What to do about Space, O what shall we do?

Administrator Bolden of NASA spoke on the subject the other day, and Rand Simberg has links to some responses. Briefly: there is no 2011 budget, so the administrator doesn’t really have any money, and the outlook for the future depends on getting the Congress, especially the Senate, to agree on something and fund it. That looks more unlikely by the minute.

The subject is “Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles”. Keith Cowing has information, including the text of the Senate act in question;  Marcia Smith has some excellent analysis, as usual;  and Jeff Foust weighs in with another look and some informed speculation. The pieces are long, and much of the material is eyes-glaze-over details, either technical or political; for those of us in the cheap seats, what it boils down to is that ambiguity and disagreement from Congress has Bolden tapdancing as best he can. The crux of the argument is whether to walk before running, go for the gold in one fell swoop, or do nothing at all. It would appear that Bolden would prefer the first, but he can’t afford to say so because it would offend a Congress that seems determined on the second — and the actual result may be the third.

Don’t look to the President for help. The classic image of organizational futility is herding cats. Herding Senators would make anyone long for the dear dead days of teaching kittehs close-order drill, but the President is supposed to at least try — and, as we have seen over the last two years, Obama refuses or is unable to do so. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, an elephant is a mouse designed by a Congress lacking any direction or coordination from the Executive, even in the sense of coming together against an Administration of the other political party.

What’s fairly clear is that the Congress, especially the Senate, has no concept whatever of a space program as a space program. Sen. Shelby of Alabama is determined to keep Marshall Space Center open and busy and Huntsville humming; the Mississippi delegation wants the same for Michoud, which dovetails perfectly with Orrin Hatch’s non-negotiable demand, held to firmly for thirty years, that whatever gets built will have solid rocket boosters made in Utah or nothing will get built; other Senators and Congresscritters are anxious to see the money spent where it can benefit their constituents.

Now mind you, none of them would actually object if something got sent into space, but that clearly isn’t the point. What they want is an HLPV (Heavy Lift Pork Vehicle) able to deliver the maximum amount of the bacon to their home Districts and States in the minimum amount of time. If the thing works, they can bask in the mellow glow of credit for it; if it doesn’t work, they can always crucify the incumbent NASA Administrator and a few of the engineers in the full view of the Press; either way the important parts, the SLS (Subsidy Launch System) and MPCV (Massive Pork and Cash Vehicle) programs will remain intact.

It’s no secret to my readers that I don’t think much of NASA. What may not be evident is that I am fully and sadly aware that they didn’t set out to be that way; nobody at NASA actually intended to build a moribund, top-heavy bureaucracy unable to do anything but spend money. If I were going to name a villain, my finger would point directly at Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Sen. Hatch is widely regarded as a “friend of the space program”, and that’s certainly true in the sense that he’s been willing to fight the likes of Walter Mondale to get something funded — but he has consistently extracted his own pound of schweinefleisch in the process, and the result has been consistently problematical. The technical problems it has caused were subject to workarounds; it’s been the attitude and concomitant procedures, the notion that “space” was just high-tech WPA with barrels of pork for all concerned, that eventually made successive NASA administrations throw up their hands and go with the flow.  With friends like that, nobody needs enemies.

The only good thing that might fall out of all this is encouragement of a genuine private space industry. DOD and NSA will still want to launch satellites, and if NASA  hasn’t the necessary the money will go to people who do. There’s trouble there on two fronts. First, Congress doesn’t like private space — the writers of the above pieces describe it as “suspicion”, but what it really is is the uncomfortable realization that if the Government isn’t handing out money the Congresscritters can’t channel it to their preferred beneficiaries, so as to assure a backflow of campaign contributions. The idea of just handing the Air Force money to launch a satellite and having the job sent out for bid, with consequent lack of a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by a beaming Congresscritter being lauded for openhanded generosity, makes their teeth itch. Second, the beneficiaries, if any, are likely to be other than Americans. Stalling and technical ineptitude have already resulted in Space Station supply being outsourced to the Russians, whose bolt-Ivan-in-the-can-and-set-it-off attitude toward development makes them more flexible and less expensive; more of the same is likely to happen if funding gets tight.

Two things are certain: if nobody with the prestige and political heft to get the Senators all in the same book (on the same page is hopeless) shows up, whatever happens will be expensive, slow, and suboptimal; second, if anything American gets built it will have Solid Rocket Boosters made by Thiokol in Utah — Sen. Hatch will see to that. The rest awaits events.