In discussions the last two days managers for the space programs of Europe and China began laying the groundwork for a Chinese docking at ISS.

In discussions the last two days, managers for the space programs of Europe and China began laying the groundwork for a Chinese docking at ISS.

The United States, which paid for and built the bulk of ISS, has no way of getting its own astronauts to the station. The United States at present also has no way to bring cargo up to the station.

The result: We no longer own our own space station. Though the U.S. has strict laws on the books to prevent the transfer of technology to the Chinese, restricting communications by government officials with China, the Europeans do not. And since they can send cargo to ISS while we cannot, they feel free to negotiation with the Chinese for the use of our space station. Moreover, the Russians I am sure will heartily endorse these negotiations.

And what can the U.S. government do? Nothing.

Instead of focusing on a solution to this situation, the members of Congress tasked with supervising NASA want NASA to build a giant heavy-lift rocket (SLS) to use with the Orion capsule, neither of which is designed to go to ISS. Moreover, neither will be capable of flying humans into space until 2021, one year after ISS is presently scheduled to be shut down. Even then a single flight will cost billions, which makes this system useless for resupplying ISS.

And people wonder why I consider these elected officials stupid. And if they aren’t stupid, they surely are irresponsible and incompetent, at least when it comes to the American space program.

Stupidity on display

In hearings Wednesday, several members of Congress suggested that NASA force the new competing commercial space companies to combine their efforts in order to save money.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) asked NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a March 21 hearing on the agency’s 2013 budget the same question he asked of the White House’s chief science adviser last month: would NASA’s partnership with commercial companies to develop astronaut transports be cheaper if the companies competing for NASA funds combined their efforts into a single “all for one and one for all” project?

Similarly, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) made the same stupid argument in her continuing effort to keep the funding of the Space Launch System, the rocket-formerly-called-Constellation, as high as possible, at the cost of cutting everything else in NASA if necessary.

If you needed any evidence that members of Congress are ignorant idiots, you only need read the comments of these elected officials at these hearings to get your proof. Wolf or Hutchison as well as several others from both parties very clearly haven’t the slightest idea what these various space companies are building. Nor do they have the faintest notion of the difficulties entailed in building these manned space vessels.
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NASA picks the Delta 4 Heavy to launch Orion into orbit on its first test flight

NASA has chosen the Delta 4 Heavy rocket to launch the Orion capsule into orbit for its first test flight in 2014.

So, tell me again why NASA needs to spend $18 to $62 billion for a new rocket, when it already can hire Lockheed Martin to do the same thing? Though the Delta 4 Heavy can only get about 28 tons into low Earth orbit, and only about 10 tons into geosynchronous orbit — far less than the planned heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket — Boeing Lockheed has a variety of proposed upgrades to Delta 4 Heavy that could bring these numbers way up. Building these upgrades would surely be far cheaper than starting from scratch to build SLS.

Corrected above as per comments below.

Space News suggests Congress use the billions for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket to fund JWST

In an editorial yesterday Space News suggested that Congress use the billions it is allocating for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket to fund the James Webb Space Telescope instead.

This is not surprising. Webb already has a strong constiuency (astronomers, the public) while the Space Launch System has little support outside of Congress and the specific aerospace contractors who want the work. With tight budgets as far as the eye can see into the future, and the likelihood that Congress is going to become more fiscal conservative after the next election, it would not shock me in the slightest if SLS gets eliminated and the money is given to Webb. And if the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences cargo missions to ISS go well then cutting SLS would almost be a certainty, as this success would demonstrate that these private companies should be able to replace SLS for a tenth of the cost.

And I also think this would be a much wiser use of the taxpayers money.

Another look at the cost of building NASA’s heavy lift rocket

Clark Lindsey takes another look at the cost for building the Congressionally-mandated heavy lift rocket, what NASA calls the Space Launch System and I call the program-formerly-called-Constellation. Key quote:

Finally, I’ll point out that there was certainly nothing on Wednesday that refuted the findings in the Booz Allen study that NASA’s estimates beyond the 3-5 year time frame are fraught with great uncertainty. Hutchison and Nelson claimed last week that since the near term estimates were reliable, there’s no reason to delay getting the program underway. That’s the sort of good governance that explains why programs often explode “unexpectedly” in cost after 3-5 years…

In other words, this is what government insiders call a “buy-in.” Offer low-ball budget numbers to get the project off the ground, then when the project is partly finished and the much higher real costs become evident, Congress will be forced to pay for it. Not only has this been routine practice in Washington for decades, I can instantly cite two projects that prove it:
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NASA to unveil its heavy-lift rocket design

Two stories, one from AP and the other from Florida Today, say that NASA will announce today the design of its heavy-lift rocket, mandated by Congress and estimated to cost around $35 billion. Here is NASA’s press release. To me, this is the key quote (from AP):

NASA figures it will be building and launching about one rocket a year for about 15 years or more in the 2020s and 2030s, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet made. The idea is to launch its first unmanned test flight in 2017 with the first crew flying in 2021 and astronauts heading to a nearby asteroid in 2025, the officials said. From there, NASA hopes to send the rocket and astronauts to Mars — at first just to circle, but then later landing on the Red Planet — in the 2030s. [emphasis mine]

In other words, after spending $1.7 on the National Space Plane, $1.2 billion on the X-33, $1 billion on the X-34, $800 million on the Space Launch Initiative, and finally, almost $10 billion on Constellation, none of which ever flew, NASA is now going to spend another $35 billion on a new rocket that won’t fly for at least another decade.

To be really blunt, this new rocket, like all its predecessors, will never fly either. It costs too much, will take too long to build, and will certainly be canceled by a future administration before it is finished. It is therefore a complete waste of money, and any Congress that approves it will demonstrate how utterly insincere they are about controlling spending.

A clarification: Some of the $35 billion mentioned above has already been spent for the Orion capsule. This however still does not change any of my conclusions.

$18 billion for one test launch

NASA thinks it will cost $18 billion to complete and launch in 2017 one test flight of the Congressionally-designed Space Launch System, the program-formerly-called-Constellation.

This is madness. One flight, unmanned, in seven years? No sane customer would ever buy such a product, especially when there are now a number of cheaper competitors who will likely be flying manned in less time.

Note also that even if NASA’s figures are exaggerated, which I am sure some Senators and Congressmen will claim, I would bet that they are not that far off, based on the space agency’s fixed labor costs and past history.

Senators lambast Administration for SLS budget numbers

The space war heats up: Two senators have issued a statement lambasting the Obama Administration for its budget numbers for building the program-formerly-called-Constellation.

All of this is fantasy and foolishness. These senators might succeed in forcing NASA to spend money on the heavy-lift rocket that Congress has mandated, but there is no way the space agency will ever get enough funding or time to finish it. Even if the lower estimates are right, the cost is exorbitant, many times that of what the private companies have spent for their rockets and ships. And if construction does begin in earnest, it cannot be finished before the arrival of a new President in 2016 (at the latest), who, like all new Presidents, will have his own plans and will not want to build something started by the previous administration.

Much better to end this farce and save the money, especially considering the debt of federal government.

ATK test fires the five segment solid rocket for Ares 1

ATK today successfully test fired the five segment solid rocket originally intended for the Ares 1 rocket. More here.

This solid rocket motor has value, but ATK’s hope that NASA will use it as part of the Congressionally designed Space Launch System, what I call the program-formerly-called-Constellation, is probably a false hope. They might get a few years of funding from Congress, but the whole thing will die stillborn when the funding runs out.

Better that they packaged the motor as part of a private launch system and tried to get some commercial business with it.

Regardless, the video is fun to watch. Check it out.

Sticker shock over Congressionally designed rocket

The Obama administration has discovered that the cost to build the program-formerly-called-Constellation, required by Congress, is going to be far more than they can stomach.

White House budget officials increasingly are concerned that some of NASA’s manned-exploration plans may be unaffordable, especially as the space agency weighs options that would raise the cost by billions of dollars by speeding up the development of rockets and spacecraft, according to people familiar with the issue.

The cost concerns are coming to a head, these people said, as the White House Office of Management and Budget ratchets up questions about NASA’s proposed program in light of the current emphasis on deficit reduction.

None of this surprises me.
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The immediate consequences of the Progress freighter failure

The immediate consequences of the Progress freighter failure:

The longer term consequences? Congress will anguish over the lack of a shuttle. Some will demand more money for the program-formerly-called-Constellation, while others will demand more money for the new commercial companies. In either case, they will ignore the reality of a bankrupt federal government that simply can’t afford either at the moment.

NASA’s costs estimates too low for Congress’s heavy-lift rocket

Surprise, surprise! An independent analysis of NASA’s budget estimates to build Congress’s heavy-lift rocket, the program-formerly-called-Constellation, are untrustworthy and likely low.

“All three program estimates assume large, unsubstantiated, future cost efficiencies leading to the impression that they are optimistic,” the team said in its key findings. A risk assessment revealed the funding reserves projected for all three programs are insufficient, according to Booz Allen Hamilton. NASA has not disclosed its internal cost estimate for the Space Launch System. “Due to procurement of items still in development and large cost risks in the out years, NASA cannot have full confidence in the estimates for long-term planning,” the executive summary said.

This project is nothing more than Congressional pork. It will never get built. Sadly, it might waste a lot of money before it never gets built.

How the end of NASA affects national security

How the end of NASA affects national security.

Though I don’t agree with all of Dinerman’s points, he provides a complete and excellent analysis of the present political state of NASA. To me, the key quote is this:

NASA’s Administrator and his Deputy worked hard, along with the President’s science advisor and the rest of the White House team, to alienate a critical mass of members of Congress by ignoring their concerns, rejecting their advice and blindsiding them with critical space policy decisions. The Obama administration then wrecked the previous program on the grounds that it was underfunded and behind schedule, and replaced it with a new program that looks as if it is now underfund and behind schedule. Congressmen and women being human, and under massive pressure to cut spending, have now cut the guts out of the space agency’s proposed budget.

Senate Issues Subpoena to NASA for SLS Materials

The space war over NASA continues: The Senate has issued a subpoena to NASA, demanding documents related to its plans for building the Congressionally-designed Space Launch System (SLS), what I like to call the-program-formerly-called-Constellation.

In related news, reports that those NASA documents state that the agency’s plans for building SLS will take 21 years (!), with the first flight not taking place until 2032.

No wonder NASA has stalled releasing these documents. Nor am I surprised. Based on the budget that Congress gave the agency, it is literally impossible for NASA to build this rocket any faster. And at that rate, no one should be surprised if it never gets built at all. Far better to cancel it now and save the taxpayers the money.

Perry and other lawmakers blast Obama over shuttle retirement

Texas Governor Rick Perry, as well as other lawmakers from Congress, blasted Obama today over the shuttle retirement.

Bah. Perry claims to be a so-called small government conservative, yet he wants the government to spend a fortune to build and run the space program. Meanwhile, Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kate Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) were around in Congress when President George Bush announced the shuttle’s retirement seven years ago. Their effort since then to fund pork through NASA and thus have NASA build a giant new rocket system, either Constellation or its new Congressionally-designed replacement, has been a disaster. Right now it would be better, and far cheaper, if they stopped fighting the new commercial space companies and instead get behind them, especially since the Obama administration itself has done a very poor job of selling this new industry.

A little support from Congress could go a long way to not only reinvigorating the aerospace industry, it could speed our country’s return to manned space, with multiple competing companies.

NASA stalls, Texas lawmakers fume

The law is such an inconvenient thing: In a bipartisan effort, Texas lawmakers roast NASA administrator Charles Bolden for not meeting mandated Congressional deadlines for Congress’s personally designed rocket, the program-formerly-called-Constellation.

The heavy-lift rocket and capsule that Congress insists NASA build is a complete waste of money and nothing more than pork. It will never get built, mainly because Congress has given NASA less money and less time to build it than they did for Constellation under the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the reason they continue to require NASA to build it is to provide pork to their districts.

In a perfect world this funding would be cut now, especially considering the state of the federal debt.
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NASA continues to stall on heavy-lift rocket

It ain’t ever happening: NASA continues to stall on their final design for Congress’s mandated heavy-lift rocket.

No one should be surprised by this. Obama has never wanted NASA to build this rocket, when it was Constellation and now when it is the program-formerly-called-Constellation. Moreover, Congress hasn’t given NASA enough money or time to do it anyway. Better the program die and the money is used for something else, or cut entirely in order to reduce the crushing federal debt.

The painful transition to private space

It appears that U.S. aerospace layoffs more than tripled in the first half of 2011.

The downsizing, prompted by cutbacks in defense and government contracts, jumped from 6,121 in the first six months of 2010 to 20,851 this year, based on planned layoffs announced by major employers.

Though I have always favored shutting down the government space agency and replacing it with privately-built rockets and spaceships, the manner in which this is being done now is disgraceful. George Bush declared the retirement of the shuttle seven years ago. Since then Congress, Bush, and Obama have all done an abominable job preparing the nation for that retirement.
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House proposes to drop NASA’s budget to 2008 levels, eliminate Webb Telescope

The House today proposed cutting NASA’s budget back to 2008 levels while eliminating all funds for the James Webb Space Telescope.

As much as I’d hate to see the Webb telescope die, it has cost far more than planned, is way behind schedule, and carries a gigantic risk of failure. However, if I had a choice, I’d rather they cut the $1.95 billion for Congress’s homemade heavy-lift rocket, the program-formerly-called-Constellation. There is a much better chance that Webb will get completed, launched, and work, than there is for this improvised and impossibly costly Congressionally conceived rocket.

NASA faces subpoena on heavy-lift rocket work

The space war continues: Several senators are threatening to subpoena NASA over what they perceive as the agency’s foot-dragging in building a heavy-lift rocket.

Idiots. They give NASA less money and less time to build the program-formerly-called-Constellation, and then are surprised when things don’t go well. Of course, it doesn’t help that the Obama administration is trying to sabotage the project anyway.

NASA about to decide on its shuttle heavy-lift replacement

NASA is about to decide on its shuttle heavy-lift replacement, and it looks like it will be almost entirely shuttle-derived.

As I have said previously, this rocket will almost certainly never fly. NASA has to start over after spending billions and years developing Constellation, and is being given less money and time to do it.

And even if I am wrong and this rocket does fly, I bet it will do only one flight and then be retired as too costly.

NASA announces Orion program will continue

NASA announces that the Orion program will continue, though under a different name.

This is a non-announcement, made to appease those in Congress who are requiring NASA to build the program-formerly-called-Constellation. NASA will do as Congress demands, and in the process will build nothing while spending a lot of money for a rocket and space capsule that can’t be built for the amount budgeted.

Another sign of tight NASA budgets ahead

From Jeff Foust: Another sign of tight budgets ahead.

The possibility that NASA’s budget might cut by several billion doesn’t bother me a bit. Unlike it seems everyone else, I ain’t gonna be one of those who says “We need to cut the federal budget, but just don’t cut MY favorite program.” NASA shouldn’t be immune to cuts. In fact, NASA could easily lose the several billion dollars per year that’s going to be wasted on the program-formerly-called-Constellation.

And if Congress decided to cut the subsidies to the new commercial space companies as well, I probably wouldn’t cry that much over that either. I think these companies can make it on their own. I think there is a market for their product. By taking NASA’s money up front, they are then forced to take NASA supervision, something I think will be very damaging in the long run.

NASA Awards Next Set Of Commercial Crew Development Agreements

NASA has awarded the next set of commercial crew development agreements, giving contracts worth from $22 to $92 million to four companies, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, and Boeing. More here and here.

The amounts that NASA is giving these companies is minuscule, compared the monies spent on the program-formerly-called-Constellation. Yet I bet they all get their rockets/capsules launched and in operation, supplying cargos and crews to low Earth orbit, before NASA even test fires its heavy-lift rocket.

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