Tuesday, 21 September 2010

NASA as a Political Football

From the Washington Post :
As never before, NASA watchers say, an agency that generally is funded and directed through White House and congressional consensus has become the focus of a brutal, potentially crippling and politically topsy-turvy battle for control that is likely to come to a head next week.

NASA politics have always defied labels. But now a series of unlikely alliances and negotiating positions have left Congress in an especially difficult bind, with the distinct possibility that the fiscal year will end this month without an approved 2011 budget. The result, congressional negotiators and observers say, would be layoffs and a very unpredictable agency future.
*SIGH* Predictable, and predicted. Disappointing, nonetheless.
The House bill awaiting action would give twice as much money to Russia for transporting astronauts and cargo to the space station as it would give to U.S. companies working to build that capacity.

The Senate did pass a compromise authorization NASA bill before the August recess that provided far more funds for commercial spaceflight, although it still halved Obama's request. The bill directed the agency to instead immediately build a new heavy-lift rocket that can take astronauts to deep space by early 2017.

In doing so, it required the agency to design the project in a way that will benefit certain aggrieved companies and NASA centers
It's all about the Pork, you see. Spaceflight? That's secondary, if considered at all.

To see how un-seriously they're treating serious matters, there's this from Rand Simberg at AOLNews:
...Much of the funds meant to procure Russian space hardware instead went to dachas (country houses), Mercedes, yachts and Cayman Islands bank accounts of corrupt Russian officials, while the underpaid scientists and engineers continued to supply the Iranians with technical assistance and critical technologies such as guidance systems.

Frustrated, Congress passed, and the president signed, in the late '90s the Iran Nonproliferation Act, which placed sanctions on countries engaging in such technical assistance. The act was amended in the past decade to expand its reach beyond Iran and include North Korea and Syria as well. (It is now called the Iran/North-Korea/Syria Nonproliferation Act, or INKSNA).

Under the act, it is illegal for the federal government to purchase goods or services from the Russians as long as they continue to engage in such activities. Unfortunately, we have been dependent on the Russians for Soyuz capsules docked to the ISS as lifeboats ever since it became permanently crewed early in the decade, and when the shuttle retires next year, Soyuz will be the only means to get our crews to and from it.

So how has NASA gotten around the law? First, by pretending that Russia isn't in violation of it, as it has attempted to maintain plausible deniability for years on the issue. Unfortunately, almost a year ago, this became more difficult.
Because the Russians are blatantly selling advanced military hardware to Iran. Hardware whose development costs have been indirectly funded by the US taxpayer.

In many ways, this is the most dysfunctional US Congress and Presidency in living memory. Not least in Space Policy.

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