Texas and Alabama fight over space pork


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Turf war: Several powerful Texas lawmakers announced yesterday their opposition to NASA’s decision to give the lead management for the next lunar lander to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

The question is which Center will manage development of the landers, a plum assignment. NASA plans to procure them through public-private partnerships rather than traditional contracts. The actual design will be determined by whatever companies win the contracts, but NASA’s concept is for a trilogy of vehicles: a transfer vehicle to take the crew from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, then a descent vehicle to take them to the surface and an ascent vehicle to return them to Gateway.

…According to Ars Technica, … NASA is assigning overall responsibility for the lunar lander program to Marshall, which will also oversee acquisition of the transfer and descent vehicles. JSC will oversee the ascent vehicle.

In a letter to Bridenstine today, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Rep. Brian Babin, all Republicans, expressed surprise and asked Bridenstine to reconsider. They argue that JSC should be in charge of the entire program, not just one of the three vehicles. Marshall’s expertise is in rocketry while JSC is “ground zero for human space exploration.”

They also disagree with splitting the work between two Centers, “an unnecessary and counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success” of the lander for the Apollo program.

This fight is not over who will actually build anything, but how to distribute the pork. In truth, the NASA agency that does this “management” does almost nothing. It is the contractor that builds the spacecraft. You could condense the management into a team of less two dozen (and that’s probably high). Instead, NASA and these politicians use the contractors to justify the existence of whole departments and hundreds of employees and large facilities, all of which are mostly irrelevant, especially if the Trump administration is serious about letting private industry do the job.

Worse, this fight — and NASA’s need to make these politicians happy — is forcing the agency to turn the work once again into a Frankenstein monster, distributing responsibility in absurd ways. I guarantee that in the end the management will not all go to Texas, meaning that the management of the different contractors will be split to different agencies, making for a very inefficient and badly managed program.

The result is going to be, as always, delays, cost overruns, bad designs, a lot of wasted money, and little accomplished.

I want to make special note of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in this affair. He ran for president as a new conservative, out to drain the swamp of Washington. Now, as senator, he is increasingly becoming captured by that swamp, participating in all the same corruption he railed against during his presidential run.

If he was really serious about draining the swamp, he would be pushing to trim NASA’s management, both in Alabama and in Texas. Instead he is fighting to build it up.

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6 comments

  • Jim Schmidt

    Nailed it. I’m a little disappointed In Sen. Cruz for being apart of this.

  • Patrick

    Being a conservative myself, I’ve just about had my fill of purportedly free-market Republican politicians trying to direct taxpayer gravy to their constituents.

  • Edward

    I read this differently.

    From the article: “Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Rep. Brian Babin, all Republicans, expressed surprise and asked Bridenstine to reconsider. They argue that JSC should be in charge of the entire program, not just one of the three vehicles. … They also disagree with splitting the work between two Centers, ‘an unnecessary and counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success’ of the lander for the Apollo program.

    Why JSC? It is “the center with the longest history and deepest institutional knowledge of human space exploration.

    Rather than turning “the work once again into a Frankenstein monster, distributing responsibility in absurd ways,” these three Senators argue in favor of a unified management structure located at the facility that is already in charge of manned spaceflight, rather than splitting “the management of the different contractors … to different agencies, making for a very inefficient and badly managed program.

    One facility, one set of managers, all on the same team, close to each other physically and organizationally, with one leader who is able to quickly resolve any disputes. As Robert suggested, this consolidation should avoid the “as always, delays, cost overruns, bad designs, a lot of wasted money, and little accomplished.

    To me, this does not sound like Cruz, Cornyn, and Babin have yet been “captured by that swamp, participating in all the same corruption he railed against during his presidential run.” It sounds like they want what Robert prefers, a consolidated management structure that works efficiently and effectively.

    I am not sure that Cruz has yet fallen under the curse that is shown in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” where the elder Senator, Paine, has turned from the eager Smith-like youngster into the corrupted swamp dweller.

    It seems to me that it is NASA management that is trying to spread around the pork at the expense of efficiency and effectiveness. For this new moonshot, Bridenstine seems to be trying to coax on board the already corrupted senators and congressmen, or as many as he can.

    Then again, distributing the space pork is exactly why NASA has centers in so many different states and congressional districts, why it was created that way. We should expect NASA’s management to perform the political dance that it was set up for in the first place.

    This pork distribution is why the money is spent here on Earth, not sent to the Moon.

  • Ian C.

    Does there exist a list of Congress members (both parties) who are (believably) in favor of private spaceflight?

  • Ian C: In a word, no.

    And I wouldn’t trust such a list regardless. Politicians are not reliable. They change with the wind. Remember what Milton Friedman said:

  • Dick Eagleson

    This is definitely a fight between the Texas Mafia and the Alabama Mafia. I’m no fan of Texan pork-seekers, but I’m much less a fan of their Alabama counterparts. MSFC has done such a bad job with Constellation, SLS and a number of programs which preceded both that there is just no way that organization should be further rewarded by being given additional work to do.

    So, if past history is any guide, that is exactly why MSFC will wind up with the job, or at least the biggest piece of it. Where the government is concerned, look at what’s sensible and what’s not, then bet on the “not” to carry the day.

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