Blame Congress and Pork, Not NASA

Over at National Review today, I have a lengthy but necessary rebuttal of a misbegotten post at The Corner by Rory Cooper of the Heritage Foundation which mistakenly castigates NASA for the sins of Congress. As I say there:

Senators Hutchison (who is retiring next year) and Nelson (who is likely to be defeated next year) are the rocket scientists behind the design of the Senate Launch System. They insisted that NASA spend three billion on it and Orion just this year alone, making it in effect the biggest earmark in the budget for a business case that won’t close (think of it as “Shuttlyndra”). NASA didn’t “inflate the cost estimates” — they came up with an estimate to accelerate the schedule so it might have meaningful capability sometime in this decade. When Congress screamed about it, they went back to the more sedate one. Booz Allen Hamilton came out with an independent cost assessment that indicated NASA’s cost estimates in the out years were optimistic. But Senators Hutchison and Nelson (and Hatch and Shelby and others with pigs in the fight) insisted on a bipartisan basis that NASA move forward with their rocket to nowhere, because all they care about is jobs in their states this election cycle. And the rest of Congress doesn’t care at all, because space policy isn’t very important in the context of trillion-dollar deficits, a stagnant economy, and a meltdown of the Eurozone.

Meanwhile, the most near-term solution to eliminating our dependence on the Russians is to accelerate the Commercial Crew activities, for which the administration requested $850M for 2012. For a few billion (as opposed to the tens of billions that the SLS will cost), we could have multiple competitive commercial providers of access to and from the ISS and low-earth orbit within three years. These would include Boeing and the United Launch Alliance with their reliable Atlas and Delta rockets, and actually spawn a useful new industry with competition to drive down costs, enabling innovative and affordable means of serious space exploration in the next decade through which America could once again lead the world. But the House appropriated only about $300M for it, and while the Senate version of the bill appropriates $500M, it holds $200M of it hostage to progress on the SLS. Yesterday, the relevant House authorization committee had a show hearing featuring the first man and last man to walk on the moon, for no apparent purpose. All of which indicates that for all their noise about losing leadership and risks to our national security, the legislative branch continues to be profoundly unserious about our future in space.

The House hearing yesterday was really quite appalling. It saddens me to see heroes of the Apollo era reduced to shilling for unrealistic statist goals for a doddering (Republican) committee chairman, while denigrating American industry. Captain Cernan claimed that commercial firms wouldn’t fly people for a decade, as though he was privy to their plans or capabilities when in fact there is no reason they couldn’t be flying in three or four years, given adequate funding. As for bringing the Shuttle out of retirement, or using the SLS for crew delivery in the near term, it both technically and fiscally unrealistic. It would take billions and years to resurrect the supply chain for the Shuttle, and we’d just be back in the dangerous expensive world that we left when we finally decided to retire it. And as I wrote at Pajamas Media earlier this week: “Perhaps the best headline for yesterday’s story was from a wag who tweeted: ‘NASA Announces Next Rocket To Be Canceled In A Few Years.'” SLS is nothing but a make-work program, and the sooner the agency is allowed to stop wasting money on it, the better off both the taxpayers and those interested in actual progress in space will be.

It’s also frustrating to have to continually rebut ill-informed and partisan pieces from supposed conservatives supporting big-government space jobs programs. It’s also ironic, considering that it puts me in the bizarre position of having to defend the Obama administration, but it seems to have become my lot in life.