D. Dowd Muska


Washington’s Spendthrift Space Cadets

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.”

“National 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 there.”

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 $62.5 billion.”

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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