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If you’re the Federal government, and you’re doing one thing right, kill it!

May 13, 2012

I can only see one reason for the House Appropriations Committee’s push for NASA to “downselect” the number of companies building private spacecraft: pork barrel politics.

I’ve not looked into the congresscritters who are pushing the restriction of NASA funding to one or two companies yet. I know that two of them are Florida Republicans, Bill Posey and Sandy Adams. I simply cannot fathom any other reason for Republicans in the House to make such an incredibly boneheaded decision!

Unfortunately, making boneheaded, short-sighted decisions is not just in the purview of Democrat congresscritters. Republicans seem to be just as willing and able to do so. House members are supposed to be more responsive to their electorates than Senators, decreed so by virtue of the structure laid out in the Constitution. I expect that Representatives would do what they can to make sure tax dollars going into the Federal government coffers come back to their constituents.

NOTE: OK, kids, go into the other room and watch TV or read a book. Preferably Robert A. Heinlein or L. Neil Smith, if possible. Anyway, the adults and I have to talk and I may get emotional and use colorful language.

But: after decades of harping that the space program would be in better hands if not a governmental agency, just when competitive approaches to access to orbit are beginning to bloom – they want to kill them, and return to the bad old days when NASA was the only game in town.

THIS IS COMPLETE AND UTTER STUPIDITY. IT MAKES NO SENSE ON ANY LEVEL EXCEPT A LEVEL OF SELFISHNESS THAT SHOULD NOT BE DEMONSTRATED BY ANY OF OUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES TO CONGRESS.

Mark my words, brothers and sisters: this has absolutely nothing to do with safety, “protection of government intellectual property” – whatever the Hell that means, and don’t get me started – good stewardship of our tax dollars, or any other high-handed phrases they can trot out.

It comes down to CONTROL. CONTROL OF YOUR TAX MONEY. That, folks, is really all the Federal government is about. Take the taxing power away  – or even restrict it – and the whole thing would wither and die in a fortnight. The fact remains that the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, THROUGH THE CONGRESS, CAN TAX US TO ANY EXTENT IT WISHES, AND WE ARE POWERLESS TO STOP IT. 

Do NOT give me crap about “we can fix it in the next election.” Look what this idiot has done to us in three and a half years. He flagrantly violates the Constitution and Federal law, and no one – even the Republicans in Congress – does anything about it. He browbeats the Supreme Court, threatens the Congress, and places blame for his own misguided ideas on everyone else, and we’re all supposed to be happy because he’s decided he’s for gay marriage. (Let’s not talk about how that announcement came right before a huge Hollywood fundraiser, because of course there is no connection.) And the alternative: I am not convinced Romney will be much better, sorry.

“But Stimps,” you say, “if you really believe in those crazy libertarian-leaning views of yours, why should you care? Shouldn’t those private companies be able to compete anyway with whatever company NASA might select?”

OK. Small words, short sentences. It’s not that complicated as to why that won’t work.

1. Government regulation. You can’t launch a rocket from US soil without jumping through about a million hoops first. Rockets are huge tanks of highly explosive chemicals, sheathed in metal; it’s supposed to be bad to launch one from, say, Indiana. The folks in Ohio where said failed rocket falls would be upset. So some regulation might be necessary, but – SpaceX wasn’t allowed to do their first Falcon launches from anywhere within the US, not even Florida. They had to go out to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. When the launch was scrubbed, they had to wait for another tanker of liquid oxygen to come from the US because they had lost too much of their supply to boiloff already. There are no sources of LOX on the Atoll, imagine that. The government put them so far away from the world that most people would have given up. Elon Musk, thank the Good Lord, is NOT most people. Still, the Federal regulations they had to go through to launch from Pad 40 at the Cape are incredible.

“But,” you say, “United Launch Alliance has to go through the same thing before they launch an Atlas or a Delta, right?”

OK…

2. There is no real competition if some companies get major favoritism from the government. United Launch Alliance is, actually, Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, dba as ULA. In 2005 SpaceX challenged them through antitrust laws as a monopoly. In 2006 the Pentagon and the Federal Trade Commission both gave ULA their blessing, of course. Case closed.

There was a big political reason for this, of course. It looked on the surface like privatization of launch services but the same people who had been doing the work for NASA now just got their paychecks from ULA instead of either the Feds or LockMart or Boeing. It is, in essence a shell company. Business as usual. And a bunch of folks working on the Florida Space Coast kept their jobs. Since this was during the wind-down of shuttle operations it was largely considered a Happy Thing. Unfortunately, SpaceX was right. ULA is the de facto only provider of orbital launch services to the US Government except for S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, which builds and launches the Soyuz and Progress vehicles to the ISS. We’re not pushing EADS to build a man-rated Ariane 5, are we? (Oh, well, yeah, the Liberty launcher, with ATK, but I don’t know if that counts, seeing as how they are kind of on the outs with NASA right now. This is one of those endeavors I’m sure the Congressional Committee would like to be killed first. Well, maybe second, after SpaceX.)

Besides, there are really only four markets for space launches right now: commercial satellites, government (military) satellites, manned and unmanned missions to support the International Space Station, and soon, hopefully, manned and unmanned support of the Bigelow Aerospace orbital habitats.

More commercial satellite launches worldwide now go to Arianespace than to ULA – we’ve already lost that market, big time. Energia is going launch a Soyuz from the Arianespace launch site in French Guiana soon.  (Kazakstan is getting to be increasingly difficult to work in if you are a Russian, I understand.) The US government should be encouraging US companies to compete with the French and the Russians, not throw roadblocks in their way.

We can – and should – enable a competitive market for the ISS supply missions. That’s what most of the commercial companies are working toward right now, of course. They all believe – or they wouldn’t be in this game – that eventually there will be a much larger market for manned space flights. I don’t think any of them are stupid enough to believe that they can make a profit from only ISS flights, especially if there are several vendors vying for the same business.

“OK, genius,” you add, “what about Manned Exploration of Our Solar System and Beyond?”

Elon Musk is thinking about that. He’s made sure the design of the Dragon will allow it to be used in all kinds of places, like manned landings on Mars. By tying three Falcon 9 cores together to create the Falcon Heavy he will have the most powerful launcher in the world. And sorry, NASA’s SLS is still a pipe dream, folks. I’ll believe it when I see it take off from Pad 39A.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

But SpaceX seems to be the only one thinking that far ahead. Boeing doesn’t count; the CST-100 has been built from the ground up as an ISS service vehicle. LockMart’s Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (AKA Orion) is designed to go to lunar orbit or to near-earth asteroids, so that’s a big plus for that vehicle. LockMart went ahead with development when the Orion program was officially cancelled by the Obama Administration, I think with a wink and a nod from NASA; since then they have received some NASA funding to continue construction of the test article and related stuff, like a simulator they build originally on their own dime. Lockheed-Martin is the largest defense contractor in the US; it’s not likely that any technology they create for the government is going to be shelved without them getting paid for it.

Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences, and SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada are all looking more at the sub-orbital and low earth orbit flight envelopes. I really don’t get what Blue Origin is trying to do; they are building a suborbital tourist vehicle, and then a totally separate ISS supply vehicle, and probably eventually a home-grown booster for it. But Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame is no dummy, and I figure he has a plan. He’s been very quiet about it, though – not necessarily a bad thing in a government-industrial-complex environment that is a lot like eighth grade in terms of gossip and favoritism. Orbital Sciences seems to be concentrating on the small satellite market. They’ve had some setbacks in launching their own home-grown liquid-fueled booster, which is needed to launch their Cygnus unmanned ISS supply craft. I really like the Dream Chaser lifting-body design SpaceDev is building; they are the only folks trying to orbit a truly reusable spaceplane. Their work is going slowly, thought, it seems.

Every single one of these approaches to manned orbital flight – Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, SpaceX, ATK/Astrium, Blue Origin, and SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada – have elements that sets it apart from the others. While all but SpaceDev are building “Apollo-like” conical vehicles, that decision makes sense. The research on such designs has been validated for decades and gives them all an easier path to building a successful vehicle. There are even several different approaches to emergency escape from a rocket in trouble, from a solid booster under the capsule to a ring of liquid-fueled engines to a traditional, Apollo-style escape tower.

Eventually, one or two of these companies might be the most successful and get the lion’s share of the orbital market. Even better, competition should bring the cost of lofting personnel and equipment to orbit far lower than the Shuttle could ever accomplish. Assisting what appear to be well-thought-out approaches with government grants makes sense only if the government is planning on being a major customer. If there was no ISS, and no NASA plans for further exploration, don’t fund ’em at all. In this case it is somewhat of an “if you build it, they will come” scenario: the commercial space market will grow – I think it will explode – when there is real low-cost access to space. We should have had this kind of situation thirty years ago, but we got the Shuttle – a massive government employment program with a marginally-performing spaceship in the middle. Government restriction to one or two competitors means a major boost for those companies and a major disadvantage to all others. That’s not how a capitalistic society should work. The fact that it doesn’t work properly in so many other areas because of the meddling of government is no reason to destroy one area where it does seem to be working. It should be seen as a model for the cooperation of the government with private industry, not as a drain on resources.

One other thing: We are talking about a half-billion dollars a year here. Maybe, through the development life of the programs, four or five billion. The average cost of flying the Shuttle for just one mission: $ 450 million!

In these days of multi-trillion-dollar social programs and continual debates about defense spending, throwing a half-billion a year at something that could lead to humanity really getting off this planet someday seems pretty small. And unbelievably petty. So there has to be something else behind it.

Oh, and what’s this nonsense from former Apollo astronauts backing the House Committee? Have they lost their senses? Or were they so tied up in the government/military-industrial complex themselves in the Apollo days to not see what’s going on now? Note that Buzz Aldrin is not among this group. Buzz is out there sometimes, but he for sure gets it.

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