Congressional Space

The U.S. Congress has gotten almost nothing done in almost seven months. From the time that the whistle blower complaint came to light around August of 2019, through to the beginnings of the Covid-19 crisis, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, of both political parties, have been engaged in little more than positioning for the 2020 election. The impeachment effort was undertaken as a purely partisan political activity…how could it have been anything else? A President, however sleazy and unpopular, would have to actually shoot someone for his own party to vote to remove him from office in an election year…and everyone knew that all along. So the whole point the impeachment was to loosen some the support for vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection.

Now, with the Wuhan Virus sweeping the country and the economic crisis that came with it, the news media and Congress and with them the people have simply jumped from one case of target fixation to the other.

What a great opportunity for NASA to wrest control of the space exploration and exploitation agenda.

While NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) program sits on the ground gobbling up tax payer money and slogging through schedule slips, SpaceX, with cheap rockets that fly, has been eating away at the future SLS launch manifest one project at a time. Remember when I said here that the Falcon Heavy could not compete with the SLS because of the small Falcon 9 payload diameter? Well, the United States Air Force likes Falcon Heavy but needs it to be able to carry larger diameter spacecraft, so a wider payload fairing is being developed. Now, don’t get me wrong, design-wise the Falcon Heavy really still doesn’t measure up to the SLS in overall payload size or throw weight, and it never will. However, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush…and in this case it’s two birds that can fly versus one that can’t.

For years, Congress wanted the SLS to fly cargo and crew to the International Space Station, to which NASA pretty much replied, “You look so cute when you say that.” NASA had other plans for low Earth orbit that wouldn’t eat up the whole budget, keep the research schedule slaved to routine Congressional politics, and keep us going in circles for yet another 50 years.

Then there’s Mars. That effort looks more and more like just a PR stunt, otherwise there’d be a multinational research station on the surface of that planet today. The people think that Mars is sexy, and Congress thinks that the SLS is the only rocket that can carry people there. The truth is, SLS with Orion can’t even take people to the surface of the Moon. SLS is still smaller than the Saturn IV and the planned Artemis Moon hardware is larger than that of Apollo. If Moon shots are like running to the corner store and back for ice cream, Mars is a month-long camping trip to a different country. Orion, the spacecraft launched by SLS that they’ve built to carry humans through space, is a bit cramped for the one or two year-long round trip to Mars and back and cannot even land anywhere except Earth’s oceans…SLS/Orion alone were never designed nor intended for crewed missions to the surface of anywhere without building another spacecraft. While large Interplanetary robotic missions could work well with SLS, they also need affordability to even get off of the drawing boards and SLS launches cost a half a billion a shot. Spacecraft also get more expensive as they sit around waiting for a ride that currently has never flown and keeps getting pushed back year after year.

The concept behind the Lunar Orbital platform / Gateway (LOP/G) is short-term (10-15 years) lunar studies while constructing a spacecraft to fly to Mars. Along the way they’d trial the new technology that is needed for the longer trip to the Red Planet to assure their reliability over the period of time that Mars missions would take. I once thought that the LOP/G was sold to Congress as job security for SLS, but SLS is running very late and the Trump Administration’s has mandated that the boots on the ground portion of the Lunar effort happens in front of the program, by 2024…even if they have to fly it without SLS. That stage of the process has been named Artemis. NASA has since worked to use Artemis as an accelerant for the entire Lunar exploration effort and in so doing has moved too fast for the overly polarized, Trump-fixated and dysfunctional Congress to keep up. Currently, the SLS will still fly the human transport portion of the plan…EVERYTHING else is in the process of being speedily contracted out to commercial and International partners. Basically, NASA and numerous space industry players from Old Space and New Space around the world have gotten together to do a Moon Shot with the intent of triggering a new space race, but by the time SLS arrives at the party most of the beer will already be drunk.

The Republican-lead Senate has jumped on the both the Artemis bandwagon along with the effort to use commercial providers as needed to get it all done on time…probably because putting people on the moon would end the second term of the Trump Presidency with a bang that Republicans think they can ride well into the second half of the decade. The Democrat-lead House of Representatives of course wants to take the opposite tack, most likely for the same reason, and is finally trying to exert control over the process. Last week Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, lied and said that the delays in the Commercial Crew program are evidence that the fixed-price contracting model of the commercial approach to spaceflight would take longer and cost more than the cost-plus model for getting to the Moon. She says that the Lunar lander should be government-owned like the SLS, built and operated on cost-plus contracts like SLS, and launched on SLS.

“I am troubled that NASA has decided to ignore congressional intent and instead press forward with Human Landing System awards to try to meet an arbitrary 2024 lunar landing deadline.

“As the Apollo program showed us, getting to the Moon and back safely is hard.  The multi-year delays and difficulties experienced by the companies of NASA’s taxpayer-funded Commercial Crew program—a program with the far less ambitious goal of just getting NASA astronauts back to low Earth orbit—make clear to me that we should not be trying to privatize America’s Moon-Mars program, especially when at the end of the day American taxpayers—not the private companies—are going to wind up paying the lion’s share of the costs.  I want our Nation to pursue the inspiring goals of returning to the Moon and then heading to Mars, but we need to do it sensibly and safely while we also protect the interests of the tax paying public.”

Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

Really, Bernice? NASA’s Orion spacecraft is ready to fly today, but it can’t fly to the Moon or the ISS or anywhere else on SLS right now because paper rockets don’t fly anything anywhere. Not only does anything that has to fly on SLS risk not keeping a schedule…but any endeavor that pays more money to delay actual flight will do exactly that…as they always have. Since most of the expenses are fixed from year to year, a delay on any part of a complex effort that pushes back the schedule delays and adds to the expense of all of it. In fact, it’s a dang freaking good thing that NASA laughed at you losers when you wanted to use Orion to replace the Space Shuttle. Relations with Russia continue to deteriorate, and if it weren’t for the upcoming Commercial Crew operational flights we’d be looking at another two years or more of Soyuz rides just to get crew to OUR space station in low Earth orbit. As for expense, Eddie, if you think that anything built commercially comes anywhere near the cost of things built on the cost-plus system like SLS, then you need to throw away that Democrat calculator thy gave you and get one that does actual math.

As NASA forges ahead with private partnerships in its plan to ride the “Moon by 2024 or bust” wagon all the way to a sustainable Lunar presence going into second half of the decade, Congress remains too dysfunctional to even work together on a full budget. Government can no longer mandate space progress that allows Texas and a small hand full of other states to loot the human spaceflight effort anymore, in large part because the lower cost of commercial ownership and fixed-price contracts means that some day very, very soon space exploration won’t even need help from Government and its shifting political whims.

Thank you, Honorable Ms Johnson, for having partnered with Senate Republicans in demonstrating why Congressional irrelevance is the best thing that ever happened to America’s space program.

~ by Bill Housley on May 8, 2020.

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