Thursday, November 17, 2011
Congress to NASA: Drop Dead
The October 30, 1975 edition of the New York Daily News. Image source: The New York Times.
It's one of the more infamous newspaper headlines in journalistic history.
On October 30, 1975, the New York Daily News published a story about President Gerald Ford's refusal to help New York City avoid bankruptcy.
Ford never said "Drop Dead" as claimed by the headline, but it reflected the city's sentiment that the President couldn't care less about the fate of the Big Apple.
Thirty-six years later, the "Drop Dead" dismissal could apply just as well to the imminent vote by Congress to butcher NASA's Fiscal Year 2012 budget for commercial crew development.
As I wrote on November 15, Congress has chosen to defund NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.
NASA officials and the CCDev participants warned Congress that failure to fully fund the program — $850 million was requested by the Obama administration — would only prolong the monopoly Russia will have on launching astronauts to the International Space Station.
The House of Representatives voted to give CCDev only $312 million, nearly two-thirds less than requested. The Senate voted $500 million, about forty percent less than requested, and impounded about $100 million of that until the NASA administrator assures in writing that certain Space Launch System (SLS) milestones are achieved.
As reported by Space Politics on November 15, the two Houses compromised by splitting the difference. CCDev will receive only $406 million, and the SLS language will remain.
The compromise, which is part of a much larger bill including many other federal agencies, will now go to both houses for a final vote, and then to the White House for signature. The 2012 fiscal year began October 1, so the appropriation is already six weeks late. It's unlikely either house will reject it over the CCDev line item, nor would the President veto it over one program. These agencies would have uncertain funding for the future, and might even be forced to shut down.
The CCDev language is a clear win for entrenched interests trying to protect the status quo.
As I wrote on September 20, the SLS system was dictated in 2010 by Congress and designed by members of the Senate's space subcommittee to protect jobs in their districts. SLS, dubbed the "Senate Launch System" by critics, has no mission or destination. It exists to create or protect jobs in certain states.
CCDev does have a mission and destination.
Its destination — the International Space Station.
Its mission — produce one and perhaps more 21st Century crew vehicles to take up to seven astronauts per flight to and from the ISS.
After the Columbia accident, the Bush administration in January 2004 decided to fly astronauts on the Russian Soyuz vehicle because it was considered to be safer than the Space Shuttle. That administration signed several "space taxi" flight agreements with Russia, while planning to phase out Shuttle once the ISS was completed. The United States would continue to rely upon Soyuz until a replacement was ready, sometime around 2015.
President Obama took office in January 2009, and appointed an independent commission to evaluate the state of U.S. human space flight. That committee concluded that the Ares I, intended to provide U.S. space taxi services to the ISS, was years behind schedule and billions over budget. It would not fly until 2017 at the earliest, and would be financed by defunding the ISS in 2015. By the time it would be ready, the Ares I would have no place to go!
The Obama administration chose to scrap Ares. On August 2, 2008, Obama had pledged in Titusville to reduce the gap during which the U.S. would rely on Russia. His solution was to expand the commercial cargo program to develop a commercial crew program relying on American aerospace companies.
Entrenched special interests, and the politicians who represented them, fought bitterly. A political compromise emerged — Congress would fund CCDev in exchange for the SLS.
NASA estimated that the first CCDev flights would occur in 2015, but warned that funding delays would only extend the time the U.S. would have to rely on Russia.
But Congress told NASA:
Many politicians are to blame, of both partisan stripes.
As a resident of north Merritt Island, I can heap part of the blame on my representative, Sandy Adams. Her district includes Kennedy Space Center, and she sits on the House space subcommittee.
Adams apparently did nothing to stop the House from cutting the Obama administration's CCDev request by two-thirds. Only in recent days has she spoken out in favor of funding CCDev — long after the $312 million language left her committee.
Rep. Adams has spent much of her first term making absurd claims such as U.S. astronauts are being forced to fly on Chinese rockets, or that India has surpassed the U.S. in space technology.
Once the compromise language is enacted, ironically Adams will have helped usher in her dark vision of NASA's plight. She failed to fund it, so now the U.S. will have to rely on Russia much longer.
Florida Today reports that NASA will assess how long will be the delay, but initial estimates are that the U.S. will be on Soyuz until at least 2017.
Obama won't be able to close the gap, but that will be due to the failure of Adams and other politicians to properly fund CCDev.
UPDATE November 18, 2011 — Rep. Adams' web site shows she voted no yesterday against the final appropriations bill. No explanation why.
The bill passed both houses, and is enroute the White House for signature.