Click the arrow to watch “Sump'n Claus.” Video source: Saturday Night Live YouTube channel.
“Everybody gettin' sump'n.”
— Kenan Thompson as Sump'n Claus, Saturday Night Live, December 13, 2014
Despite the rhetoric out of the Republican members of Congress about reducing the federal deficit, the GOP-led House and Senate agreed in October to raise federal spending by $80 billion over two years. A waiting game began to see where their largesse would find its way into pork projects on both sides of the partisan aisle.
For those of us who are advocates of the NewSpace movement, we hoped that funding might be restored for the slashed NASA commercial crew program.
Congress has underfunded the program every year since President Barack Obama proposed funding it in 2010. Commercial crew began under President George W. Bush — the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office opened in November 2005 — but the crew part of that went unfunded during the Bush administration, choosing to invest instead in the Constellation boondoggle.
Constellation fell years behind schedule, went billions of dollars over budget and received a series of bad audits from the General Accountability Office. In 2010, the Obama administration recommended cancelling Constellation, using the money in part to fund commercial crew.
The members of Congress representing NASA space centers and their contractors rebelled, and imposed a new program called Space Launch System. SLS was dubbed “Senate Launch System” by its critics, because its architects were Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who were out to protect jobs at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers.
Lurking in the shadows all that time was Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), a fierce protector of Marshall Space Flight Center pork in Huntsville, Alabama. A three-time winner of the Porker of the Month award by Citizens Against Government Waste, Shelby is a long-time senior Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Because the GOP currently controls the Senate, he chairs its subcommittee in charge of NASA spending. Other authorization committees can write policy legislation, but Appropriations determines if a program gets money and how much. Appropriations bills can contain language that overrides authorization policy.
U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). Image source: CBS News.
In the 2009-2014 period, according to OpenSecrets.org Shelby received $88,800 from Lockheed Martin individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs), $70,044 from the Boeing Company, and $41,000 from Alliant Techsystems — the three Space Shuttle and Constellation legacy contractors. During that time, Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% during its first three years, extending NASA reliance on Roscosmos for International Space Station access at least two years. Shelby was one of commercial crew's biggest opponents, insisting the money be spent instead on the SLS program — which, conveniently, is based at Marshall Space Flight Center.
In December 2014, Congress cut the Obama administration's commercial crew funding again, but only by five percent. It was hopeful sign Congress finally understood that Shelby's porking ways made the United States reliant on an increasingly unstable Russian partner.
Shelby was undeterred. In June 2015, Shelby's committee cut FY16 commercial crew funding by 25%. As result, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in August informed Congress that NASA was left with no choice to extend its reliance on Roscosmos to 2019.
Restoration of the funding would have to wait until the House and Senate reconciled their budget differences, a matter complicated by renegade Tea Party elements in the House of Representatives who threatened to force a default on the federal government's debt obligations. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in September announced he would resign rather than risk another government shutdown. That left him free to negotiate a compromise that would extend the debt ceiling two years, while also increasing government spending by $80 billion during that time.
Paul Ryan (R-WI) succeeded Boehner as speaker. It was left to Ryan to lead negotiations within and without his party for how to disperse the newly authorized spending.
Elsewhere in the Shelby empire, the Senator was fighting another battle on behalf of his OldSpace benefactors.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin are partners in a venture called United Launch Alliance. In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission granted ULA a legal monopoly for non-crewed government rocket launches. Until the rise of SpaceX in this decade, ULA enjoyed no competition for government contracts. The company's high prices drove the commercial launch business overseas.
Having demonstrated early success with its Falcon 9 boosters, SpaceX began to pursue U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office payloads, challenging the ULA monopoly. In March, an independent investigation concluded the Air Force was imposing unreasonable standards on SpaceX, perhaps to protect ULA's monopoly. The dispute was resolved in May when the Air Force announced that SpaceX was certified for military payloads.
The ULA Atlas V booster uses RD-180 engines produced by the Russian government-owned company NPO Energomash. After Russia invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine in February 2014, Congress responded with a ban on the purchase of RD-180 for U.S. military payloads. Led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Congress voted in December 2014 to limit future military use of the RD-180 as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget bill.
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Image source: CNN.
The Atlas V is assembled in Decatur, Alabama, so Shelby has spent the last year on behalf of ULA working to repeal McCain's legislation.
McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he doesn't have a seat on Appropriations, which left him outside the door when Shelby slipped language into this week's compromise bill that removes the restriction on RD-180 purchases.
According to Jeff Foust at Space News, the bill also increases the SLS appropriation to “nearly 50 percent more than administration’s request,” or to about $2 billion.
For the first time since President Obama's 2010 proposal, the bill fully funds commercial crew at the President's request, or $1.24 billion, for Fiscal Year 2016.
I'm left wondering if, in some Capitol Hill back room, Shelby agreed to end his block on commercial crew funding in exchange for votes lifting the RD-180 ban and for an increase in SLS funding above what anyone else requested.
McCain took to the Senate floor yesterday, blasting what he called “the triumph of pork barrel parochialism”, claiming that U.S. taxpayers would subsidize “Russian aggression and comrade capitalism.”
Here we stand with a 2,000-page omnibus appropriations bill, crafted in secret with no debate, which most of us are seeing for the first time this morning. And buried within it is a policy provision that would effectively allow unlimited purchases and use of Russian rocket engines.
What is going on here?
ULA wants more Russian engines. Plain and simple.
McCain blamed “ULA’s Capitol Hill leading sponsors, namely the senior Senator from Alabama, Senator Shelby, and the senior Senator from Illinois, Senator Durbin” for the legislation.
The omnibus spending bill must pass both the House and the Senate, where no doubt many amendments may be offered. Among those might be from Senator McCain to delete the RD-180 provision. At that point, it will be interesting to see who rises on Shelby's behalf.
If RD-180 purchases resume, it might also spell the end of ULA's proposed Vulcan rocket program. Vulcan's announcement in April was an implicit response to the RD-180 ban, as well as SpaceX plans to evolve Falcon 9 booster reusability. Vulcan would use either Blue Origin BE-4 or Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 engines. Both are U.S. companies.
It's also possible that amendments might be offered to revoke the increases in SLS and/or commercial crew funding. Should that happen, especially if it comes from Senator McCain, we'll know there was a linkage between RD-180 and the NASA budget increases.
UPDATE December 17, 2015 3:45 PM EST — Politico reports that Senator Richard Shelby now intends to vote against his own pork!
Sen. Richard Shelby loaded up the $1.1 trillion spending bill with pet provisions, including one measure worth hundreds of millions to a rocket manufacturer with operations in his home state.
But in an only-in-Congress twist, Shelby, a very senior member on the appropriations committee, still plans to vote against the sprawling omnibus package. He's citing the lack of language to restrict Syrian refugees as the reason.
UPDATE December 18, 2015 — USA Today reports that the omnibus spending bill includes $622 billion in tax breaks. No evidence that they intend to offset those tax breaks anywhere. So much for the Republicans being the party of fiscal restraint.