In the latest NASA authorization bill, a cabal of pork-seeking congressmen complain that too much money is going into the program that will end America’s manned space gap—NASA’s Commercial Crew program. America has not been able to get its citizens into space on American vehicles for four years. Instead, America pays the Russians to take its astronauts to the International Space Station on Soyuz rockets at a cost of over $70 million per round-trip ticket. Thanks to a Congressional and Senatorial lobby that sees America’s space budget as a source of pork, America is funneling a total of $4 billion into Vladimir Putin’s space industry. And that’s the way Congress apparently wants to keep it.
Since 2009, the Obama Administration has supported a program to produce “space taxis,” advanced American vehicles that will give US astronauts access to space on American vehicles for the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. The space taxi effort is the Commercial Crew Program. Under the Commercial Crew program, NASA has contracted with Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build vehicles that can carry humans to orbit by the end of 2017.
But that displeases the space pork lobby. It wants to reduce the space taxi funding. The Sense of Congress resolution that accompanies the new NASA authorization bill complains that, “the budgetary assumptions used by the Administration in its planning for the Commercial Crew Program have consistently assumed significantly higher funding levels than have been authorized and appropriated by Congress.” In other words, the space pork lobby wants to reduce space taxi funding. It wants to cut the Commercial Crew money supply.
NASA’s CFO, David P. Radzanowski, explains that a cut of this kind could extend America’s space gap and funnel more money to the Russians. He says, “If Congress does not fund the $1.244 billion of milestones that are planned for SpaceX and Boeing, we cannot fund them, and therefore we will have to renegotiate those contracts. As a result, we will not be able to certify those services by the end of 2017.”
In addition, NASA’s Inspector General Paul Martin warns that the space pork cabal’s reduction of the Commercial Crew budget has already delayed America’s manned access to space from 2015 to 2017. Further cuts could push access back even farther.
What’s more, the space pork lobby wants to cut SpaceX out of the space taxi program. It has tried in the past to tie SpaceX up in red tape, but in this budget authorization, the desire to scissor SpaceX out of the picture shows up in the following phrase:
“The objective of the Administration’s Commercial Crew Program shall be to assist the development of at least one crew transportation system to carry Administration astronauts safely, reliably, and affordably to and from the International Space Station and to serve as an emergency crew rescue vehicle as soon as practicable within the funding levels authorized.”
The irony is that of the three companies competing for Commercial Crew dollars—Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX—SpaceX is the closest to having a capsule that can take passengers to space. It’s the only competitor with a capsule, the Dragon V2, that can land on legs using retro-rockets. It’s the capsule best equipped to act “as an emergency crew rescue vehicle.” And, because it’s reusable, the Dragon V2 can make access to space for humans inexpensive.
Why does the space pork lobby insist on crippling America’s manned (and womanned) access to space? To protect what is known by space insiders as The Rocket To Nowhere, the Frankenrocket, and the Senate Launch System. Formally called the Space Launch System, the SLS, this heavy lift rocket will cost $2 billion per flight (versus less than $300 million for a comparable SpaceX rocket launch). It will only be able to fly once every two years. And it will be based on 50 year old technology. Worse, even if it stays on schedule (it won’t) the SLS is not slated to take Americans into space until 2022, seven years from now.
So why does the space pork cabal insist on holding our space program—yours and mine—hostage to its pet rocket? Why has it cut down the Commercial Crew budget for four years in a row? To protect jobs. Jobs in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Utah, and Colorado.
Jobs at any cost, including the cost of America’s standing in the space race with China, India, and Russia. And including the cost of America’s hopes and dreams.