It really never fails to suprise me how much meddling the American congress does in NASA’s affairs, given the fact that their budget takes up a whopping 0.58% of total US government spending. The past 3 decades have seen many of NASA’s great ideas turned on their heads either due to horrible design by committee or from being given directives from people who have absolutlely zero aerospace knowledge. More recently though I grew to apperciate the new direction that Obama had laid out for NASA because, unlike Bush’s vision for space exploration, it was achievable and would lay the groundwork for future missions that would reach further into space than ever before. It seems however that NASA is still struggling to shrug off some of the pork barrel politics that had plagued it in the past and which are now threatening to ruin NASA’s future completely.
Specifically there’s a recent piece of news that tells us that the senate sub-committee in charge of NASA oversight is preparing a bill to derail Obama’s new vision for space:
Though the bill effectively cancels the delayed and over-budget Constellation moon-rocket program — as Obama requested in his NASA budget — it would repurpose that money to build a new heavy-lift rocket while largely ignoring the president’s call to fund new space-faring technology and commercial rockets that would send humans into space.
But his dramatic overhaul of the human-spaceflight program has faced fierce resistance on Capitol Hill, especially from lawmakers in states with other NASA centers or with big NASA contracts like Utah, where the solid-rocket motor that would have powered Constellation’s Ares rockets is manufactured.
The Senate bill, which if passed would lay out the direction of the space program for the next three years, would revive the fortunes of Utah’s solid-rocket maker, ATK, by requiring NASA to keep using its solid-rocket motors for a new heavy-lift rocket.
Alright I can understand that it would be hard for any congress critter to not fight for the jobs of his constituents but realistically the writing has been on the wall for sometime for these folk. The retirement of the shuttles and the infrastructure they rely on was announced over 5 years ago but of course due to the fact that the end date was well outside the current election term there was little resistance to it then. Now that we’re halfway through the current term (with the scheduled end looking to be occuring just a year before the next election) dropping all those jobs that the shuttle program supports doesn’t look too good and they’re fighting it by any means necessary.
Realistically though it’s just an exercise in pork barrel politics. If you take a look at the shuttle’s components you’ll notice that they’re not all made in the same area. That’s fair enough, sometimes you just don’t have the infrastructure. However the reason behind it was pure politics as all of the districts surrounding the Kennedy Space Center wanted a piece of the shuttle pie. As a result the external tanks are made in New Orleans, SRBs in Utah and the Space Shuttle Main Engines in California¹ with each component having to be shipped over to be assembled at the KSC. It spreads the pork around a fair bit but the efficency of the NASA program suffers as a result.
There are of course those who are taking this as a signal that congress supports an alternative vision that a group of NASA engineers have proposed, called DIRECT. Now I’ve always cast a skeptical eye over the DIRECT proposal as whilst it does take advantage of a lot of current infrastructure and reduces the launch gap considerably (on paper) it’s never really got any official traction. Additionally it keeps NASA in the business of designing rockets to use for the rather rudimentary activities that are now being taken over by private space organisations. Thus whilst there might be significant cost savings in comparison to the Ares series of rockets they still pale in comparison to commerical offerings. I still support the idea of NASA developing a new heavy lift launch system solely because it has no current commerical application, but while DIRECT does give this as an option it fails to get away from the inefficencies that plague the shuttle program (namely the giant standing army of people).
Hopefully this proposal doesn’t get any traction as it would just ruin the solid plan that Obama had laid down for the future of humanity in space. It’s time for NASA to break the chains that have been holding it back for so long handing over some of its capabilities to those who can do it cheaper, safer and faster. Only then can NASA hope to return to the days of being a pioneer in space rather than languishing as the glorified taxi service to the ISS, as many would have it be.
¹I can’t 100% guarantee the build location of the SSMEs as Rocketdyne has several locations and I can’t seem to find an official source for their build location. As far as I can tell however, they’re built somewhere different again from New Orleans or Utah.