Congress, Get Your Hands Off NASA!

One thing that’s guaranteed to get me going is the US congress meddling around in NASA’s affairs. They have enough internal troubles as it is without congress getting involved and trying to force them in a certain direction. Sure I can understand that the US wants results for their money and therefore feels they should be able to control their activities but with them investing  only 0.55% of their total budget in the program you can see why I get all hot under the collar when they’re targeted for reductions in spending. In fact the US Defence Force’s spending on space exceeds that of NASA’s budget by a fair margin (it was $22 billion 3 years ago) which just makes it even more ludicrous the amount of meddling congress does in NASA’s affairs.

If you’re wondering what’s spurred this rant it was this particular piece of news that opened up the old wounds of congress sticking its nose in where its not wanted:

Of the $400 million in ARRA funds Congress designated for space exploration projects, NASA initially planned to spend $150 million on competitively awarded projects meant to seed the development of commercial space transportation systems capable of ferrying astronauts to low Earth orbit.

“These efforts are intended to foster entrepreneurial activity leading to job growth in engineering, analysis, design and research, and to economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created,” NASA explained in a commercial crew and cargo white paper it sent Congress in May.

But House and Senate lawmakers told NASA to reduce the amount for commercial crew and cargo development to $90 million.

NASA was fortunate enough to get a small piece of the stimulus pie (about $1 billion total) which it’s spent about half of so far. Much of that went to the Constellation program in the hopes to keep the development on track for a 2015 debut launch. The problem is however that even if they do make that deadline there’s still a 4 year gap where the US won’t have any capability to deliver astronauts to LEO, the ISS and beyond. There are 2 schools of thought as to how they’re going to bridge the gap: the first being for them to continue their arrangements with Russia using Soyuz (although they’re already tapped out) and the second using commercially available solutions. Congress it seems has decided that the second is not worth the money and the first is not particularly feasible.

Seriously, what were they thinking?

The COTS program was a brilliant idea and it has definitely help spur companies like SpaceX forward. Injecting additional cash into these companies would see the development of fully private manned spacecraft accelerated and would thus close the launch gap that NASA is doomed to suffer. I’m not exactly sure what the congress critters have in mind when it comes to NASA but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Their dealings with them, apart from the initial inception for the space race, have always been rather awkward and short sighted.

This also affects their involvement with the International Space Station. They’ve stated in the past that they’re not interested in continuing their support of the ISS past 2015 drastically reducing the ROI on the project (it was slated for 10 years at full functionality, retirement in 2015 would reduce that to 5). Russia however has said that they’re quite happy for the US to detach their modules as they’ll keep maintaining their sections of the craft. They have extensive experience in long term station maintenance so its no wonder they want to keep their investment for as long as possible. The US however seems willing to ditch all their investment in the project without further consideration.

The reason that this is such a big deal is that the other big partners in the ISS, namely the ESA and JAXA, have to rework their schedules in accordance with the US decisions. They’re just cargo services at the moment but even those sort of missions require extensive planning, you can’t just whip up a HTV or ATV in a couple weeks. In fact they’ve begun to put pressure on the US to make a decision about the matter, but it’s still all up in the air.

Really the heart of the problem here is the giant bureaucracy that plagues both NASA and the US congress. SpaceX has proven that they can develop a launch capability with a team of hundreds, not thousands. They’ve also demonstrated that they can recover from launch aborts in a matter of hours, not days. This can all be easily attributed to the fact that they run with a minimal set of red tape and congress’ decision to funnel money away from companies as capable as they are is just unfathomably stupid.

For the negligible expenditure that NASA costs the US I am always confounded by how many people still think its a waste of money. If it wasn’t for NASA you wouldn’t have GPS, satellite television and programmable pacemakers. It would be nice if congress could get their hands out of their business for a while so that NASA can properly define their objectives and hopefully get itself back on track. I’d also love to funnel another 1% of GDP into them in order to develop things like a moon base but I know that’s never going to happen.

Maybe I should start my own nation, with space rockets and SCIENCE. 😉

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