Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Pork, Politics and Space Programs

Or : how to waste money without really trying.

From the Orlando Sentinel
Thanks to congressional inaction, NASA must continue to fund its defunct Ares I rocket program until March — a requirement that will cost the agency nearly $500 million at a time when NASA is struggling with the expensive task of replacing the space shuttle.
What's more, constraints on NASA spending resulting from congressional budget gridlock will delay the scheduled start this year of a program to modernize aging facilities at Kennedy Space Center to transform it into a "21st-century spaceport." It's now not clear when the program will begin.

The odd scenario, in which NASA is throwing money at a canceled rocket program but can't fund a modernization program, is because of several twists in the legislative process that started a year ago and came to a head this month.

At the root of the problem is a 70-word sentence inserted into the 2010 budget — by lawmakers seeking to protect Ares I jobs in their home states — that bars NASA from shutting down the program until Congress passed a new budget a year later.

That should have happened before the Oct. 1 start of the federal fiscal year.

But Congress never passed a 2011 budget and instead voted this month to extend the 2010 budget until March — so NASA still must abide by the 2010 language.
According to NASA, the agency has been spending an average of $95 million a month on Ares I. At that rate, it will spend about $475 million from Oct. 1 to March 4 — the period covered by the current budget extension.

The language that keeps Constellation going was inserted into the 2010 budget last year by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who sought to protect the program and Ares jobs at Marshall Space Flight Center in his home state.
But whatever NASA wants to do, it will have less money than expected.

A budget extension at the 2010 rate of $18.7 billion means the agency will lose about $300 million in extra spending proposed by the White House — and possibly more if Congress cuts the budget further in March.

NASA Chief Financial Office Elizabeth Robinson said at a Senate hearing this month that NASA would deal with cuts by taking money from the effort to modernize Kennedy Space Center.
The one thing that would be required no matter what they decide to do in future.

The US still has the most advanced space technology in the world. But while the only political goal is to spread the pork, rather than actually send anything into space, the engineers and scientists are hamstrung. I imagine that morale must be pretty close to rock-bottom by now in most places. The ones where they know what they're doing is scheduled to be cancelled soon.


Anonymous said...

Another sign that the USA is no longer going to be the major global power that it was. Spade is the future.-

Lauren G

Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant SPACE

Anonymous said...


You may have had it right the first time: "Spade is the future. Start shovelling."


cornince said...

That is just how the U.S. government is designed. I think it's extremely dysfunctional, and I think it would be a massive improvement were the U.S. to adopt a semi-presidential system like France.

Rob said...

I think that the days are gone when one country can do it alone on big science projects. Look at the LHC; it was only possible thanks to the collaboration between many countries - including Australia. It cost billions of dollars (too much for one nation) but the potential scientific discoveries - e.g. Higgs, supersymmetry, and even extra dimensions - would be mind-blowing. Not to mention the engineering benefits that have already been reaped.

Let's face it, the U.S is staring down an economic abyss after fighting costly and useless wars - but, in the field of space exploration, it probably has the world's best technical know-how. This means that any meaningful space program would need international cooperation. We're already seeing such cooperation with things like the planned Square Kilometre Array Telescope. That's the way of the future :)