Pillage—then Burn

NASA Deputy Visits Blue Origin (201112080001HQ)

NASA Deputy Visits Blue Origin (201112080001HQ) (Photo credit: nasa hq photo)

Folks in Congress will attempt to cut into NASA’s CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) funds to find more money for the Space Launch System…if we’re smart, we won’t let them.

Commercial Crew is funded as a Space Act Agreement, instead of traditional government contracting (you remember, $100 for a hammer, $200 for a toilet seat?).  Space Act Agreements function in a manner very similar to a lot of the smaller technologies that end up on the Spinoff list every year.  NASA invests in ideas that they think are useful.  In the end the recipient of the money owns the item that they developed and NASA becomes just one of the customers for the goods and services developed.

SpaceX, for example, is participating in CCDev under a Space Act Agreement contract to develop an alternative crew escape system for their Dragon capsule.  Other human-rated capsules like Apollo and Soyuz use a tower structure with rocket engines on it which is attached to the nose of the capsule and is discarded after launch, but with Dragon, these engines are part of the capsule and therefore are reusable (and useful for other things…like maybe vertical landings).

The advantage of Space Act Agreements is that NASA invests money and expertise to partner with and help commercial enterprises based on the potential value of the technology.  With traditional contracted procurement, Congressfolk set things up to “bring home the bacon” (usually spelt with lots of dollar signs) for their own constituent states.  They often don’t really care how much money is spent, so long as it is spent in certain specific areas of the country.  Engineering, fair competition, innovation…all that gets thrown to the wayside in exchange for power.  NASA owns everything that it pays for in this way, and the contractor and NASA become joined at the hip for support for their product.  The company never has to worry about competition and NASA has a large, ongoing investment that they then have to continually maintain and justify.

Furthermore, the traditionally contracted Space Launch System (translate: way huge NASA rocket) and Orion (translate: way cool capsule for that rocket) will cost around 2 Billion and 1 Billion respectively per year, while CCDev shifts around…between about 50 and 150 Million per year.  So a 50% cut out of CCDev to feed SLS and Orion only adds around 2.5% to their budgets.  Don’t get me started on the operation costs once these spacecraft are built.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Orion, and I think I like SLS, but these programs are so disproportionately sized against CCDev so as to make a crippling cut for the one a mere hors d’oeuvre for the other.  Anyone who can see the numbers can see it.  The smaller companies whose projects are supported by CCDev are not a threat to the Congressional cash cows’ budgets, they are potentially a threat to their existence and the easiest way to get rid of them is to cut them out of existence under a misbegotten claim that those cuts help to boost SLS.  Let us not forget that SLS and Orion will not serve to resupply and re-crew the International Space Station, their operation costs are far and beyond to high to do that.  Their designs, budgets, and launch schedule are more intended for deep-space missions to the moon and beyond.  Also, SLS will not be in service before the CCDev projects, and a paltry 2.5% increase in the SLS budget won’t change that.  However, some of the projects working under CCDev could be lost or critically delayed by further cuts, which in turn would further extend our reliance on foreign spacecraft to shuttle our Astronauts to and from the ISS.  It could also kill off some of the competition which is at the very heart of the cost-savings that CCDev is trying to nurture.

So when you hear a congressperson (or their lackies) whine about Commercial Crew and how expensive it is, understand that what they really mean is that it is expensive to specific special interests who fund their campaigns and who will not be able to price compete in the fair market environment that Commercial Crew will help put into place.

Thank you, Howard Taylor, for inspiring the title of this blog post in your Schlock Mercenary comic series.

On a final and unrelated note, here is this weekend’s SpaceVidCast.  The topic is “Why should we invest in Space and Science?”  A sub topic, and a point of debate between the commentators, here is NASA Spinoffs…one of my favorite space topics.

Ben, if your reading this, search this blog for my articles on Spinoffs, there are three or four.  I hope I can turn you away from the dark side.  😉

~ by Bill Housley on March 26, 2012.

2 Responses to “Pillage—then Burn”

  1. I will take a peek. To clarify though, I am not saying spinoffs are bad, I am saying that they are not a good reason to justify cost. A program should be able to stand on its own merit.

    • Then what was the direct merit of the Apollo program? The Saturn V was a staggeringly expensive rocket. While we’re at it, what about SkyLab? These programs were only first steps, in a time of very expensive $/lb. The space shuttle did lots of great science, and helped produce the ISS, but was it all worth the high turnaround cost without factoring in spinoffs? I don’t think so.
      Here’s the thing. Most space ventures only support more space ventures, with no benefit for the common man…until you include spinoffs. You cannot answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” without spinoffs, but with them, it all becomes a no-brainer because the ripple effect is huge.
      Now, some of the spinoffs are a bit of a stretch I’ll admit. However there are a few really big ones that change our lives dramatically, which bipassed the normal innovation path almost as if they were a gift from space aliens and which, even individually, justify every penny ever spent on NASA.

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