Click the arrow to watch the December 10 House Space Subcommittee hearing on SLS/Orion.
The Washington Post published an article today titled, “NASA’s $349 Million Monument to Its Drift.” Nominally about a useless engine test tower built at Stennis Space Center to appease Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the larger context was to detail just how pork-laden has become NASA's annual budget.
The article cited NASA's former deputy administrator, Lori Garver, who since her departure in September 2013 has become an increasingly outspoken critic of Congressional porking. According to Garver, NASA projects are no longer about “why” but “how.”
“The [International] Space Station was sold as an $8 billion program. It ended up costing $100 billion. The Webb telescope was sold as a $1 billion program. It’s now up to $8 billion,” said Lori Garver, who served as the number two official at NASA from 2009 until last year. “It usually works out for them,” she said, meaning the contractors get paid, even when they raise the price.
Decision-making about NASA was twisted, she said, because of a mismatch between its huge funding and its muddled sense of purpose. “There’s no ‘why’” in NASA anymore, Garver said.
Instead, she said, there was only a “how,” a sense that something big still needed to be done. “And the ‘how’ is all about the [construction] contracts and the members of Congress.”
This nonsense was on display yet again December 10 when the House Space Subcommittee met to demand more spending on the Space Launch System and Orion capsule — even though Congress has yet to tell NASA what to do with these programs four years after ordering the agency to build them.
Subcommittee chair Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) — whose district includes Stennis — stated in his opening remarks:
The successful test launch of Orion demonstrates that we're on the right track for sending humans back to the Moon and Mars within our lifetimes. Across the nation, people were watching with the same hope and pride that all Americans had in the early days of our space program. At my Congressional district, children were bussed to the Stennis Space Center to watch a live feed of the launch. Events like this are what we need to inspire the next generation of astronauts and engineers, and SLS is a giant leap forward, making America the leader in space yet again.
To hide their porkery, Congressional politicians of both partisan stripes often claim these programs “inspire” people, without providing any evidence to back it up, or a rational cost-benefit analysis that would prove this money is better spent on a pork program with no mission than robotic technology which is far more affordable and has skills that can translate into the private sector.
There's no evidence that the nation was transfixed during the Orion test flight, much less to a level similar to the early 1960s. National television networks did not break into regularly scheduled programs. News anchors were not stationed at Cape Canaveral. The media events were attended by more than the usual small handful of “mainstream” journalists, but as typical for these events many of the journalists were credentialed reporters from space-themed web sites.
It's a myth that “all Americans” as Palazzo claimed actually united to support the 1960s space program. A 2003 monograph by space historian Roger Launius found:
Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda.
Launius reminded the reader that in the 1960s, “spaceflight served as a surrogate for face-to-face military confrontation” with the Soviet Union. Although today's relations with Russia are tense, NASA and Roscosmos remain trusted space partners after nearly twenty years of joint human spaceflight.
The President has made clear that he does not believe that space exploration is a priority for the nation, and has allowed political appointees within the Administration to manipulate the course of our human spaceflight program. These decisions should be made by the scientists, engineers and program managers that have decades of experience in human spaceflight.
Congress has once again demonstrated support for the SLS and Orion by providing funding well above the President's budget request in the Omnibus for Fiscal Year 2015. While these priority programs may not enjoy support within the Administration, they certainly do from Congress. Let me be very clear — on my watch, Congress will not agree to gutting the SLS program. Not now. Not any time in the foreseeable future.
President Obama has never made any such statement. The fact is that, during an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center — the first visit by a President to KSC since 1998 — he stated:
So let me start by being extremely clear: I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future. Because broadening our capabilities in space will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine. Because exploration will once more inspire wonder in a new generation — sparking passions and launching careers. And because, ultimately, if we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character.
April 15, 2010 ... President Obama's space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.
(Yes, he used the dreaded “inspiration” word.)
What offended porkers like Palazzo was the next part of the President's speech, which served notice that porking had to end for NASA to survive.
But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.
But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.
All that has to change.
The Obama administration proposed cancelling a program called Constellation that, six years after it was proposed by President George W. Bush, had gone off the rails due to a lack of funding and technical problems.
An August 2009 report by the independent Government Accountability Office found that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and had still unresolved technical issues.
Two months later, The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee issued a report which concluded that Constellation was not sustainable.
The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support the ISS in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015. An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach the ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be at least seven years.
President Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposed cancelling Constellation, to funnel that money into commercial crew systems that could be ready by 2015, as well as extending the life of the International Space Station.
But that would end the flow of Constellation pork to those on the House and Senate space committees, so Congress mandated that NASA build another booster called the Space Launch System, and that it use the Orion capsule as the crew vehicle. No one ever said what was its mission, other than to save jobs.
Palazzo concluded his remarks with these astonishing claims:
This is a worthwhile investment for the taxpayer. It inspires the next generation of explorers to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, advances U.S. soft power in international relations, reinforces our aerospace industrial base, increases economic competitiveness, and advances our national security interests. Orion and SLS — the vanguard of our nation’s space program — are key to advancing these interests.
No mention if it also cures the heartbreak of psoriasis.
Particularly telling is that Palazzo and fellow porkers have routinely slashed the administration's requested funding for the commercial crew program, which would end U.S. reliance on Russia for ISS access.
A November 2013 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that Congress had cut the President's commercial crew funding requests by 62% during Fiscal Years 2011-2013. The omnibus bill Palazzo brags about cut the President's Fiscal Year 2015 request from $848 million to $805 million, about 5.0%. These cuts have extended NASA reliance on Roscomos about two to three years, especially during a time of political tension between the U.S. and Russia.
Apparently Rep. Palazzo cares more about protecting pork than ending NASA reliance on Roscosmos.
The omnibus bill also cut NASA's new space technology programs by 15.6%, from $706 million to $596 million — a cut of $110 million.
The useless A-3 test tower under construction at Stennis in 2012. Image source: NASA.
Palazzo's voters are willing accomplices in this farce, as documented by the Post article. A self-described Tea Partier named David Forshee accepted a pipefitting job for the useless tower even though he knew it was government pork:
Forshee is a tea party supporter, somebody who hates for government money to be misspent. And here, he sees, it was misspent on him. After his interview at Hooters, he called a reporter back to be sure he had it right.
“They’re just saying they spent $350 million for no reason?” he asked.
Yes, he was told.
“Well,” he said. “Nice.” (He took the job at the new test stand anyway, to be sure the work stayed with his union local: “If we don’t do this work, then they’re going to give it to Local 60 out of New Orleans.”)
Palazzo and his fellow committee members continue to tell NASA “how” — the SLS and Orion — but still refuse to say “why.”
The only “why,” so far, is to help ensure the committee members get re-elected by voters with government-funded jobs.
UPDATE December 17, 2014 — Caught with his hand in the pork cookie jar, ABC News reports that Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) is blaming President Obama for the useless tower.
ABC News met with Sen. Roger Wicker, whose Mississippi congressional delegation saved the tower, to ask Wicker whether the tower was about saving the largest employer in the county — the John C. Stennis Space Center — or to advance space travel.
Wicker told ABC News that he hoped the tower proved to be “good money well-spent.”“The country will benefit from it,” Wicker said. “It is an investment and I do believe a decade or so from now we’ll look back on it and say, 'It is money well-spent because the program has been revived.' That is the hope.”
The program has not yet been revived and the Obama administration has no plans to test the rockets.
“I hope the question is not so much why we continued building a partially built facility,” Wicker said. “I hope the question also becomes why did the president decide to cancel this program when science and technology has given us so much information and so much research. … That ought to be the question. Was the decision of the Obama administration ill-founded? And I believe it was.”
The Sun Herald, the local paper for Stennis, published today this interview with Senator Wicker about his useless tower.
“Congress agreed that it was not in the best interests of taxpayers, in Mississippi or elsewhere, to allow the site to sit incomplete, abandoned, and neglected, quickly falling into a state of disrepair,” Wicker said in a statement.
He sought to redirect the blame on President Barack Obama, who Wicker said “has abandoned America's manned space program” and “lacks the vision of his predecessors.”
The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi reports that NASA spends tens of millions of dollars every year maintaining unneeded facilities such as the Stennis tower.
A-3 joined a growing list of unused or underutilized structures costing the space agency tens of millions of dollars to maintain each year, according to NASA. An in-house study estimated NASA has up to 865 "unneeded" facilities, collectively costing more than $24 million in annual upkeep, he said.
An audit the inspector general's office released identified another 33 facilities, including wind tunnels, thermal vacuum chambers and other launch infrastructure, that NASA wasn't fully utilizing or that had no identifiable future mission. Taxpayers spent $43 million in 2011 to maintain those facilities.
A January 2014 Bloomberg report on the Stennis tower. Video source: Bloomberg Business.
According to a January 2014 Bloomberg Business video, NASA will have to spend $840,000 a year maintaining the useless tower. Bloomberg.com reported on January 8 about the “Useless $350 Million Structure.”
The test stand is an example of how U.S. lawmakers thwart efforts to cut costs and eliminate government waste, even as they criticize agencies for failing to do so. Attempts to close military bases, mail-processing plants and other NASA facilities also have been fought by congressional members whose districts benefit from the operations.