Another Zimmerman op-ed: Congress Needs To Stop Pouring Money Into NASA’s Contractor Black Hole


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The Federalist yesterday published an op-ed by myself, focused entirely on the disaster that is big government space, both here and in Russia: Congress Needs To Stop Pouring Money Into NASA’s Contractor Black Hole. Key section, beginning with my description of SLS:

That’s approximately $40 billion over 20 years to launch a single manned mission, in an Apollo-style capsule on a Saturn-type rocket, reusing (supposedly to save money) already built shuttle engines and upgraded shuttle solid rocket boosters. I repeat: It will take NASA more than 20 years and $40 billion to fly one manned mission on SLS. And that’s not including the almost $18 billion NASA will spend to build the Orion capsule that will fly on that mission. Does no one in Congress and in the Trump administration see anything wrong here?

The story gets worse. In September, NASA released what it has dubbed its “National Space Exploration Campaign Report,” a 21-page document outlining the agency’s plans for deep space exploration through 2030, using SLS and Orion as well as a new NASA boondoggle to be built in lunar orbit, dubbed the Gateway. To label this road map a joke would be an insult to comedians everywhere. It lays out deadlines and budgets that are so vague and ambiguous that the project could take a half century, cost a trillion, and still have never launched.
Lawmakers Need to Wise Up to This Black Hole

The worse part of this sad story is that it appears Congress and the Trump administration are buying into it, pushed partly by heavy lobbying by the big space companies — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman — that hope to get the contracts to build it. It must be understood, however, that the companies advocating Gateway and all future big space projects using SLS and Orion don’t really care if anything ever actually gets built. Like SLS and Orion, what they really want is endless appropriations and cost-plus contracts that will funnel money to them endlessly, even as the launch dates of their projects recede forever into the future.

Nor are Congress and the bureaucracies in NASA and the executive branch interested in accomplishing anything. All Congress wants is to be able to claim they brought jobs to their districts and states, even if those jobs never accomplish anything at all and waste the taxpayers’ money. The bureaucrats merely want to perpetuate their jobs, building empires in fancy Washington offices while attending lots of conferences on the taxpayers’s dime.

None of them care about the national interest. Their goal is to line their pockets, regardless of the harm it does the United States. This must change. If Trump truly wants to empty the swamp, he has to stop funding such boondoggles. This does not mean that Americans should cede the future exploration of space to China and others, but we can clearly do this in a better and smarter way.

Read it all.

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7 comments

  • Spending like this is not a bug, it is a feature of the system. Congress has never really cared about space – it has always been about pouring money into their congressional districts and maybe beating the Russians at something. Of course, now that space is entrenched as a governments only endeavor, the private space industry will always struggle. If someone starts ruffling feathers in the status quo then we HAVE to shut them down. Smear campaigns against their character, block them using legislation, keep them from going anywhere.

    SpaceX broke through only because they had the resources and the timing was just right – but they still get treated pretty poorly by the establishment. Being a lesser known space company is grueling. Of course, a couple changes in the law and they will all be gone. Just look at how many roadblocks keep cropping up for commercial crew. “Can’t make SLS look too bad, ya know.”

    To top it off the public really isn’t too concerned with space. Never mind how much of modern life depends on space based assets. Just give me my cat videos and let me buy my Starbucks half caff decaf with a lemon twist and let me be.

  • Phill O

    Nice article Bob!

  • Edward

    Joe Latrell wrote: “Congress has never really cared about space

    This is demonstrated by the very slow development of space resources. Had they cared about space, they would have been upset that the Space Shuttle was such a disappointment in its cadence and cost. In the 1980s and 1990s, they would have insisted upon starting with smaller space stations launched far earlier and would have been appalled at the high cost of ISS, which drained resources away from other possible projects.

    Of course, now that space is entrenched as a governments only endeavor, the private space industry will always struggle.

    I’m not convinced that this is true, anymore. In the past, investors have avoided most private space endeavors because they would have competed with the government monopoly. A well known exception is communication satellites; the American government did not take over this industry. Currently, investors are finding several areas to do outside of the government’s monopoly, and it is also becoming a supplier of services for other previous monopolies.

    SpaceX’s launch service is now being purchased by the Air Force. NOAA is seriously investigating the use of privately collected data for weather service distribution. And famously NASA is purchasing unmanned cargo missions and soon manned transportation missions from private commercial companies.

    NASA and Congress seem willing to forgo future low Earth orbit space stations, because it looks like commercial companies (e.g. Bigelow, Axiom, and NanoRacks) are poised to fill that niche.

    At the instigation of the U.S. government, space is becoming less entrenched as a governments-only endeavor, and this seems to be the savior of commercial space.

    SpaceX broke through only because they had the resources and the timing was just right – but they still get treated pretty poorly by the establishment.

    I differ slightly on this point. Yes, they are being treated poorly, and the timing was right — perfect, even* — but they had something that Kistler Aerospace did not. SpaceX had figured out how to develop their technologies and hardware quickly and at low cost (as Robert noted in his essay, Falcon 9 was largely developed by the time it received its first COTS/CRS contract). That is what allowed them to succeed with such limited resources and why they are able to make a profit with such low price tags for their services. They do not have to charge a lot in order to make up for their development costs, and they do not have to spend more than they charge for their current development projects.

    Lower cost launches makes more space endeavors affordable. Projects that once were marginally affordable become profitable. This was the hypothesis driving an effort for lower cost launches in the 1990s, and BulgariaSat-1 provides proof of this concept.
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/spacex-to-launch-bulgarian-satellite-in-june-with-used-first-stage/

    Maxim Zayakov, chief executive of BulgariaSat, said the use of a reused first stage lowers the launch price and “makes it possible for smaller countries and companies to launch their own satellites.”

    I would say that SpaceX invented low-cost rapid development, but the United States had this capability in the early 1960s.

    To top it off the public really isn’t too concerned with space.

    Speaking of the 1960s, the public was excited about space, back then. They had seen the dreams of the 1950s turn into the achievable ideas of the 1960s. But then NASA’s monopoly on space became obvious, and investors shied away from most commercial space projects, including star rocket engineer Robert Truax’s proposal for a commercial rocket. As Congress’s tool, NASA did not work toward any of those dreams or ideas. Rather than being a tool of the American people, it was a tool for Congress, and the achievable ideas were abandoned.

    In the 1990s, several civilians became dissatisfied with the government monopoly’s slow pace and high expenses and attempted to break that monopoly. That was what Pegasus, VentureStar, Delta Clipper, the Ansari X-Prize, and Kistler were all about. Many of the commercial space endeavors of the 1990s failed,** mostly because of the entrenchment of government as the dictator of space.

    As long as government remains willing to allow commercial space to break its monopoly on space, We the People should be able to achieve the things that we want rather than settle for the things that government wants.

    The only advantage to Orion-SLS that I see is as a distraction for government from the competition of commercial space. But it is a high price to pay for such a distraction, assuming that a distraction is needed.

    * SpaceX survived only because the government monopoly chose to become a customer of commercial launch companies at just the right time. SpaceX did not have enough non-government customers to survive, at that time. This is an example of how the government monopoly caused the private space industry to struggle.

    ** The X-Prize spawned Virgin Galactic and New Shepard, two endeavors outside the government monopoly, but they do not have the low-cost rapid development finesse of SpaceX — they are doing things by brute force with billionaire funding. Pegasus did not fail — it also was outside the government monopoly — but it did not find as many customers as expected.

  • wodun

    While NASA should continue moving toward purchase of services from a competitive market, something the just go to the lunar surface people overlook is that they are advocating for just another big collective of governments program that has all the same failings as SLS/Orion/Gateway.

    It is a bit of a dilemma since many companies need government(s) as a customer but escaping the government sphere is very difficult even for a company like SpaceX that has strong market choices.

    Gateway has a major failing in that it relies on SLS/Orion but it also serves as a way for some companies to market their product to government, allowing them to use the revenue and experience to improve their product for the private sector. There are any number of options that could take the place of Gateway to accomplish this. A lunar village is supposed to have this same relationship between government and business but it carries the same dangers of government entanglement.

    So even with NASA purchasing products and services, there is a potential downside for businesses that get entangled in government contracting. What we need is an independent market so that when government does purchase products and services, it doesn’t distort the market. But how do we get from here to there? Maybe the path we are on is the best realistic scenario.

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “It is a bit of a dilemma since many companies need government(s) as a customer but escaping the government sphere is very difficult even for a company like SpaceX that has strong market choices.

    This is the same problem that Joe Latrell wrote about. The government monopsony (this is a word that was introduced to me by a commenter on this site: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/monopsony ). It has only been the past couple of decades that commercial space has expanded away from being almost exclusively communication related, and because of the long entrenchment of this government control, it has proved difficult to break into other space businesses.

    The Ansari X-Prize showed that it was not impossible for low-funded companies to send people into suborbital space, something that only highly-funded governments had done before. The technologies used were similar to those available in the 1960s, so it seems likely that had government not grabbed most of the space market by declaring that the Space Shuttle would be America’s exclusive space transportation system, other companies could have entered the space market three decades earlier, as Truax had desired.

    The main difference between then and now is that there now is more technology available to make small satellites feasible, so the small launcher market, which is not in the government monopsony, is likely to do very well.

    What we need is an independent market so that when government does purchase products and services, it doesn’t distort the market. But how do we get from here to there? Maybe the path we are on is the best realistic scenario.

    I think wodun has identified a major problem to solve, and given the situation we are in I think he is right that we are on a good path, right now. Government exists to support We the People in ways that are difficult to organize on our own (e.g. defense and justice), but where space utilization is concerned, it seems to be hindering us.

    Another question is what government can do to expedite the transition. Do further expenditures on Orion-SLS and (F)LOP-Gateway help or hurt? If these two programs were halted or modified, what would be the best use of the resources that are now going into them? Government may be suffering from a lack of imagination, when it comes to supporting its customers: its people and their commercial enterprises.

  • James N. Gibson

    Has anyone other than me read the NASA OIG report on Boeing’s New Orleans group which is tasked to build SLS. Seems one half of NASA is beginning to wonder if the other half (NASA Managers) have a clue what is going on there and what Boeing is actually doing. We will either see the OIG being purged to shut down a building investigation of SLS, or we might see the FBI called in.

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