D. Dowd Muska


Rocketry and Advanced Political Science

August 08, 2013

A member of the National Space Society’s board of directors dubbed it the “Monster Cost Pork Rocket to Nowhere.”

The executive 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. (Nuclear-tipped ICBMs don’t count.)

The SLS emerged from the rubble of George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration.” In 2004, the 43rd president doubled down on his father’s flopped 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 strategic region.”

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 are indifferent 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 habs.

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, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

On August 1, the Marshall 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.

“NASA,” wrote 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.

Understand why 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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