Thursday, November 17, 2011

Congress to NASA: Drop Dead

The October 30, 1975 edition of the New York Daily News. Image source: The New York Times.

It's one of the more infamous newspaper headlines in journalistic history.

On October 30, 1975, the New York Daily News published a story about President Gerald Ford's refusal to help New York City avoid bankruptcy.

Ford never said "Drop Dead" as claimed by the headline, but it reflected the city's sentiment that the President couldn't care less about the fate of the Big Apple.

Thirty-six years later, the "Drop Dead" dismissal could apply just as well to the imminent vote by Congress to butcher NASA's Fiscal Year 2012 budget for commercial crew development.

As I wrote on November 15, Congress has chosen to defund NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

NASA officials and the CCDev participants warned Congress that failure to fully fund the program — $850 million was requested by the Obama administration — would only prolong the monopoly Russia will have on launching astronauts to the International Space Station.

The House of Representatives voted to give CCDev only $312 million, nearly two-thirds less than requested. The Senate voted $500 million, about forty percent less than requested, and impounded about $100 million of that until the NASA administrator assures in writing that certain Space Launch System (SLS) milestones are achieved.

As reported by Space Politics on November 15, the two Houses compromised by splitting the difference. CCDev will receive only $406 million, and the SLS language will remain.

The compromise, which is part of a much larger bill including many other federal agencies, will now go to both houses for a final vote, and then to the White House for signature. The 2012 fiscal year began October 1, so the appropriation is already six weeks late. It's unlikely either house will reject it over the CCDev line item, nor would the President veto it over one program. These agencies would have uncertain funding for the future, and might even be forced to shut down.

The CCDev language is a clear win for entrenched interests trying to protect the status quo.

As I wrote on September 20, the SLS system was dictated in 2010 by Congress and designed by members of the Senate's space subcommittee to protect jobs in their districts. SLS, dubbed the "Senate Launch System" by critics, has no mission or destination. It exists to create or protect jobs in certain states.

CCDev does have a mission and destination.

Its destination — the International Space Station.

Its mission — produce one and perhaps more 21st Century crew vehicles to take up to seven astronauts per flight to and from the ISS.

After the Columbia accident, the Bush administration in January 2004 decided to fly astronauts on the Russian Soyuz vehicle because it was considered to be safer than the Space Shuttle. That administration signed several "space taxi" flight agreements with Russia, while planning to phase out Shuttle once the ISS was completed. The United States would continue to rely upon Soyuz until a replacement was ready, sometime around 2015.

President Obama took office in January 2009, and appointed an independent commission to evaluate the state of U.S. human space flight. That committee concluded that the Ares I, intended to provide U.S. space taxi services to the ISS, was years behind schedule and billions over budget. It would not fly until 2017 at the earliest, and would be financed by defunding the ISS in 2015. By the time it would be ready, the Ares I would have no place to go!

The Obama administration chose to scrap Ares. On August 2, 2008, Obama had pledged in Titusville to reduce the gap during which the U.S. would rely on Russia. His solution was to expand the commercial cargo program to develop a commercial crew program relying on American aerospace companies.

Entrenched special interests, and the politicians who represented them, fought bitterly. A political compromise emerged — Congress would fund CCDev in exchange for the SLS.

NASA estimated that the first CCDev flights would occur in 2015, but warned that funding delays would only extend the time the U.S. would have to rely on Russia.

But Congress told NASA:

"Drop dead."

Many politicians are to blame, of both partisan stripes.

As a resident of north Merritt Island, I can heap part of the blame on my representative, Sandy Adams. Her district includes Kennedy Space Center, and she sits on the House space subcommittee.

Adams apparently did nothing to stop the House from cutting the Obama administration's CCDev request by two-thirds. Only in recent days has she spoken out in favor of funding CCDev — long after the $312 million language left her committee.

Rep. Adams has spent much of her first term making absurd claims such as U.S. astronauts are being forced to fly on Chinese rockets, or that India has surpassed the U.S. in space technology.

Once the compromise language is enacted, ironically Adams will have helped usher in her dark vision of NASA's plight. She failed to fund it, so now the U.S. will have to rely on Russia much longer.

Florida Today reports that NASA will assess how long will be the delay, but initial estimates are that the U.S. will be on Soyuz until at least 2017.

Obama won't be able to close the gap, but that will be due to the failure of Adams and other politicians to properly fund CCDev.

UPDATE November 18, 2011Rep. Adams' web site shows she voted no yesterday against the final appropriations bill. No explanation why.

The bill passed both houses, and is enroute the White House for signature.


  1. Not that I attribute any sort of logic or grace to the House or the Senate, but with NASA's commercial crew office moving away from partnerships with industry into a premature "procurement process", I'm happy to see less money going into this program. Hopefully it will mean an early downselect, which will almost certainly go to Boeing, freeing SpaceX, Blue Origin, and SNC to go back to Space Act Agreements or just go it alone.

  2. QuantumG, the same thought crossed my mind.

    According to Space Politics, the final conference report suggests NASA initiate "an accelerated down-select process."

    In other words, forget any more competition or innovation. Pick one and screw the others.

    That works in the favor of the vendor who's farthest along. Presumably that's Boeing or SpaceX.

    Since Boeing throws around lobbying money like a drunken sailor on shore leave, and they just leased OPF-3 next to the VAB which puts them in a strategic location, *and* Adams for the first time supported Commercial Crew during her speech at the OPF-3 ceremony ... it starts to add up.

  3. It is clear the author does not understand the difference between Authorizations and Appropriations. The Appropriations bills do not go through the Science Committee.

    Rep. Adams serves on the Science Committee, which authorized $500 million for CCDev for FY2012. Your attacks on her are based on faulty information and assumptions. Please correct.

  4. In response to Political Sherpa --

    One of the oldest tricks in the political playbook is to prop up a straw man so you can knock it over.

    Rep. Adams has spent her entire term railing about nonsensical falsehoods such as U.S. astronauts being forced to fly on Chinese rockets, or claiming that India has surpassed the U.S. in space technology.

    She has had plenty opportunity to speak up and speak out about the consequences of underfunding commercial crew. I've watched several of her committee hearings. All she does is rattle off written questions; it's unclear if she wrote them herself, or they were written for her.

    In any case, I have yet to see her make a statement to her committee urging full support for funding commercial crew. She showed up late for the October 26 hearing, read off her questions, then left. I'm fully cognizant of the fact that Congressional members have scheduling conflicts, but she passed up yet another opportunity to urge her colleagues to do everything they can to fully fund commercial crew.

    It isn't hard for one committee to let another committee know the importance of a particular program's full funding. The Appropriations Committee issued its draft on July 6 with the $312 million. Adams had months and months to do something about it. Apparently she did nothing, other than send a letter on November 3 to the committee chair, way too late to have any impact.

    You seem to claim that Adams is absolved of any responsibility for this situation because she doesn't sit on the Appropriations Committee. If you are on her staff, then I would suggest this attitude explains a lot about her failure to act.

  5. The Appropriations bills do not go through the Science Committee.

    The house of representatives certainly votes on the final appropriations bill. Ms. Adams is a US representative. She voted 'no'. There is nothing to correct.

  6. According to the Florida SpaceReport on November 18:

    "The funding bill received "no" votes from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL). Adams' staff says her vote was based on other elements of the bill, unrelated to NASA."

    If Ms. Adams wants to convince me she's seen the light on commercial crew, she should introduce legislation to have the appropriation increased immediately from $406 million to $850 million. She could ask Rep. Posey and the rest of the Florida delegation to co-sponsor it.

    She could also approach Senator Nelson and ask him to introduce similar legislation in the Senate. Nelson has indicated he thinks something should be done, but so far he hasn't.

    This would be an opportunity for Ms. Adams to take a leadership role on the issue.

    Otherwise, we're on Soyuz until at least 2017.

    The other option being floated about, according to rumor, is that NASA will simply pick one commercial vendor now and cut loose the rest. That defeats the purpose of CCDev, namely to midwife a domestic commercial crew launch industry that not only provides the government with multiple launch options, but also helps open the door for private industry to launch people into space to private space stations such as Bigelow's.

    I will be quite impressed if Ms. Adams takes a leadership role on this matter and asks for a funding increase -- but that has not been her pattern to date.