Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Sausage Factory

Click the arrow to watch the July 10, 2013 House Space Subcommittee hearing on YouTube.

Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.

— John Godfrey Saxe, Poet
(often wrongly attributed to Otto von Bismarck)

The national embarrassment that is the House Subcommittee on Space reached a new low July 10, as porkery mixed with naked partisanship to move NASA one step closer to irrelevance in the future of human space flight.

Voting along party lines, the Republican majority voted 11-9 over the Democrats to approve a bill that would authorize NASA spending for Fiscal Year 2014 at $16.8 billion, about $1 billion less than that requested by the Obama administration. The same amount would be authorized for Fiscal Year 2015, meaning NASA would get no increase the next year for inflation.

The bill continues to underfund the commercial crew program, increasing the likelihood that NASA will continue to rely on the Russian Soyuz for transport to the International Space Station through at least 2017. The administration had requested $821.4 million each year for FY14 and FY15.

Section 201(c) of the bill directed the NASA Administrator to “establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars,” but failed to provide any indication of how they would pay for it. They directed instead in Section 202 that the Administrator shall “develop a Mars Human Exploration Roadmap to define the specific capabilities and technologies necessary to extend human presence to the surface of Mars and the mission sets required to demonstrate such capabilities and technlogies.”

Administrator Charlie Bolden did just that earlier this year when NASA proposed the Asteroid Initiative, but Section 701 of the bill prohibits NASA from doing the mission:

... [T]he Administrator may not fund the development of an asteroid retrieval mission to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for rendezvous, retrieval, and redirection of that asteroid to lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts.

The bill declares that rogue asteroids pose a hazard to Earth, but goes on to prohibit NASA from searching for any asteroids 20 meters or less in diameter. The Chelyabinsk meteor is estimated to have been 17 to 20 meters in diameter, so if this committee has its way then NASA would be banned from trying to detect the next Chelyabinsk.

The authors made sure to protect their treasured source of pork, the Space Launch System. Section 203 declares that “the Space Launch System is the most practical approach to reaching the Moon, Mars, and beyond” without offering any evidence to back up that claim. The Golden Spike Company proposes an alternative that uses two Falcon Heavy rockets, but of course that idea doesn't generate any pork for the committee members who represent space centers and legacy aerospace contractors. The Falcon Heavy is scheduled for its first test flight in 2014 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Space Launch System is scheduled for the end of 2017, almost three years later.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the ranking member from the Democratic party, offered a substitute bill that would have authorized $18.1 billion for FY13 and $18.4 billion for FY14, but it was defeated along party lines.

Edwards claimed that the Republican version would cost jobs in the districts of Republican committee members who represent space centers. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represents Huntsville, reacted angrily, claiming that welfare programs were to blame and suggested that the Democrats should offer an amendment that would transfer welfare money to NASA. Since many of us view Space Launch System as workfare for his district, I guess the irony was lost on Mr. Brooks.

Rep. Bill Posey during the June 19, 2013 House Space Subcommittee hearing. Image source: House of Representatives.

Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) defended himself with a string of falsehoods:

The President pretty much already devastated the employment at the Kennedy Space Center. When he campaigned in Brevard County, he said he wanted to “close the gap” after he was elected. He would close the gap between the Shuttle program and the Constellation program. But after he got elected, he cancelled the Constellation program. That made the gap eternal. It didn't close the gap.

Let's address Mr. Posey's fibs.

The Space Shuttle program was proposed for cancellation by President George W. Bush on January 14, 2004 after the Columbia accident. Congress agreed, and the clock began on winding down the Shuttle program. As documented by Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, by 2008 most of the contracts had been terminated with vendors for Shuttle parts, and many of them had gone out of business.

In any case, it was well known that by the time Shuttle ended, thousands of jobs would be lost. Those were with contractors, primarily United Space Alliance, a partnership created in 1995 between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin to operate the Shuttle fleet.

Constellation was not going to replace those jobs. It would be years before Constellation would fly. In 2009, it was estimated that the first crewed Ares I flight would be in 2017.

Posey also lied about what Obama said at Titusville in August 2008. Two years ago, I wrote a blog documenting what Obama really said. He said he would speed “the development of the Shuttle's successor.” He didn't say what that successor would be.

By 2009, Constellation was years behind schedule and billions over budget. Both a Government Accountability Office audit and Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee report called into question the sustainability of Constellation without a massive infusion of taxpayer money, and even then it was dubious whether NASA was capable any more of managing such a huge project.

Based in part on the Committee's recommendations, in early 2010 the Obama administration proposed the cancellation of Constellation, to be replaced by funding and accelerating a Bush-era program called commercial crew. Congress ultimately agreed, although it imposed the Space Launch System upon NASA to assure that Constellation pork kept flowing to the districts and states of key members of House and Senate space authorization and appropriations committees.

The so-called “gap” has been around since January 2004. It was part of Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. The funding for commercial crew to close the gap has been cut every year by Congress far below what the Obama administration has requested. This year's bill is no different.

So if Mr. Posey wants to place blame for extending the gap, he can begin by pointing at himself in the mirror. He and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle are responsible for extending the gap by cutting commercial crew funding year after year.

Beyond Posey's fibbing is a more fundamental outrage — the notion that NASA exists primarily to protect jobs in the districts of those on the space committees.

Members of both parties are responsible for this. Rep. Edwards believes it, because she claimed the Republicans were cutting jobs in space districts. The Republicans howled, not denying their motivation was about jobs but because they wanted to shift the blame to President Obama or welfare recipients or pick your own bogeyman.

Rep. Dan Maffei (D-NY). Image source: Wikipedia.

In the midst of this mad tea party was one lone sane voice, Rep. Dan Maffei (D-NY).

Serving only his second term in Congress, and representing a district in upstate New York that so far as I can tell has no tie to NASA pork, he offered what in my opinion was the singular moment of clarity in this farce:

I do feel that both the underlying bill and the amendment in the nature of the substitute have, in my view, too much emphasis on expensive manned space flight, to the possible detriment of unmanned space flight, or also incentives for private sector space flight beyond Earth orbit.

I am concerned that this committee still hasn't done a sober cost-benefit analysis of the true nature of the U.S. government putting forth a goal such as landing human beings on Mars. Why, exactly, are we planning on doing this? Is it for sentimental reasons? Because it's out there? Is it because of parochial reasons in our districts? Is it really for scientific reasons? Because I suspect we get a bigger bang for our buck with unmanned, or with incentives for private sector manned flight. And I remain skeptical of the large, vast scope of federal government-supported manned space flight.

But I will support the substitute, and let me tell you why.

Whatever we want to say about manned flight, and we can have that debate, but to put in the goals of having this manned space flight without the proper funding is not only dishonest, it's also dangerous. Two Shuttle disasters should tell us this. You're essentially setting lofty goals with a pittance behind them.

None of the other members, of course, replied to his questions. I suspect it's because the truth would have been only more sausage for the grinder.

UPDATE July 14, 2013Florida Today published today an edited version of a letter to the editor I submitted criticizing the falsehoods spoke by Rep. Posey during the hearing. Below is my original version as submitted.

Thanks to the Internet, I was able to watch the July 10 House Space Subcommittee hearing in which the Republican majority voted to slash NASA’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget by $1 billion.

Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey falsely claimed that, during a 2008 campaign speech in Titusville, Barack Obama said he would “close the gap” between the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs.

Obama’s campaign speech is on YouTube. It’s clear that Obama said no such thing. He did say he would speed the development of “the Shuttle’s successor.”

Constellation was a failed program. The Ares I was years behind schedule and billions over budget. It would not fly until 2017, and would be funded by retiring the International Space Station in 2015 — meaning Ares I had no place to go.

When he took office, Obama proposed cancelling Constellation to save the ISS. He also proposed accelerating a Bush-era program called commercial crew to close the gap. Congress agreed, but every year Congress has failed to fund commercial crew at the levels requested by the Obama administration.

Posey and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle are responsible for the gap. I wish he would start telling the truth about it.

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