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Solyndra In Space?

Here we go again.

It's unfortunate that so many conservatives are opposed to competitive markets in spaceflight, to the point that they are willing to make misleading assertions and come to unjustified conclusions about Obama space policy, one of the very few things that the administration has gotten sort of right. This time, it's at Big Government from George Landrith. To address all that is wrong with Mr. Landrith's post unfortunately requires a good old-fashioned fisking (warning: long post to follow):

Despite the news and pictures from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, America's once great space program is on life support because we no longer have a serious manned space exploration program. We now pay the Russians $65 million per seat to take our astronauts to and from the space station. And the Obama Administration's unimaginative and amateurish vision for space exploration -- even if successful -- will not revive the dying program. It merely follows the disturbing pattern of the Solyndra scandal, funneling tax dollars to Obama donors and fundraisers.

Note that the recent winners of the commercial crew competition were the Boeing Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. Note also that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, the current contractors for ISS cargo resupply, won their contracts during the Bush administration. Is Mr. Landrith saying that Boeing is an "Obama donor and fundraiser"? Is he saying that SpaceX and OSC won their contracts during the Bush administration by bundling for Obama? Is he saying that they have received tens of millions in taxpayer-guaranteed loans, as Solyndra did?

If not, what is he saying?

With the recent successful test of SpaceX’s low-Earth-orbit vehicle and the Mars rover sending pictures back to Earth, the space program got some much need positive press, but sadly no results that change the death watch. SpaceX is a long way away -- perhaps a decade or more based on the substantial delays to date -- from being able to safely carry humans to and from the space station.

NASA says that SpaceX will be delivering crew by 2017. SpaceX says that it can do it by 2015. Boeing is shooting for the same time frame. The notion that its recent successful berthing with ISS didn't significantly advance the prospects of SpaceX carrying crew is ludicrous. It safely delivered to orbit and returned a pressurized capsule. All it needs for crew is a life support system, already in development (and hardly rocket science, four decades after Apollo), a new docking adapter, scheduled to be delivered by NASA a couple years from now, and a launch abort system (though in an emergency, for an important mission, this could be foregone). There is no reason that all these things can't be done within three years. Boeing plans abort tests of its capsule, and then a test flight on an existing Atlas V within that same time period. There is no possible source for an estimate of "a decade or more" other than Mr. Landrith's nethers.

Even if SpaceX can eventually safely carry astronauts to the space station, it will not constitute a serious space exploration program. The space station is in low-Earth orbit and we cannot explore space or even the moon if we cannot travel beyond low-Earth orbit. The challenges of space exploration require a vastly different capability than SpaceX is trying to develop.

SpaceX was formed for the explicit purpose of opening up space to humanity. Its founder, Elon Musk, has stated on multiple occasions that he intends to personally go to Mars. The Dragon capsule has a heat shield sized to enter earth's atmosphere from earth-escape velocity. That is, it is designed to come back from a lunar, or even deeper-space mission. The Falcon Heavy, planned to be launched within a couple years, will toss over a hundred thousand pounds into low earth orbit. Three of them could easily do a lunar mission. So apparently Mr. Landrith is not aware of what "SpaceX is trying to develop."

NASA largely abandoned any serious goal to explore space when the White House directed NASA to concentrate on Earth-based projects like researching climate science which simply replicates the research being done by thousands of other institutions, universities and scientists.

This is absurd. While this administration obviously is more concerned about climate change than its predecessor, and the priority has increased, there is no basis to say that NASA is to "concentrate" on it. A brief glance at the NASA 2012 budget summary shows that the total for all of earth science (of which climate change is just a part) is about one and a half billion, or less than ten percent of the total budget of eighteen billion. That seems like a pretty dilute "concentrate" to me.

While NASA has a space exploration program on paper, its vision is unfocused and its funding is raided to support small-idea projects that are not worthy of NASA’s proud tradition.

By "unfocused," I guess he means that we aren't going to repeat the mistake of Apollo, and spend billions to rush to a specific planet by a specific date, in such an unaffordable manner that we once again abandon the effort. By "unfocused," I guess he means that NASA is instead trying to develop the technologies need to make it affordable to get anywhere we want in the solar system. What "small-idea projects" he's referring to I have no idea, because he doesn't say. We are just supposed to take his word for it.

The reality, in fact, is that it is the technology projects (not to mention the Commercial Crew program needed to end our dependence on the Russians, which he earlier bewails) that are being raided to fund a rocket to nowhere, that has no mission, no funding for payloads for it, and no other purpose than to provide jobs in the states and districts of the Senators and congresspeople who designed it. And that wasn't Obama's plan -- it was invented by Congress, on both sides of the aisle.

There has been a lot of baseless talk that SpaceX’s contract is a great example of a market based approach to space and a lot of even sillier talk that it will save taxpayers money. But the SpaceX deal is no more a free market approach to space exploration than the subsidized loans to Solyndra were a free market approach to green energy. And there may be no savings to the taxpayer. (Solyndra was, of course, a solar panel company that received about $500 million in taxpayer subsidized loans despite the fact that it was headed for bankruptcy. Even more troubling, Solyndra insiders were big-time Obama donors.)

I guess, despite all the falsehoods and distortions we've seen so far, we're supposed to just take Mr. Landrith's word that the SpaceX contract being a market-based approach is "baseless," and that the notion that competition will save taxpayers' money is "silly."

There is no basis to compare SpaceX (and the other commercial crew contractors, which critics like this always ignore) to Solyndra, except as a demonstration of how unalike they are. Solyndra got a guaranteed loan from the taxpayers, for a business plan that anyone with a lick of business sense could have (and did) predict would fail, with a sweetheart deal putting the investors (who yes, were big-time Obama donors) ahead of the taxpayers in the event of failure.

The commercial crew contractors, in contrast, receive no taxpayer funds until they deliver on pre-negotiated fixed-price milestones (for example, SpaceX got a total of ten million dollars for its historic flight three months ago, a pittance compared to what traditional cost-plus contractors would have been paid for a similar feat). The amount being given to Boeing, or SpaceX to develop competitive domestic commercial crew capability is about the same amount that it will cost to pay the Russians for flights for just one year, and in the future, SpaceX is offering prices of less than one third of the Russians'. But to Mr. Landrith, it's "silly" to think that this will save the taxpayers money.

He continues:

...with only two trips per year to the space station scheduled over the next decade, it is unclear how these companies can profitably “compete.” This is what will likely happen -- the taxpayer will provide massive funding to several companies to build the same thing and in the end there will not be enough work for the companies to compete over.

We already know how much money is being provided. It is a trivial amount compared to (say) the unneeded Senate Launch System, which is getting two billion a year. And it is not for "several companies to build the same thing." Ultimately, it will be only two. And if SpaceX brings down the price, NASA will not only be able to afford more than two flights a year, but the Dragon or Boeing's CST space capsule's ability to serve as a lifeboat for seven instead of the Russian's three will allow the expansion of ISS crew size, allowing much more utilization of the facility. In addition, Bob Bigelow is simply waiting for the crew capability to come along, at which point he will start launching his own private space facilities for his sovereign clients, providing much more market for both companies (and any others who want to jump into the game).

There is nothing free market about SpaceX’s contract. If it were a free market agreement, SpaceX would spend its own money to develop its product and then compete with other providers to sell its product. But SpaceX’s research and development is largely funded by taxpayers.

More ignorance. Most of the R&D that SpaceX has performed has been funded internally, either with private investment, or revenues. The company was founded in 2002, and didn't get any government funding until several years later, when NASA expressed a need for ISS cargo support. Since this mission required capabilities unneeded for its commercial customers, it makes perfect sense that NASA would have to pay extra for SpaceX to develop those capabilities. And SpaceX has been competing with other providers to sell its product -- a few months ago it landed a contract with Intelsat to launch its satellites, the first American company to do so in years, against foreign competition. And the Air Force is seriously looking at the company now to launch some of its satellites, instead of its preferred contractor, United Launch Alliance. Mr. Landrith would know all this if he's simply done a little research, but I guess that would have disturbed the anti-competition narrative.

The real kicker is that if, and when, SpaceX’s development is complete, NASA will not own the technology, SpaceX will own it. What exactly is NASA buying?

NASA is buying lower costs for services it needs, benefiting the taxpayer, while creating a new industry that will generate rather than consume tax revenue.

Instead, SpaceX collects tax dollars so that it can learn how to build and develop something that other companies were doing a generation ago.

Actually, SpaceX is doing something that no one else has ever done -- it is making space affordable.

It is curious that SpaceX is now receiving so much taxpayer cash given its stunningly thin record of success in space.

Again with this "so much taxpayer cash." It is less than half a billion dollars total, while ATK and others are getting billions per year to build a rocket that isn't scheduled to do a serious mission for a decade from now (if it ever gets funded) and will likely never fly. And Boeing is getting about the same amount as SpaceX. Do they too have a "stunningly thin record of success in space"? Beyond that, SpaceX has had five straight successful missions since its first three failures, when it was just getting started. That doesn't seem like a "thin record" to me.

And it is even more troubling given that SpaceX's founder and CEO is a big-time Obama donor. This is starting to sound like another Solyndra where friends of the administration get unsustainable sweetheart deals at taxpayer expense.

Again with the spurious comparisons with Solyndra. Where is the evidence that Elon Musk, who has held fundraisers for (Republican) Dana Rohrabacher at his facilities, is a big-time Obama donor? I keep hearing this, but I've never seen anyone back it up. And to repeat, is the head of Boeing also a "big-time Obama donor"? Is the head of Sierra Nevada a less "big-time Obama donor," because his company only got half as much as Boeing and SpaceX?

Or is it just possible that the companies were granted contracts after having competed for them, on merit?

However, the problem with how the Obama Administration is pursuing its uninspiring and unimaginative space program goals goes well beyond picking donors to receive favorable contracts and guaranteed government cash with little accountability. Even if SpaceX accomplishes everything asked of it, it will not get us beyond low-Earth orbit. Simply stated, the Obama administration’s vision for space exploration is essentially to replace the hauling capability of the shuttle -- something that was developed more than 30 years ago. Beyond that, real space exploration is not a serious priority.

Again, this is false. There is no plan to replace the capabilities of the Shuttle, and there shouldn't be, because it never made sense for any single vehicle to do all the things that the Shuttle did -- that was why it was so expensive, and ultimately, why it was canceled.

The administration's vision of space exploration was to turn over to private industry activities that have become routine after half a century of spaceflight, such as simply getting into orbit, to save taxpayer money and create new industries (just as the government did for aviation with the NACA and airmail in the 1920s and '30s), and have NASA focus on what was necessary to affordably get beyond earth orbit.

Unfortunately, Congress had a different vision -- to build a rocket for which there is no need, in order to preserve the Shuttle workforce, regardless of whether or not it produced anything useful.

Sadly, NASA is transitioning from being a highly respected nonpartisan space exploration agency to just another arm of Obama’s political operation -- wasting tax dollars on friends, diminishing America's global leadership in space exploration, and ensuring that if we continue down this path, we will fall behind China, Russia, India, and others.

Would that be the same China that said that it didn't know how it could compete with SpaceX on price? That China?

Look, no one likes anti-Obama rants more than I do (I've certainly done my own share), but when they're so ill-informed, and so illogical as this one, it just buttresses the notion that some people just reflexively hate whatever the president does, just because the president did it. And when they're used to ignorantly bash one of the few good policies the administration has come up with, it makes one despair of either sane politics, or ever getting off the planet.