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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Senate Boosts NASA Budget, But at What Cost?

By Phil Plait

As I wrote earlier in June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill for NASA’s funding, restoring quite a bit of money bizarrely taken out by the White House. The House then sent the bill to the Senate, which put together its own appropriations bill.

On June 5, the Senate passed its version. The good news is they maintained a lot of the restored budget. The details vary here and there, and I won’t worry about those; you can find details elsewhere.

What I want to point out—again—is how the Space Launch System is gumming up the works. SLS is supposed to be a heavy-lift rocket designed by NASA to replace the shuttles. I say “supposed to be” because I have been saying for quite some time that it is very likely to get bloated, over budget, and behind schedule. That’s a common circumstance for really big NASA projects (like the Space Station, the shuttle, Hubble, JWST, and others). NASA’s bureaucracy gets in the way, and as the dollar signs increase, Congress-critters start getting their own states and districts involved, muddying the situation further.

That’s apparently what’s happening here. As has been reported by several sources, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has put his thumb on the scale. He has added language to the Senate bill that will make it a lot harder for commercial space companies—like, say SpaceX—to launch humans into space. He’s basically adding a layer of government to the requirements for commercial companies, making them account for costs and pricing.

Oddly, this sort of accounting is already in place with contractors like Boeing—which, shockingly, is a big player with SLS, and which has a large plant in Alabama, Shelby’s home state—but is not in place in companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. This means that the newer startup companies will be put at a disadvantage against the older government contractors.

Bottom line: Shelby’s addition makes it easier for SLS to get built, and harder for commercial companies to build their own vehicles to send humans into space (and, importantly, can do it far, far cheaper than SLS can). That means we’ll have to rely on the Russians more for the time being. That’s something we really, really need to stop doing. They’re gouging us for rides to space, and their political situation isn’t exactly the most conducive for us right now.

As it stands right now, the first uncrewed test launch date for SLS is set for late 2017, with a crewed flight four years later; a long time from now. These things historically have rarely gotten off on time, too. SpaceX is far closer to having a working crewed vehicle, but if this budget goes through as written, it could mean we won’t have American rockets putting Americans in space again for several more years.

And worst of all, we still don’t have a clear and sustained purpose for SLS. Our government wants to spend billions upon billions of dollars on a rocket for no defined reason. It’s maddening.

This is getting so ridiculous that I’m starting to lean more and more toward an outright cancellation of SLS. It’s just too big and tempting a target for Congress members to avoid. President Obama canceled its predecessor, Constellation, because of cost overruns and scheduling slips. I still think it was the right thing to do; we’d have thrown billions at a rocket that we still wouldn’t have. SLS is seriously starting to feel like it’s slipping into that same groove. I’m not the only person to think so, either.

We’ve been facing this type of nonsense now for far too long. NASA needs to be exploring, but instead we have to rely on another country just to get people into low Earth orbit … and this is four decades after we sent humans to the Moon!

I’m starting to think we need to have a massive overhaul of how this whole system works; set up a way for there to be congressional oversight of NASA to keep costs and schedule in control, but not so much oversight that congressional (or White House) interference prevents progress as well. I have no idea how this might get done, but right now the way we’re doing things isn’t working. We take one step forward and two steps sideways.

NASA, Congress, and the White House need to sit down and work out a set of goals for the future, decide on a set of missions to take us there, and look at the rockets we have and will have over that timescale to accomplish it all. Off the top of my head, I’d suggest a base on the Moon, one on Mars, missions to near-Earth asteroids, and building a bigger space station capable of the kinds of things we wanted to do in the 1960s, making it a stepping-stone to the entire solar system.

I’ll take any or all of these, and we can do any or all of these if we could just free ourselves from aimless and visionless bureaucracy. Until then, our feet remain firmly mired in the mud.

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