August 08, 2013
A member of
the National Space Society’s board of directors dubbed it the “Monster Cost
Pork Rocket to Nowhere.”
director emeritus of the Planetary Society predicts that it “will become NASA’s
albatross, potentially blocking space exploration for decades.”
A former top
NASA bureaucrat thinks it “has no mission today” and will “not be needed for
some 30 years, and perhaps not even then.”
It’s the Space Launch System (SLS), the
poster boondoggle for why the federal government shouldn’t be allowed to have rockets.
The SLS emerged
from the rubble of George W. Bush’s “Vision for
Space Exploration.” In 2004, the 43rd president doubled down on his
plan to return to the moon “to stay,” followed by a mission to Mars. President
Obama, in a rare display of fiscal restraint, disdained his predecessor’s dreams.
With rising costs and slipped deadlines, “Apollo on steroids” was a loser.
But the White
House didn’t muster enough political capital to kill every component of Bush’s
scheme. Congresscritters from states with large space workforces -- primarily Texas, Alabama, and Florida -- know how to
deliver for their astro-constituents. Enacted in 2010, Public
Law 111-267 required that NASA “develop a Space Launch System as a
follow-on to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions
of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States
to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly
So Ares V, Bush’s planned
heavy-lift rocket, transmogrified into the SLS. With trips to the moon and Mars
canceled, it had no clear purpose. But the shuttle was being retired, and there
were thousands of votes -- er, “jobs” -- to be saved.
In the three
years since Sun Belt porksters imposed the SLS mandate, skeptics’ gravest
concerns have been realized. It won’t meet its legal obligation for “operational
capability of the core elements … by December 31, 2016.” Its price tag is
likely to be appalling -- with an absurdly low projected flight rate, firing one
off will almost certainly cost more than launching
a space shuttle. Finally, despite White House lobbying, space enthusiasts
to the administration’s plan to use the behemoth to lasso an asteroid.
The SLS’s broad
opposition is the most striking facet of the vehicle’s pathetic saga. Aside
from fedpols, bureaucrats, and contractors, no
one supports the thing. Free-market activists perceive it as subsidized competition
for emerging launch-services providers. Space scientists are livid over the way
crewed missions frequently loot their fiefdom, and thus see the SLS as perpetuating
the “shortchanging” of astrophysics, heliophysics, Earth
observation, and solar-system probes. Moon (and Mars) zealots recognize that
the rocket will eat up funds that could be spent on less-ambitious,
more-realistic mission architecture, such as capsules, landers, and colonization
The SLS is an
all-around debacle, but don’t expect the river of revenue annually squandered
on it to dry up. Boeing, an inveterate
corporate-welfare queen, is the prime contractor for the rocket’s
core/avionics. ATK Aerospace Systems will built the boosters. Lockheed Martin
is manufacturing the
Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, to be perched atop the rocket. Add Rocketdyne,
Aerojet, Moog, L-3 Cincinnati Electronics, Northrop Grumman, Dynetics, and many
others to the list, and the SLS offers a reliable paycheck to thousands of workers
in California, Utah,
Mississippi, and Florida.
On August 1,
Space Flight Center trumpeted the successful completion of preliminary
design review, which found that “the design, associated production and ground
support plans for the SLS … are technically and programmatically capable of
fulfilling the launch vehicle’s mission objectives.” The rocket has passed a
key milestone, and congressional appropriators plan to give it billions of more
dollars for the fiscal year that starts October 1.
aerospace-industry veteran Rand Simberg, “is viewed by Congress as a jobs
program, rather than an agency charged with carrying out … space activities for
the benefit of the nation.” No expenditure better demonstrates the make-work
nature of the agency than the SLS.
The Rocket No One Wants survives, and you’ll grasp how the federal government actually
functions. Sorry, third-grade civics teachers, but few politicians and
bureaucrats care about “the people’s business.” Other than a handful of true
believers, most “public servants” treat their employment like a bust-out caper
-- get in, loot the place for everything you can carry off, and get out,
usually to a lucrative lobbying or consulting sinecure.
The scam’s so
sweet, it even works in space.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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