Senate compromise may be setting up NASA for another failure

July 23, 2010 By Mark K. Matthews and Robert Block

Months of debate about NASA's future effectively ended Thursday when a key U.S. Senate panel unanimously approved a compromise plan with the White House that kills the Constellation moon-rocket program and sets NASA on an uncertain path toward building a new rocket.

But even as members of the Senate Appropriations Committee congratulated one another, top officials and space analysts warned that the government created by the compromise eventually could end up in NASA's scrap heap alongside other abandoned replacements for the space shuttle.

The plan orders NASA to build a heavy-lift rocket and capsule capable of reaching the by 2016. But it budgets less money for the new spacecraft -- about $11 billion during three years, with $3 billion next year -- than what the troubled Constellation program would have received. That -- plus the short deadline -- has set off alarms.

Days before the compromise was announced, Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told its two champions -- U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas -- that NASA could not finish the proposed new rocket before 2020, according to three sources present at the meetings.

When asked about the conversation, Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said the NASA officials were responding to lower dollar figures than what Congress ultimately approved. NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said it "would not be appropriate to discuss private conversations between NASA and members of Congress."

But requiring the rapid construction of a new spacecraft was critical in securing widespread political support -- even if the bill's supporters knew it would be an uphill climb for an agency with a reputation for busting budgets and deadlines.

"Getting to this point required so much hard work and many trade-offs," said Hutchison when the compromise was unveiled last week. The new launch system, she added, would "challenge the best minds at NASA to develop a system on an aggressive schedule."

Under the compromise, NASA must build a rocket that could lift payloads of at least 70 tons, including astronauts, to the station, which orbits about 200 miles above Earth. It also must be designed so it could evolve into a bigger rocket with a lifting capacity of 130 tons or more that could eventually attempt missions beyond low Earth orbit, such as trips to nearby asteroids.

As an added requirement, NASA engineers must do all they can to incorporate pieces of both the shuttle, due to retire next year, and the now-defunct Constellation program. And in a nod to Utah legislators -- who represent the solid rocket motor company ATK -- the bill all but requires NASA to continue testing solid rocket motors, even if they are not guaranteed a place in the spacecraft's final design.

With so many conditions, experts have raised doubts about the project's viability.

"I am afraid that when they start to design it, the design will run into trouble and the next administration down the road will say, 'This doesn't make sense; let's put a hold on it,' and it will be (another) failure ... and that would be terrible," said John Grunsfeld, a former NASA chief scientist and a five-time astronaut who served on three missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope. He also warned that using an expendable heavy-lift rocket to get to the space station would be "very costly to operate."

"You can't do any of this on the cheap. You can't rush it," added Cristina Chaplain, a veteran space analyst for the Government Accountability Office. "There are challenges in completing any large projects on time and on budget for a variety of reasons."

Since 1990, the GAO has designated NASA as "high risk" because of "persistent cost growth and schedule slippage in the majority of its major projects," according to the agency's most recent report on the topic.

The area of human spaceflight has been especially problematic. The most recent casualty is Constellation, which cost at least $9 billion during five years and was canceled because a presidential space panel concluded that it had no chance of meeting its goal of a moon landing by 2020.

Constellation joins a growing list of dead-end NASA projects, including the X-33, a single-stage spacecraft canceled in 2001 after five years and $1.3 billion, and the Space Launch Initiative, an effort to develop a shuttle replacement that was also abandoned earlier this decade.

Chaplain blamed NASA's long history of "overpromising" capability and "underestimating" cost, but other experts said Congress shares in the fault. Overhanging both explanations is the simple fact that rocket science is hard and needs the appropriate time and funding to work.

"Even if you spend 90 percent (of what's necessary) to build a rocket, you end up with nothing," said space historian Howard McCurdy of American University. "You can do that (to make it work) politically, but the rocket is going to end up in the ocean."

Like many federal programs, he said, NASA is bedeviled by lawmakers looking for jobs in their home states and companies looking after their bottom line.

"I think NASA gets nibbled to death by lots of people," McCurdy said.

Besides money for the new rocket, the compromise also spends about $1.5 billion during three years to help commercial companies build their own to reach the station -- as President Barack Obama has advocated -- and adds a third shuttle flight in mid-2011 to the two remaining flights now scheduled. It would also include about $1.3 billion during three years for "modernization" of Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base launch facilities.

As it stands, the path for the NASA compromise to become law runs through must-pass spending bills that likely will come up for votes later this year. There remains an outside chance that it could be scuttled by dissenters in the House, but the combined support of the White House and Senate means compromise backers have the heavy advantage when dealing with House leaders.

Still, the long odds didn't prevent members of the House Science and Technology committee from pushing their own vision for NASA on Thursday.

The House plan -- which supporters said could come up for a floor vote next week -- essentially tries to revive Constellation while slashing funding for commercial-rocket development. It budgets more than $4.1 billion for a restructured Constellation program in 2011.

"(In the past) we haven't given NASA the resources they need to do the missions we ask them to do. That's why I think our bill is the better bill," said U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas. "You have to make tough choices."

Explore further: US Senate votes to extend space shuttle program


Related Stories

US Senate votes to extend space shuttle program

July 16, 2010

A key Senate panel approved Thursday a 2011 budget proposal for the US space agency NASA that would extend the space shuttle program in a compromise from the Obama administration's demands.

NASA: Good night moon, hello new rocket technology

February 1, 2010

(AP) -- President Barack Obama is redirecting America's space program, killing NASA's $100 billion plans to return astronauts to the moon and using much of that money for new rocket technology research.

NASA to get more money, but must scratch moon plan

January 28, 2010

(AP) -- President Barack Obama is essentially grounding efforts to return astronauts to the moon and instead is sending NASA in new directions with roughly $6 billion more, according to officials familiar with the plans.

Funding threatens US return to moon by 2020

June 18, 2009

US ambitions of returning to the moon by 2020 and then heading to Mars risk being grounded because of "unrealistic" funds allocated to NASA, said Senator Bill Nelson, a former space shuttle astronaut.

Obama's NASA plans may be in trouble

May 7, 2010

President Barack Obama's grand plans for NASA appear in big trouble. Three weeks after Obama told an audience at Kennedy Space Center that he wants to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, Congress remains unconvinced, ...

Recommended for you

No alien 'signals' from cigar-shaped asteroid: researchers

December 14, 2017

No alien signals have been detected from an interstellar, cigar-shaped space rock discovered travelling through our Solar System in October, researchers listening for evidence of extraterrestrial technology said Thursday.

Dawn of a galactic collision

December 14, 2017

A riot of colour and light dances through this peculiarly shaped galaxy, NGC 5256. Its smoke-like plumes are flung out in all directions and the bright core illuminates the chaotic regions of gas and dust swirling through ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (1) Jul 23, 2010
Delete this requirement: "including astronauts" and it becomes possible. Several companies, including those participating in COTS, are within 3-4 years of being able to launch people into LEO. The "big dumb" booster does not need to be man-rated.
not rated yet Jul 23, 2010
And now we have pork barrel engineering (or did I only just notice?)
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 23, 2010
Wait, I thought the main aim of NASA is to make Muslim countries feel good about themselves, not to put Americans into space.
not rated yet Jul 23, 2010
I thought the main aim of NASA is to make Muslim countries feel good about themselves, not to put Americans into space.
No, that's the pentagon and that's where the money goes first.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2010
We Can't Go Back

Nuclear energy was developed and used to decide the victor of World War II. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established to continue the development of nuclear energy after the war ended.

NASA was established in 1958 in response to the Sputnik satellite launched by the USSR in 1957. Thus ended the era when world governments focused on developing nuclear energy, and thus started the race to explore space.

That race ended quietly in 1989 when the two competing world governments made peace and the Berlin Wall came down.

Politicians and world leaders then chose to focus the attention of the scientific community on climate change.

World leaders could and did use science as a tool to protect their national interests, but they overstepped their powers and foolishly tried to control the outcome of climate studies.

The climate scandals left no reputable organization to replace AEC and NASA.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.