D. Dowd Muska


Where No Jobs Program Has Gone Before

March 26, 2015

“NASA has been talking about going to Mars in 20 years for more than 45 years now.”

- Bas Lansdorp, CEO, Mars One

No, no, no -- this time, it’s for real. Really. The federal government’s astro-bureaucracy has an “exploration strategy” with the ultimate goal of putting boots on the Red Planet.

In December, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William H. Gerstenmaier bragged to Congress about “foundational capabilities” that are “designed to pioneer multiple destinations in the solar system. Over time, we will move beyond conducting limited-duration forays and begin to lay the groundwork to establish outposts in cis-lunar space. From there, we can expand human presence in the solar system and to the surface of Mars, and utilize in situ resources as we extend the reach of humanity.”

NASA’s manned-spaceflight racket still includes the International Space Station, slated to continue orbiting until at least 2024. But the agency’s contractors, employees, congressional patrons, and enthusiasts are excited about a future beyond low-Earth orbit. Liberated from the vast expense of the cumbersome and deadly space shuttle, NASA is spending money on new toys.

The scheme has three components. The Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program will transform Kennedy Space Center “from a historically government-only launch complex to a spaceport bustling with activity involving government and commercial vehicles alike.” The Orion capsule, “built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before,” will “serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.” Finally, the Space Launch System (SLS), 321 feet tall and “the world’s most powerful rocket,” will “be safe, affordable, and sustainable,” and “continue America’s journey of discovery from the unique vantage point of space.”

Sounds impressive. Cooler than Apollo, even. But this is NASA. Reality isn’t cooperating.

In a new report, the NASA Office of Inspector General highlighted “issues” that “make it particularly challenging for the GSDO Program to complete its SLS and Orion-related work” by November 2018, the already-behind-schedule liftoff of “Exploration Mission 1,” an uncrewed flight test. The highest hurdle is that “much of GSDO’s work is heavily dependent on the final requirements of the SLS and Orion Programs, both of which are still in development.” (Software promises to be a nightmare.) A “common milestone date” is “a unique challenge to NASA,” because the agency has previously “used a single program structure to manage similar efforts such as the Apollo, Space Shuttle, and Constellation Programs.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) agrees. GSDO-Orion-SLS are “intrinsically linked” -- one cannot “satisfy NASA’s human exploration goals on its own, and cost overruns or delays in any single program, such as the significant funding and technical issues now facing the Orion program, will directly affect the others.” What’s needed, in congressional auditors’ judgement, is “a realistic integrated flight date guiding the efforts of all three programs, and meaningful reporting of progress.” Also AWOL are “complete life-cycle cost estimates for all three programs.”

Think NASA will rise to the occasion? Study history. The GAO has designated the agency’s “management of acquisitions as a high-risk area for more than two decades in view of persistent cost growth and schedule slippage in the majority of its major projects.” Instead of providing oversight and accountability, Congress shrugs. Fundamental reforms aren’t enacted. Broad, deep cuts are unthinkable. Programs are modified, restructured, or replaced. NASA’s army of aerospace workers/voters, cleverly diffused throughout the nation in dozens of states, survives.

Last spring, in a speech before the National Space Club Florida Committee, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana let the truth loose. With the shuttle gone, launching Orion on the SLS was his facility’s “only reason to exist.” No taxpayer support for manned spaceflight, no jobs for his thousands of employees: “If we do not have this capability to fly beyond our planet to explore on a government rocket -- something that is way too expensive for a commercial company to do -- we don’t need KSC anymore.”

Cabana’s ontological analysis was solid, but his assessment of private efforts to “expand human presence in the solar system” wasn’t. Several intriguing, subsidy-free, and possibly even viable attempts to mine asteroids and colonize Mars are underway.

Meanwhile, NASA plans to spend tens of billions of dollars on GSDO-Orion-SLS, before a single astronaut is launched. As exploration, it stinks. But as a tool for reelection, in states both red and blue, it’s worked for nearly half a century.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

# # # # #