Clock is Ticking on NASA Human Deep Space Program

Lamar Smith

It seems that nothing so becomes a politician’s public life like the announcement that he or she is leaving it.

George Washington’s decision in 1796 to not seek a third term as president is widely hailed as the ultimate example of a small-r republican virtue of restraint the general demonstrated throughout his public life. Americans trusted Washington with power because they knew he would exercise it wisely and, that when the time came, he would walk away. Voluntarily.

In an age when many kings claimed a hereditary right to rule for life with absolute authority, relinquishing power was an astounding act. But Washington, a master of exits in war and peace, knew it was time to go. In so doing, he set a two-term precedent for the presidency that would stand for 144 years.

More recently, we’ve seen another result of what happens when politicians decide they’ve had enough: candor. Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) both launched fiery broadsides at the current occupant of Washington’s old office — and a member of their own party, no less — upon announcing they would not seek re-election next year.

Which brings us to the hearing the House Subcommittee on Space held earlier this week on NASA’s human deep-space exploration mission.

The latest member of Congress’s Retirement ’18 graduating class, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), leveled his sharpest criticisms yet at an exploration program whose schedule keeps moving to the right even as it consumes nearly $4 billion per year from the public treasury.

“Congress needs to have confidence in NASA and the exploration systems contractors, which I don’t believe we have now. That confidence is ebbing,” said Smith, who chairs the full House Science Committee. “If it slips much further, NASA and its contractors will have a hard time regaining their credibility.”

Of course, NASA’s announcement before the hearing that the first flight of Space Launch System (SLS) — known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) — could slip six months from December 2019 to June 2020 couldn’t have pleased Smith. But, it was his invoking of the once-unthinkable “a” word — alternatives — that showed the candor of a politician not long for public life.

“NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” Smith warned in his written statement. “If delays continue, if costs rise and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this.

“Alternatives to SLS and Orion almost certainly would involve significant taxpayer funding and lead to further delays,” he added. “But the more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options.”

Strong words — even though in just over a year, Smith won’t be in any position to administer punishments if NASA’s schedule continues to deteriorate or protect the program from its critics. In a sense, the comments were probably as much of a plea as a threat. Please get your act together, NASA. Don’t let me end 32 years in Congress, and six years chairing the House Science Committee, with a program that is even more off track than it is now. Don’t repay my staunch support of these programs this way.

The singular irony in the case of NASA’s human deep space exploration program is that it’s doing exactly what Congress wants it to do. For the most part, anyway. SLS, Orion spacecraft and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) are specifically designed to consume tens of billions of dollars while employing many thousands of people in multiple states and Congressional districts for decades to come. Good jobs is how Congressmen stay in office.

Just look at SLS.  It is a conglomeration of hardware — main engines, fuel tank and solid rocket boosters — that traces its lineage directly to the space shuttle program that kept thousands of people employed from its approval in 1972 to its final flight in 2011.

SIS is similar to the design of the Ares V booster the Obama Administration canceled in 2010 in favor of developing a new heavy-lift rocket from scratch using modern technologies. Unwilling to accept the job losses that came with the cancellation, Congress reversed the decision. Ares V morphed into SLS while the Orion and EGS programs, which Obama had also canceled, were similarly revived.

Not surprisingly, these programs are turning out to be a lot more complex and expensive than everyone thought. There have been welding problems and delays in the European-supplied service module for Orion. In February, atornado hit NASA’s Michoud facility in New Orleans were components are being built, damaging buildings and causing further delays.

The tornado aside, these problems are not the least bit unusual. Technical problems and schedule slips are par for the course in complex programs. The real problem lies with the alternatives that Smith mentioned but did not identify.

SpaceX is looking to launch its own heavy-lift booster, Falcon Heavy, as early as next month. In September, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled plans for an even larger rocket named BFR that would dwarf anything yet launched into space. Meanwhile, Rival billionaire Jeff Bezos is working on his own heavy-lift rocket, New Armstrong.

These reusable rockets could render the expendable SLS an obsolete and expensive boondoggle — if they work as advertised, of course. The more SLS slips, the closer NASA comes to having alternatives that could be considerably cheaper than what the agency and its contractors are building.

Whether Smith or anyone else would ever follow through on a threat to cancel SLS and Orion in favor of these private boosters is unclear.  The job losses and the political blow back would be tremendous. And the Republicans might have to admit that maybe, just maybe, Obama had been right about these programs.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, did his best during the hearing to reassure Smith and other skeptical Congressmen that despite the potential for a further delay, NASA is actually making good progress on the systems needed to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

“NASA has made significant progress in addressing some of these development issues,” he said in his statement. ” For instance, the SLS program has resolved the VAC weld strength issues and all VAC assembly welding for EM-1 is now complete. Additionally, NASA continues to make progress on key elements. All EM-1 booster separation motors are cast and finalized, and the engine controller qualification testing has been completed.”

Good words. But, NASA is still facing enormous challenges in getting SLS and Orion off the ground. And time may be running short.