Friday, April 26, 2013

Saint Charlie

Click the arrow to watch NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testify on April 24 before the House Space Subcommittee. Video source: U.S. House of Representatives.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is fond of telling people he's a practicing Episcopalian.

Although the Episcopal Church doesn't canonize individuals as saints, Wikipedia says that to Episcopalians all baptized Christians are saints of God and have the potential to be examples of faith to others.

According to Wikipedia, some of these examples include those “holding moral positions that may have compromised their acceptance by society at the time they lived.”

In that context, as a non-Episcopalian, I'd like to suggest that the Episcopal Church honor General Bolden as a saint walking among us.

Bolden suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Congressional behavior twice this week.

On Wednesday, he put up with 75 minutes of grilling by members of the House Space Subcommittee. One member after another demanded he explain why NASA proposes an asteroid rendezvous rather than a repeat of the 1960s Apollo lunar landing.

Anyone paying attention to American human spaceflight for the last nine years, starting with President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration proposal in January 2004, knows that Congress has authorized big programs — on paper. But they've failed to provide adequate funding, other than enough to keep people employed in their states and districts, and to steer contracts to major aerospace companies that spend millions of dollars annually on lobbying and campaign contributions.

That was one reason Bush's Constellation program went off the rails. It was billions over budget and years behind schedule. In August 2009, the General Accountability Office issued an audit concluding that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.”

The Obama administration, acknowledging reality, proposed the program be cancelled. Congress reluctantly went along, but replaced it with another pork program called the Space Launch System — or Senate Launch System to its critics, as the basic design and contractors were dictated by Congress, not by NASA administrators.

Congress did not tell NASA what it was supposed to do with the SLS. Just build it to protect jobs and Shuttle-era contractors.

In the years since, Bolden was beaten up at almost every House and Senate hearing by members accusing him of secretly conspiring to destroy SLS, even if the scheduled topic had nothing to do with that program.

Three years later, with Congress still having failed to direct NASA how to use SLS, the agency proposed the asteroid initiative. NASA would identify a suitable asteroid, launch a robotic craft to nudge it into a lunar orbit, then launch SLS in 2021 with a four-member crew that would rendezvous with the asteroid to study mining and deflection technologies.

Congressional members at both hearings claimed there was no scientific support for such a mission, ignoring the Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study released last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. The study was produced by 34 scientists, including former astronauts Rusty Schweickart and asteroid expert Tom Jones, as well as Planetary Society co-founder Louis Friedman. The Keck study was the inspiration for the administration's proposal, although there are significant differences.

As Bolden repeatedly explained to both committees, the asteroid initiative is affordable within the projected budgets Congress plans to authorize in upcoming years.

Never mind that.

The committee members want a big lunar program with landers and colonies and more Moon rocks coming back to Earth.

Not one of them explained how they would pay for it.

Depending on whose numbers you use, Apollo cost anywhere from $100 billion to almost $200 billion in current dollars.

And that wasn't in an era of trillion-dollar annual fiscal deficits.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), whose district includes ATK Aerospace Headquarters in Magna, questioned Bolden yet again about the asteroid initiative, suggesting that a Moon mission would develop more appropriate technologies for a future Mars mission. (ATK, by Congressional direction, will build the solid rocket boosters for the first two SLS flights.)

Bolden delivered his most direct reply to the question. Click here to watch.

This is the greatest nation in the world, in terms of exploration of the universe. We have been to the Moon — six times. We know how to do that.

Now, Dr. Gilruth, who most of you don't know, once said at the end of the Apollo program, “People will realize how difficult it was to go to the Moon when we try to return.” So just because we went once doesn't mean it's going to be easy the next time.

I don't need any new technology to go to the Moon. I need money to go the Moon! It is expensive to go into a gravity well of the lunar surface. I need new technologies to go to an asteroid in deep space or at a stable rendezvous point around the Moon, and we have already started investing in that new technology.

That explanation seemed to satisfy the committee. For now.

On Thursday, Bolden had the misfortune of appearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget. Subcommittee chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was running late, so ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL) took the gavel.

Shelby is a two-time winner of the Porker of the Month award by Citizens Against Government Waste. He is one of the fiercest defenders of the SLS in the Senate, because the rocket is being designed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. On April 17, Mikulski told the Maryland Space Business Roundtable that it was not politically possible to cut SLS so long as Shelby remains in the Senate.

Click the arrow to watch NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testify on April 25 before the Senate Appropriations space subcommittee. Video source: U.S. Senate.

Since he had the gavel, Shelby used his position to falsely accuse Bolden of stating in his opening remarks that commercial crew was NASA's top priority, and everything else was secondary. Shelby also falsely claimed that commercial crew was over budget with no accountability for the money was spent.

Those are allegations more appropriately directed to Shelby's pet programs.

Mikulski eventually arrived, and only one other Senator — Thad Cochran (R-MS) — bothered to show up. (Mikulski has NASA Goddard in her state; Cochran has NASA Stennis.) The meeting mercifully ended 40 minutes later.

Having watched these hearings for a few years now, in my opinion Charlie Bolden has decided that the best way to deal with these people is to humor them. He agrees with him, he promises to give them what they want — and moves on.

The real decisions are made behind closed doors. These hearings are all for show. Bolden's metaphorical role is to let them nail him to a cross, to impale him with a sword, to place a crown of thorns upon his head.

But Charlie will live to fight another day.

The sainthood metaphor may be overworked, but I often hear the scuttlebutt that Bolden is Administrator because no one else wants the job. Who can blame them.

Years from now, I hope someone recognizes all the suffering he's endured to turn around NASA so it's no longer just one big congressional porkfest, but a cutting-edge aerospace research and development agency as originally intended by its creators in the 1950s.


  1. Well perhaps congress should stop authorizing big poorly designed programs that we really don't need, and Charlie the Saint and Barack the Prez surely are not dictated by their faith to go along with them. But the Prez signed the bill and Charlie toes the line.

    Charlie said 'We don't need the money because we're not flying for years'. And you apparently can't find the problem with that?

    Seriously. Charlie is not a saint, and neither are you.