is a launch and re-entry capsule with a label on it saying “I dare you to spend more than two weeks in here”.

    Just to repeat, the only part of SLS, or any heavy/super-heavy lift rocket that is involved in deep space missions is the upper stage. The vast majority of the launcher in only used to get the upper stage and payload to LEO. This quite obvious fact might lead us to scrutinise the reasoning put forward to justify SLS in the first place. The entire argument for SLS rests on, and is completely bound to, the premise that it is too difficult and too risky to do multiple launches to LEO and to do on orbit rendezvous and docking, i.e. to assemble a mission hardware stack in orbit. That is to say, the exact sort of thing that is done several times a year, and year after year, to the ISS, or any space station for that matter. Therefore, the message to take away is that SLS is a high-risk, eggs in one basket way of doing space exploration that could be done by another method: sooner, with less risk, with greater flexibility, and at 100th the cost.

  • Robert Gishubl

    The difficulty of achieving in orbit docking from seperate launchers was the reason why the Saturn V was built instead of a much easier smaller launcher. However since then there has been substantial improvement in computing and remote operation making docking in LEO almost a routine operation.. The other factor is that SLS is not large enough to send a mission anywhere except an Apollo 8 re-run without multiple launches and docking in LEO. So there is no major difference in mission design between a deep space mission designed of modules for FH vs SLS. There will be some differences in limiting module size with FH but with proper design that could be used to mission advantage by having slightly smaller redundant modules rather than redundant systems on slightly larger modules. The significant cost saving of using FH to launch will more than pay for any additional cost of using a greater number of smaller mission modules.
    SLS and Orion are parasites sucking the money meant for space exploration out of NASA, the sooner they a canceled and the money spent on real systems the better.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “The other factor is that SLS is not large enough to send a mission anywhere except an Apollo 8 re-run without multiple launches and docking in LEO. So there is no major difference in mission design between a deep space mission designed of modules for FH vs SLS.”
    Well at least until they build the Block XXVII configuration with a 600 tonnes to LEO capability.

    All in all Robert, I’m not entirely happy that you have been more succinct and to the point than I was able to be, but respect where respect is due:
    “SLS and Orion are parasites sucking the money meant for space exploration out of NASA, the sooner they a canceled and the money spent on real systems the better.” ……you da man!

  • Tonya

    If the launch rate remains just once every four years, the hardware won’t be reused regardless of whether or not it could.

  • Robert Gishubl

    Re “Well at least until they build the Block XXVII configuration with a 600 tonnes to LEO capability.”
    I recall a concept for ultra large rocket from the 60s but they were launched from the sea, 550 mT to LEO.
    So I suppose it is possible for congress to consider it as feasable, going on SLS progress so far that would be in 2721 and cost about 3 Trillion per year in development.

    I Like ypur comment “It’s more about scraping together enough cash to build the mission hardware. A launch system is not mission hardware.”
    It is just so frustraiting that NASA could be doing so much more with the money and tallent it has than being forced against its wish to work on a pointless system and being prevented from working on really cool stuff. Look at Comercial Crew being under funded or internal to NASA Morpheous on a shoe string but doing great work that is essential for landing on other planets/moons etc.