Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bringing Home the Bacon, Part II

Jeff Foust of the excellent Space Politics blog posted today about an article in the September 12 Decatur Daily.

Titled "Decatur Loses Out in NASA Bill", the article grouses about the lack of pork coming to Decatur, Alabama in the FY 2011 NASA budget bill as drawn up by the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space.

It also grouses about who did get the pork, and blames one of their two U.S. Senators, Richard Shelby.

As U.S. senators carved up the leftovers of NASA’s Constellation program for their states, most of the meat went to Utah and Huntsville.

United Launch Alliance, with its assembly plant in Decatur, got the bone.

The ranking Republican member of the committee that wrote the budget authorization that would effectively exclude ULA from participating in the development of a heavy-lift rocket was Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa.

The article reports that the bill's specifications for the heavy-lift rocket assure its solid rocket motors would be made in Utah, represented by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Each ingredient in this rocket recipe protects some contractor, most significantly Utah-based Alliant Techsystems Inc., known as ATK.

A press release issued by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, makes the political goal clear.

"Industry experts, whom Hatch has consulted with, say the payload requirements can only be realistically met by using solid-rocket motors, which are made in Utah," the release explained to Hatch’s constituents.

The article notes that Jeff Sessions (R-Mobile), Alabama's other senator, had no idea who ULA is. "ULA officials met with him in an effort to educate him about the company’s space capabilities," according to the article.

Shameful. And shameless.

This is why I think it's so important to grow commercial access to Low Earth Orbit.

Every pundit will offer you their theory for why Constellation fell behind schedule and ran over budget. But let's look at more authoritative and objective sources.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office in August 2009 issued a report titled, "Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case Is Established." The GAO cited funding shortfalls but also noted the lack of a sound business case.

Progress has been made; however, technical and design challenges are still significant and until they are resolved NASA will not be able to reliably estimate the time and money needed to execute the program. In addition, cost issues and a poorly phased funding plan continue to hamper the program.

The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, commonly known as the Augustine Commission, issued a report in October 2009 that reached similar conclusions.

The current U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that are often admirable, but which do not match available resources ... Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today. The human spaceflight program, in the opinion of this Committee, is at a tipping point where either additional funds must be provided or the exploration program first instituted by President Kennedy must be abandoned at least for the time being.

In my opinion, we need to get Congress out of the rocket-building process.

Does anyone believe that a couple of Senators from Utah and Alabama know more about how to build a heavy-lift rocket than aerospace engineers?

Whether it's ULA, SpaceX, or some other aerospace company, they know how to build rockets. So do NASA engineers, although many of them are actually contract workers employed by aerospace firms with government contracts.

So long as Congress views NASA as one big trough of slop, we will never have robust American access to space.

And for those who want to blame President Obama, let's point out that all three U.S. Senators named in this article are Republicans who have attacked Obama's proposal to commercialize LEO space access. It's not hard to see why. They want to be sure they control not just the slop, but the whole trough.

There are most certainly Democrats who also view NASA as personal pork. This isn't a partisan issue. The issue is how do we affordably ensure the United States has a domestic option for reaching LEO, no longer having to rely on other nations.

The GAO and the Augustine Commission implicitly pointed the finger at Congress. The only way that will change is to get Congress out of the loop. And the only way that can happen is to go the commercial route.

Under the Obama administration's plan, NASA would put out to bid a specific mission. The bid would include technical specifications the vendor must meet to win the bid, including a rating that their vehicles are safe for humans. The aerospace companies would have designed their own rockets, and would be regulated by NASA to assure they're safe.

But the vehicle designs would be beyond the snouts of Congress.

If Congress wins and dictates the design of the next-generation heavy-lift vehicle, it will meet the same demise as Constellation — which will ironically hasten the day that commercial will take over the bulk of launch capabilities. But a lot more tax dollars will be wasted until that day arrives.

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