Sunday, May 13, 2012

Florida Today Double-Teams Congress

Two opinion columns in the Sunday Florida Today strongly criticized the House of Representatives for its vote last week to end prematurely the commercial crew competition.

On the Opinion page, Matt Reed's column "A Terrible Vote on Spaceflight" pulled no punches:

NASA is on budget, on schedule and ready to show us something new and exciting in human spaceflight for the first time since today’s fortysomethings were in grade school.

But the U.S. House, including both representatives from Brevard, voted last week to wreck the program — nine days before the high-stakes launch of a “commercial crew” rocket and capsule from the Cape.

For those just tuning in, an assortment of privately developed flying machines are scheduled to begin key test launches this week, competing for a contract to carry U.S. astronauts into orbit.

Privatization has sparked the aerospace version of a TV season of “The Apprentice,” pitting a capsule designed by a PayPal inventor against a mini-space shuttle and a classic rocket that up to now has launched only satellites. Seven companies, four with NASA seed money, have moved as fast as the early Mercury and Apollo programs, but at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers.

Now, Congress wants to cancel the show midseason.

Reed reserved particular criticism for Brevard County's two House representatives.

What I can’t understand is why House members, including Reps. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, and Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, would vote to halt the only bargain NASA has going.

This year, NASA spent $406 million on four companies to build new spacecraft, with another three developing rockets and components for free. Before Thursday’s vote, the [White] House had boosted investment in the privatized rocket program to $830 million ...

I can’t wait to see if SpaceX can launch its Dragon Capsule from the Cape on Saturday and rendezvous with the space station. Or see Sierra-Nevada’s Dreamcatcher mini-shuttle blast off next year and try the same. Or see an Atlas V saddled up for passengers.

Why would Posey and Adams vote to stop that?

Posey told FLORIDA TODAY he would be willing to narrow the contest to two competitors, but voted for the bill because he’s afraid impatience in Congress could lead to cuts.

Adams said something about getting “the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

But if they want lower costs and a fast track to space, Congress should leave NASA’s competition alone.

On March 20, Adams sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee urging their space subcommittee to cut the Obama administration's proposed $830 million commercial crew budget to just $500 million:

The request includes $829.7 million for the Commercial Crew program. While this request is $329.7 million over the authorized levels for the program, the prioritization of human space flight within the budget is encouraging. I believe the Commercial Crew Program can continue on schedule under the agreed upon authorized level of $500 million and I support such an allocation of funds. This level of funding will enable NASA to continue encouraging the private development of safe and affordable space transportation systems to carry American astronauts on American rockets built by an American workforce to and from the International Space Station.

I wrote Ms. Adams the month before asking her to fully support the Administration's request, so that the United States could cease relying upon Russia for flights to the ISS. Ms. Adams' office did not respond.

Elsewhere in the Sunday paper, space columnist John Kelly published an article titled, "Congress Could Kill Rocket Builders' New Space Race".

You should be concerned about a Congressional vote this week for NASA to immediately end its successful competition among multiple contractors vying to deliver a new, privatized system to carry astronauts to and from the space station.

So far, a layered approach with multiple companies competing to build a new space transportation system is showing signs of working, with the most obvious evidence being a Falcon 9 rocket set to launch a Dragon spacecraft to the space station as early as Saturday.

Private firms are competing against one another, with potentially lucrative contracts as a prize. They are coming up with innovative ways to design and operate a human space transport that would have cost billions more and already be years behind schedule, if it were developed under NASA’s old way of doing business, with one big contractor handed a single multi-billion dollar contract.

Kelly quotes Rep. Posey as commenting:

“I wish there was more money available. That would solve a lot of problems. It would be great if there were 10 competent launch teams competing to do the job. Unfortunately, the reality is that there is not enough money to water all the trees in the forest. At some point NASA is going to have to decide to focus on proceeding with one or two launch providers and this bill tells NASA to move to the down select date sooner ... In a perfect world with unlimited funds you wouldn't have to do that, but that is not the world we live in today.”

This is, of course, nonsense.

The commercial crew funding was shifted by the House to the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift vehicle mandated by Congress in 2010 to keep employed Shuttle-era contractors.

Dubbed the "Senate Launch System" by critics, the SLS has no missions or destinations.

It's all about priorities, and in the world of these House members the priority is preserving the status quo.

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