Thursday, January 13, 2011

Senators in Denial

Early 20th Century Senate Chaplain Edward Everett Hale might recognize the follies of that chamber's members more than 100 years later.

After he was named Chaplain of the U.S. Senate in 1903, Edward Everett Hale was asked:

Do you pray for the senators, Dr. Hale?

His reply was:

No, I look at the senators and I pray for the country.

One hundred years later, I suspect Dr. Hale's opinion wouldn't change much if he could see what the Senate is doing to NASA and government-funded space.

Florida Today reports that although a NASA study concludes the heavy-lift rocket program directed by the Senate cannot be built within the timeframe specified or for the money allocated, key Senators think they know more about rocket development than the experts.

Click here to read the full report on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee web site. You'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read it.

The Senate committee inserted into the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 a requirement that the space agency develop a heavy-lift vehicle (HLV) capable of launching objects into cislunar space (i.e. the space between Earth the the Moon), and that it would be fully operational by December 31, 2016. Complicating matters was an edict in Section 304 that NASA:

... to the extent practicable utilize ... existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the Space Shuttle and Orion and Ares 1 projects, including ... Space Shuttle-derived components and Ares 1 components that use existing United States propulsion systems, including liquid fuel engines, external tank or tank-related capability, and solid rocket motor engines.

The legislation appeared to be a sop during an election year for space workers who vote in their districts, which typically include NASA space centers and/or contractors. It had nothing to do with allowing NASA engineers to start from scratch and design an HLV with 21st Century technology.

Section 309 of the Act required the NASA Administrator to submit a report within 90 days that would provide "an overall description of the reference vehicle design" along with "the plan for utilization of existing contracts, civil service and contract workforce" and "the schedule of design and development milestones and related schedules leading to the accomplishment of operational goals established by this Act."

That's the report delivered earlier this week by NASA to the Committee. But its conclusions included a refreshing whiff of honesty that the Senators didn't want to hear.

NASA recognizes it has a responsibility to be clear with the Congress and the American taxpayers about our true estimated costs and schedules for developing the [Space Launch System (SLS)] and [Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV)], and we intend to do so, to the best of our ability in this preliminary report, as well as in the follow-on report. To this end, NASA commits to obtaining independent (outside of the Agency) assessments of cost and schedule for SLS and MPCV design options as part of its decision process this Spring or Summer, and further to make these assessments public.

Currently, our SLS studies have shown that while cost is not a major discriminator among the design options studied, none of the design options studied thus far appeared to be affordable in our present fiscal conditions, based upon existing cost models, historical data, and traditional acquisition approaches ...

A feature of the Shuttle/Ares-derived reference vehicle is that it enables leveraging of current systems, current knowledge base, existing hardware and potentially current contracts, thereby providing schedule and early-year cost advantages. However, a 2016 first flight does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and out year funding levels, although NASA is continuing to explore more innovative procurement and development approaches to determine whether it can come closer to this goal.

In short ... You haven't given us enough money to build it, and we can't do it within your timeframe.

Imagine if President Kennedy had told Congress on May 25, 1961:

This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth — but let's do it by the end of 1966 without an increase in the NASA budget. Oh, and let's use Mercury program contractors without regard for pricing or quality.

The senators didn't react well to the truth.

According to a joint statement on the Committee web site:

"We appreciate NASA’s report and look forward to the additional material that was required but not submitted. In the meantime, the production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It’s the law. NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently — and, it must be a priority."

Last April, I wrote an article on denialism, the ability of people to deny the logic of science despite the overwhelming evidence.

Constellation was cancelled because of these same problems. It was behind schedule, over budget, had been underfunded for years by the Bush administration and Congress, and "lacked a sound business case" to quote an August 2009 GAO report. But that didn't matter to the members of Congress who perpetuated the project, not because it was going to actually accomplish anything, but because it funded jobs in their districts.

The Obama administration delivered that harsh truth when it proposed the project's cancellation. Congress responded by simply proposing what appears to be Constellation 2.0 — an equally improbable program that only funds jobs but can't be completed on time or on budget, and lacks an actual mission or destination.

If presented with all this folly, I suspect Dr. Hale would reply, "I look at the senators and I pray for NASA."

UPDATE January 14, 2011Space Politics has posted a letter from Senators Bill Nelson and Kay Bailey Hutchison repeating their demand earlier this week that NASA build a heavy-lift vehicle despite the study showing it can't be done within the time frame their committee dictated for the money their committee allocated.

If the law directed NASA to start with an entirely new development without the use of existing contracts, technologies, and infrastructure, we can see where affordability may come into question, but this conclusion suggests a misunderstanding of the Congressional intent ...

By building on current capabilities and previous investments, and making effective use of NASA's existing workforce and contracts to focus on the immediate development of a heavy-lift rocket and crew vehicle, NASA can reach initial operating capability much more quickly than it can by conducting another vehicle study.

The latter paragraph is rather astonishing, because the Senators provide absolutely no proof that this assumption is true. In fact, history suggests the opposite. Constellation was based on these assumptions and failed miserably, as documented by the August 2009 GAO report and the October 2009 Augustine Committee report.

They are arguing that NASA use technology rooted in the 1970s which has proven to be cost-inefficient and unreliable. STS-133 has been grounded for months while NASA tries to understand why foam still fails on the external tank, more than 130 missions into the program. Do we really want to rely on that technology for the next-generation launch vehicle?!

The letter is just more evidence that the members on the House and Senate space subcommittees view NASA as pork for their districts, nothing more.

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