Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.
The hearing title seemed inconsequential, even a bit boring.
“NASA Infrastructure: Enabling Discovery and Ensuring Capability.”
The hearing charter stated the meeting's purpose was “to review NASA’s efforts to manage its facilities and infrastructure, the agency’s current legislated authorities, and its proposed legislation to provide greater flexibility to the agency.”
But as most things NASA these days, it quickly turned into yet another attempt by House members whose campaigns are partially funded by legacy aerospace companies trying to stifle use of Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A by “NewSpace” upstart SpaceX.
Committee chair Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and member Mo Brooks (R-AL) claimed that 39A should be a multi-user pad, as well as a backup for the government's Space Launch System. The SLS is scheduled to fly only in 2017 and then in 2021 from neighboring 39B.
Palazzo's district includes NASA's Stennis Space Center, and Brooks represents Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Both facilities rely heavily on government contracts to “OldSpace” firms such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Palazzo has already received in this campaign cycle $6,500 from Lockheed Martin and $3,000 from the Boeing Company. During the 2012 campaign cycle, Palazzo received $10,000 from Lockheed Martin.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and ATK are the primary SLS contractors. They did not win those contracts through competition. They got the contracts because Congress told NASA to use them.
Section 304(a)(1) of the 2010 Space Act ordered NASA to use “existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the Space Shuttle and Orion and Ares 1 projects” to build SLS. That's why critics refer to SLS as the Senate Launch System. To this date, the SLS still has no missions or destinations authorized or funded by Congress. They simply told NASA to build it to keep those contractors happy.
If SpaceX takes over 39A, they will most likely use it to launch the Falcon Heavy. When operational circa 2015, this rocket will be the most powerful booster in history after the Saturn V rocket. It would be an immediately affordable option to SLS.
An artist's concept of the Falcon Heavy. Image source: SpaceX. Click here for a March 2013 Popular Science article on the Falcon Heavy.
That's why the OldSpace companies don't want to see SpaceX at 39A. Congress would be forced into explaining to the American taxpayer why billions are being wasted on a rocket to nowhere.
Through their partnership United Launch Alliance, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have supported a competing bid from Blue Origin. This NewSpace company admits they won't be ready to fly until at least 2018, but claim they would be willing to sublet 39A to a competitor. They say they will run it as a multi-user pad, but no multi-user commercial launch pad exists anywhere in the world, to my knowledge. It's likely that Falcon Heavy and whatever Blue Origin flies by the end of the decade would be entirely different vehicles.
Pad 39B, future home to SLS, is nominally a multi-user facility because it's a “clean pad.” A user has to roll out their vehicle to 39B on a mobile launch platform and transporter crawler, as did Apollo Saturn V in the 1960s. A new platform built for the cancelled Constellation program in 2010 is going to be modified for SLS. The three legacy platforms built in the 1960s remain, although no one has come forward to propose a use. And no one has come forward to use 39B, further evidence that there is no commercial demand for a multi-user pad at Kennedy Space Center.
NASA hasn't announced a decision, but earlier this month Blue Origin filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, alleging NASA had rigged the process in favor of SpaceX. Several members of Congress, again backed by OldSpace campaign contributions, wrote letters supporting Blue Origin.
Earlier this week, many of us were pleasantly surprised when the entire Florida congressional delegation — Republican and Democrat, House and Senate — sent letters to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden supporting the agency's internal process determining 39A's future use. The lead signatory on the House letter was Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL).
When it was Posey's turn to speak at today's hearing (the 56:30 mark in the above video), he tried to introduce into the record the letters submitted by the Florida delegation. The letters supporting Blue Origin already had been entered into the record, but Rep. Palazzo shocked Posey by objecting.
Palazzo claimed that no letters could be entered into the record unless he had “reviewed” them in advance. Posey said he'd never heard of such a rule; Palazzo replied, “Neither have I, until the last minute.” Just who informed Palazzo of this rule went unspoken. Nor did the chair explain why this rule had never been enforced until now.
Posey read aloud the first few lines from the House letter, then said:
People here are trying to weigh in, actually, before that process is completed. Our position is we need to complete the process. We are not taking sides in the formal configuration of the launch pad, whether they're single- or multi-use. They're looking at both. We just want our space program to move forward. We want to alleviate Monday-morning quarterbacking and second-guessing. We have Inspector Generals who do that for us.
You know, we've used charts, we've seen charts in this committee that are a matter of record, that show over two dozen of our space programs that we call “Missions to Nowhere” over the last two decades and billions and billions and billions of dollars wasted because we have the parochial interests of different members trying to micromanage what NASA does.
It's like a City Councilman trying to tell a police chief who to arrest and not who to arrest.
The exchange was perhaps the most dramatic I've seen in a space subcommittee hearing in some time. A Republican chair tried to squelch a fellow Republican from introducing a bipartisan letter. It wasn't party versus party. It was transparency versus corruption.
Palazzo later relented and allowed the letters to be entered into the record, but he'd already shown his true colors.
If you're wondering where Posey gets his campaign contributions ... According to OpenSecrets.org, he's received $1,000 from SpaceX. He's also received $1,000 each from Boeing and Lockheed Martin. During the 2012 campaign, he received $8,000 from Lockheed Martin, $4,550 from Boeing/Lockheed Martin partnership United Space Alliance, and $3,000 from SpaceX.
Today's squabble ended with Posey apologizing to Palazzo for being unaware of the rules, but since Palazzo didn't know about it either I'm not sure the apology was justified.
In any case, it remains to be seen if a schism widens on the House Space Subcommittee between those who want to protect OldSpace and those who realize it can't be business-as-usual if the United States is going to compete in the growing 21st Century commercial launch market.
As someone who's been a frequent critic of Mr. Posey, I am very encouraged by the direction he's taken this week.
Elsewhere ... Florida Today reports on today's hearing.
UPDATE September 21, 2013 — Keith Cowing at NASA Watch posted this statement from SpaceX:
“SpaceX has nearly 50 missions on manifest to launch over the proposed 5 year lease period and we can easily make use of the additional launch site. At the time we submitted the bid, SpaceX was unaware any other parties had interest in using the pad. However, if awarded this limited duration lease on 39A, SpaceX would be more than happy to support other commercial space pioneers at the pad, and allow NASA to make use of the pad if need be.”
In my opinion ... SpaceX can make this gesture knowing there's no one else out there, government or commercial, interested in using 39A for years to come. Blue Origin has admitted they have no need until at least 2018, and by then it's possible that the Space Florida commercial spaceport at Shiloh will be operational. Blue Origin has already acknowledged an interest in Shiloh, so again there's no other legitimate user for 39A.