September 08, 2011
Still believe politicians are serious about addressing over $14
trillion in federal debt and unfunded “entitlement” liabilities that could run
as high as $100 trillion? Hark to this tale of rockets, spaceships, corporate
welfare, and keeping your gig on Capitol Hill.
Twenty months ago, in a bold (if rare, and unquestionably
partisan) play for fiscal sanity, the Obama administration announced an end to
George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration.” The 43rd president’s Constellation
program was often called “Apollo on steroids” -- the shuttle would be retired;
a capsule, launched by a new rocket, would send personnel to the International
Space Station (ISS); a new heavy-lift booster would loft the materials and
vehicles needed to put “America” back on the moon, this time for good; and
finally, after decades of broken promises, NASA would head to Mars.
Bush’s program got underway in 2004. More than $9 billion had
been spent on Constellation, but deadlines weren’t being met and costs kept
rising. Obama committed to U.S.
involvement in the ISS through 2020, but wanted commercial operators to ferry
both cargo and crew to the orbital outpost. The revenue dedicated to the moon
and beyond, the White House explained in budget documents, would be used for “technology
investments … needed to enable sustained and affordable exploration endeavors.”
greatness” blowhards squealed. Aerospace executives, and their lobbyists,
fumed. Most importantly, the men and women who represent states with manned-spaceflight
facilities went, er, ballistic.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who shills so aggressively for NASA, the agency gave him a junket on
the shuttle flight that preceded the Challenger disaster, denounced “the
president’s green-eyeshade-wearing advisers.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the Marshall Space
Flight Center’s sugar daddy, whined that “this is the end of America’s
leadership in space.”
“We need to take this national to make sure the American people
understand we are giving up our leadership in human space flight,” caterwauled Rep.
Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district contains the Johnson Space Center.
“I don’t want to see a Chinese astronaut, a Russian astronaut, an Indian
astronaut or a Japanese astronaut walking around the moon before we get back
In the months that followed, NASA’s congressional patrons
pressed hard, and Obama backpedaled. Corporations, small and large, would continue
to compete for taxi rides and cargo runs to the ISS. But Constellation’s “Orion”
crew capsule wouldn’t be eliminated. Initially, it morphed into an escape pod
for the ISS, but was later designated the “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” (MPCV). Ares
V, the big booster, survived almost intact. It became the Space Launch System
(SLS), and would carry the MPCV to … well, somewhere.
Maybe an asteroid. Or the moon. Or Mars. Or Lagrange points.
The fight was vicious at times, but vote-grubbing fedpols got
their way. So did NASA’s too-cozy contractors. Constellation wasn’t canceled,
it was merely scaled back, to Constellation Lite. In the end, it was good
politics for the president. Obama does not have a prayer in Texas
and Alabama in 2012, but his reelection may hinge on winning Florida again. (In 2008, Obama’s margin of
victory in the state was less
than 3 percentage points.)
Now evidence is beginning to show that Constellation Lite will be
quite expensive. In August, a Booz Allen Hamilton review of the SLS, MPCV, and
a plan to improve launch infrastructure reached a predictable finding: No one knows
what the systems’ long-term price tag will be. The analysis found that NASA’s
figures were trustworthy in the “3-5 year budget horizon.” But “unjustified,
sometimes substantial, assumed future cost savings” made projections beyond the
period “optimistic.” Researchers concluded: “Due to procurement of items still
in development and large cost risks in the out years, NASA cannot have full
confidence in the estimates for long-term planning.”
And earlier this month, The
Wall Street Journal obtained an internal document that “illustrates the sticker
shock associated with NASA’s drive to push U.S. manned flights beyond the [ISS].”
NASA officials predict that accomplishing what Congress demands
of them, with an adjustment for inflation, “could cost as much as $57 billion
to deploy and use the proposed systems through 2025,” wrote reporter Andy
Pasztor. “Upgrading launch facilities and building additional spacecraft to
allow astronauts to land on the moon or an asteroid … could boost the total to
The private sector is making incremental, but nonetheless impressive
strides in rocketry, orbital habitats, and black-sky tourism. Yet in this supposed
era of “austerity,” Sunbelt-based legislative careerists and incumbent aerospace
contractors refuse to relinquish their unsustainable astro-empire.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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