Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Rock and a Hard Place

Because the mission appears to be a costly and complex distraction, this bill prohibits NASA from doing any work on the project, and we will work with appropriators to ensure the agency complies with this directive.

— Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS)
Chair, House Subcommittee on Space

Mr. Palazzo wasn't talking about the Space Launch System — which has no missions or destinations — but about NASA's proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), which would give SLS an actual mission to justify the billions of dollars Palazzo and his colleagues are spending on it.

The continued absurdity that is the House Subcommittee on Space moved Florida Today opinion page editor Matt Reed to pen a column titled, “Moon Trip Cooler Than Saving a City?”

Witness the genius that is our U.S. House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, our space program pitched a surprisingly affordable plan to do something practical for Americans: Intercept an asteroid to spare millions some day from death by fireball or tsunami.

On Wednesday, a House subcommittee responded with a bill to outlaw NASA from trying.

Members of the so-called House Committee on Science, Space and Technology instead want to focus all the money on sending astronauts back to the moon.

Although Palazzo and many of his colleagues continue to demand that NASA redo Apollo — or if that isn't enough phallic symbolism for them, a Mars mission — they still won't put any money behind it, because they know it's unaffordable in an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the lone sane voice on this body, broke ranks with his colleagues to tell the truth.

. . . [T]his project is going to cost a lot more money, and that money has got to come from somewhere. The tooth fairy isn't going to leave it under our pillow. And all of these talks — we were talking about these other things that NASA does, whether it's inspire young people or whatever it is that NASA wants to do — that's going to suffer and it's going to go into this rocket. But the SLS Titanic, as I like to describe it, but this huge massive rocket that our other witness, Mr. Young, has already stated, he's studied it and it's only got one or two uses that we're going to have out of that rocket ... I think all of this adds up to, we are on the wrong course and we should just get away, cancel this project. It is not sustainable and will drain money from every other thing that we want to do in space eventually.

Rohrabacher obliquely directed his comments to his “colleague from Alabama,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who had introduced a letter from Bush-era NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. The letter claimed that SLS needs even more money than it's already receiving. Rohrabacher pounced on the letter as evidence that SLS would balloon far beyond budget, just as did its predecessor Constellation — which was managed by Griffin. “Seems to me that that should be a warning sign to all of us that this project is going to cost a lot more money,” Rohrabacher said.

Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey (R-AL) asked the two witnesses how long it would take NASA to land a human mission on Mars given current funding. Both witnesses agreed the answer is “never.” He also asked how long it would take given Apollo-era funding — but no one pointed out that Apollo-era funding ($150 billion over the life of the program in current dollars) is not going to happen.

Committee Democrats, in the minority on this panel, raised their own objections. To quote from their press release:

Democratic Members expressed a number of concerns about the bill including that the bill cuts NASA’s overall budget while establishing new requirements and programs; it appears to change NASA's core mission to one of supporting human spaceflight from the multi-mission approach NASA has had since its inception; the “go as we can afford to pay” requirement is inconsistent with the mandated milestones included in the legislation; the Earth science budget is cut by 1/3; there are aggressive goals such as requiring a commercial crew flight to the ISS by 2017, without any mention of safety requirements; and that there is a requirement to establish a “sustained human presence” on the Moon and Mars in spite of sequestration-level budgets.

No NASA executive was invited to this hearing. But that didn't stop the administration from its own offensive.

The day before, NASA held an Asteroid Initiative Industry and Partnership Day at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver made opening remarks, followed by several speakers including NASA associate administrators.

Click the arrow to watch the Asteroid Initiative Industry and Partnership Day.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, meanwhile, was in Vienna at a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. He sought to solicit the support and participation of international partners.

Click the arrow to listen to Administrator Bolden's press conference at the U.N. committee meeting in Vienna.

Over on the Senate side, the chair of the Subcommittee on Science and Space, Bill Nelson (D-FL), offered his own remarks after the end of the House hearing.

According to

Nelson made it clear that the Senate bill would differ in some key ways from the House bill. “I’m not going to approve of keeping it at 16.8 [billion dollars], because it would run the space program and NASA into a ditch,” Nelson said, referring to the overall budget authorized for NASA in the draft House bill. He was specifically critical of the earth sciences funding level in the House bill, saying it was “completely wiped out” in the bill. “You think Barbara Mikulski is going to allow that?” he asked, referring to the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“What we’re going to try to mark up is a balanced program,” he said, citing progress in both commercial crew development and the Space Launch System and Orion programs, as well as science programs, including the James Webb Space Telescope.

Nelson was particularly concerned that the authorization process would become divided along partisan lines, something that has traditionally not been the case for NASA. “The space program was always not bipartisan, it was nonpartisan,” he said. “The question is, are we going to have the ability to mark up a NASA authorization bill other than is it going to be a partisan vote?” Nelson said he was prepared to get a Senate version passed by relying solely on the Senate’s Democratic majority, but hoped that wasn’t necessary.

My opinion, for what it's worth ...

Prior to the birth of C-SPAN in 1979, Congressional behavior largely went unseen by the American public. As bad as it may seem now, it was worse in decades and centuries past.

For example, check out the United States section under “legislative violence” on Wikipedia. The early history of this nation is replete with incidents of physical violence on the floor of Congress.

A 1798 political cartoon depicting a fight on the floor of the House of Representatives between Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut and Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont. Image source: Wikipedia.

Although physical violence appears to be a thing of the past, extreme behavior is still possible. Vice-President Dick Cheney cursed Senator Pat Leahy on the Senate floor in 2004. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) heckled President Barack Obama during a September 2009 presidential address to Congress.

There's an adage in politics about the distaste of watching sausage being made. That's what it's like watching these congressional hearings. The lies, the smears, the parochial self-interest, the ignorance, the deceptions, the delusions — none of this is new. It's just that now we can watch it for ourselves, thanks to C-SPAN and congressional webcasts.

If anything, the one positive sign I took from this hearing is that some of the representatives might be waking up to the reality that SLS is on an unsustainable course, as was its Constellation predecessor. That might explain Rep. Brooks' over-the-top rhetoric defending his district's pet pork project. Citing Michael Griffin as an authoritative source may not have played well with some members who recall the negative reviews of his managing Constellation, the most critical one in August 2009 shortly after he left office. Titled “Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case Is Established,” it was a key document in the decision by the new Obama administration to recommend the program's cancellation.

Left unclear to me was the reasoning behind why Rep. Posey asked about the timing for a Mars mission. He didn't call for a huge funding increase to launch Apollo 2.0, but neither did he question the witnesses' comments that a Mars mission would “never” happen under the current funding levels. Perhaps it was a dose of reality for Rep. Posey, that using an Apollo-era paradigm for a 21st Century space agency is not wise.

But it would be a long leap for Posey — who last year claimed that China is planning a lunar military fortress — to call for the cancellation of the SLS, which is the major pork project for his district.

That money would be better spent, as I wrote on June 7 and on other occasions, investing in a new economy that gives birth to a robust U.S. commercial launch and exploration industry.

If I were Mr. Posey, I would take far more pride in knowing I helped midwife the first commercial lunar flight which cost the taxpayer nothing rather than spending tens of billions of dollars trying to relive an event that happened fifty years ago.

The Falcon Heavy, which probably would be the booster for such a mission, will have its first test flight next year at Vandenberg AFB in California. The SLS? On paper, it's the end of 2017, but no one seems to know for sure since it's unclear if Congress will provide the funding in future years to keep SLS on track.

If the Falcon Heavy test flight is successful, Mr. Posey should urge his committee colleagues to throw their support behind commercializing Kennedy Space Center to show the world why our economic system is the powerhouse we claim it is — rather than continuing the fantasy that only the government can build such a rocket with a big bloated bureaucracy and a big bloated budget to match.

The Moon, asteroids and Mars will always be out there. If the objective truly is permanent human exploration and colonization of the solar system, history tells us that won't happen with a government workfare program. It will happen only when entrepreneurs and pioneers set out into the unexplored wilderness.

UPDATE June 23, 2013 — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House Science Committee, took exception to the Florida Today criticism and wrote this editorial response.

Public Interest Editor Matt Reed’s recent column, “Moon trip cooler than saving a city?” incorrectly said the Obama administration’s proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) is intended to “intercept an asteroid to spare millions some day from death by fireball or tsunami.” This exaggerated statement ignores the facts.

Congress directed NASA in 2005 to identify and track 90 percent of asteroids larger than 140 meters by 2020. Near Earth Objects (NEOs) of this size are ones that could cause significant damage, and NASA still has work to do to accomplish this goal.

The administration’s ARM proposal focuses on much smaller NEOs, from 7 to 10 meters, that are so small they would burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Further, any techniques to influence the trajectory of small NEOs would be considerably different than those used to deflect an actual threat to the planet.

The column criticizes a NASA bill that would reject ARM and instead focus on deep space exploration. There is longstanding bipartisan support for a long-term human mission to Mars. Experts have testified that a stepping-stone approach, including a lunar mission, is the most strategic pathway.

The column further claims the ARM proposal is “surprisingly affordable.” But experts at the Keck Institute for Space Studies have estimated such a mission would actually cost around $2.6 billion, significantly more than the administration claims. NASA still has not even conducted a mission formulation review, or developed an independent cost estimate.

The Obama administration’s complete lack of justification for its asteroid retrieval mission is a distraction from NASA’s important mission.

Actually, it's Rep. Smith who ignores the facts.

NASA is not doing the Keck Institute mission. The Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study was the inspiration for the NASA proposal, but there are significant differences. And as documented in the above video of the Industry and Partnership Day event, NASA has invited interested parties to help refine the idea.

Smith claims that any techniques used to divert the target asteroid would not be used to divert one headed for Earth. I'm curious what is his factual evidence to back up that claim. Besides, this could be only the first in a series of missions to learn how to work with increasingly complex targets. Using his logic, Congress in 1961 shouldn't have approved the Apollo program because Alan Shepard's Mercury flight didn't land him on the Moon.

Smith also claimed that “experts have testified that a stepping-stone approach, including a lunar mission, is the most strategic pathway” to Mars, but if you watch the video of Wednesday's hearing the two witnesses said the opposite. They specifically said that the current "stepping-stone approach" will never work due to inadequate funding by Congress.

American companies are already planning a commercial lunar enterprise by the end of the decade, led by the Golden Spike Company and Bigelow Aerospace. Rep. Smith should explain why taxpayer dollars should be wasted to go into competition against American business.

UPDATE June 25, 2013In today's editorial column, Florida Today opinion page editor Matt Reed responds to Rep. Smith's letter:

“There is longstanding bipartisan support for a long-term human mission to Mars,” Smith wrote in a letter published Sunday. “Experts have testified that a stepping-stone approach, including a lunar mission, is the most strategic pathway.”

I shared that explanation with FLORIDA TODAY space reporter James Dean, who replied dryly: “What human mission to the moon or Mars?”

A Mars mission remains unfunded and biologically impossible for people. And as Dean pointed out, the Space Launch System rocket will carry an Orion capsule that can’t land anywhere.

Smith and Posey have no problem spending billions on the SLS mega-rocket, believing it can be scaled up later for moon and Mars missions to blast off from the Cape.

Why reject a cheaper robotic mission that could lasso a “city killer” after practicing on a smaller one?


  1. Actually, the FH will launch next year. The SpaceX website was recently updated with the new 2014 launch date.

  2. Thanks for letting me know. I've updated the article.