“The Endless SLS Test Firings Act”

The Senate passes a law! In the NASA authorization that was just approved by the Senate and awaits House action was an amendment — inserted by Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) — that will essentially require NASA to build an SLS core stage designed for only one purpose, endless testing at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The Stennis-specific provision says NASA should “initiate development of a main propulsion test article for the integrated core stage propulsion elements of the Space Launch System, consistent with cost and schedule constraints, particularly for long-lead propulsion hardware needed for flight.”

So what exactly is a “main propulsion test article,” and why does NASA need one? According to a Senate staffer, who spoke to Ars on background, this would essentially be an SLS core stage built not to fly but to undergo numerous tests at Stennis.

My headline above is essentially stolen from the Eric Berger article at the link. Because this ground test core is not funded, at best it would likely not be ready for testing prior to ’27 or ’28, at the earliest. By then who knows if SLS will even exist any longer, replaced by low-cost and far more useful commercial rockets. Thus, if this Wicker amendment survives, Stennis might be testing a core stage endlessly for a rocket that no longer exists.

And even if SLS is flying, what point is there to test a core stage that never flies? None, except if you wish to create fake jobs in Mississippi for your constituents, as Wicker obviously is trying to do.

Fortunately the bill is merely an authorization, and has not yet passed the House. Much could change before passage, and even after passage money will need to be appropriated to create this fake testing project.

Unfortunately, we are discussing our modern Congress, which has no brains, can’t count, and thinks money grows on trees. I would not bet against this fake testing program becoming law.

Senate passes NASA authorization that calls for second lunar lander contract

The Senate today passed a new NASA authorization that requires the agency to award a second manned lunar lander contract in addition to the one it gave SpaceX for its Starship spacecraft.

The bill also recommended a $10 billion increase over five years in this specific lunar lander program to pay for that second contract.

None of this is law yet, as the House must agree also. In addition, as this is an authorization, not an appropriation, the extra money has not been appropriated, which means it does not yet exist. And should it be approved at these recommended numbers, it means that NASA will be forced to stretch out the creation of both lunar landers, as the money appropriated is still less than required to build either.

I suspect that this budget shortfall will not delay SpaceX’s Starship significantly, as that company has obtained sufficient private funding to build it regardless. More likely the second lunar lander will face longer delays, unless its builders decide to do what SpaceX has done, and obtain private capital to get it done fast.

Note too that this recommendations follows Congress’s general policy of imagining money grows on trees and that there is an infinite supply. While it might be a good idea to pay for two landers, the country’s debt suggests otherwise. Maybe a wiser course would be for the government to only offer a tiny percentage of the capital, and demand the builders find their own funding, as SpaceX has done.

A proposal to rebuild Arecibo as a better radio telescope

Even as the National Science Foundation (NSF) proceeds with the disassembly of the destroyed Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, some astronomers are proposing that a new radio telescope be built in its place, with a new design that will not require the instrument platform floating above a single dish.

Here’s the idea as outlined in a white paper circulated by Roshi and his colleagues: The Next Generation Arecibo Telescope would pack hundreds, maybe even more than 1,000 smaller radio dishes into the same space now occupied by the single 305-meter dish. Those smaller antennas would combine forces to act like a single larger telescope (no suspended instrument platform required).

Ideally, those dishes would be on a single, tiltable platform to access more of the sky from the Arecibo site; it’s possible multiple platforms could do the same.

The revamped telescope would have twice the sky coverage of the legacy dish, 500 times the field of view in individual images, at least double the sensitivity, and five times the radar power.

The cost for this new radio telescope is presently estimated to be about half a billion. Considering that the NSF didn’t have the money to operate the old Arecibo telescope, which was why it wasn’t properly maintained and collapsed, I doubt it has the cash to build this replacement. Congress, which likes printing money it doesn’t have, might step in and fund it, but if so that will only add to the national debt that is certainly going to cause the bankruptcy of the nation at some point in the future, a point that is getting closer and closer with each new trillion that Congress nonchalantly spends, on almost a monthly schedule.

SpaceX competitors lobbying to kill FCC subsidy for Starlink

A lobbying effort instigated by some of SpaceX competitors in the rural internet service business is now working to kill the $886 million subsidy the FCC had awarded the company for developing its Starlink internet constellation.

The losers in the awards process apparently are teaming up with the Democrats to challenge all the awards, with SpaceX their main target.

The [award to SpaceX was] made when Trump administration appointees still controlled the FCC and now the agency is led by Biden appointees who could cut off applicants it considers dubious. Last month, 160 House and Senate members urged the FCC to scrutinize recipients, in part because network construction takes time. “We fear that we will not know whether funds were improperly spent for years to come,” said the lawmakers.

There is a “a need for proper upfront assessment,” Representative Jim Clyburn, of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, said in an email. He said many applicants claim to be able to deliver faster service to new customers than they are delivering to current subscribers.

This is a fight for government hand-outs, period. The losers are now using political pressure to change the decision. And since the Democrats generally hate SpaceX (and Elon Musk) because it is so successful at actually achieving what it sets out to do, they are glad to help them. Not only will it bring these politicians campaign donations (called bribes if you are honest), it will destroy the one space company that is proving that capitalism and freedom works.

From my perspective, no one, including SpaceX, should get these funds. SpaceX is proving they aren’t necessary to get the job done (bringing fast internet service to rural communities). Moreover, the federal government really doesn’t have the cash, deep in debt as it is.

But then, my perspective is now considered quaint, even “raaaaaaacist”, in our modern corrupt Marxist society.

Space Force picks Alabama for its future headquarters

In a victory for Alabama and its politicians, the U.S. Space Force has chosen the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville as the location for its future headquarters.

The selection of Redstone Arsenal is a huge win for Huntsville, nicknamed “Rocket City.” U.S. Space Command is currently based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Alabama was considered a long shot and Colorado was the front runner, given its incumbent status and concentration of military installations and space industry contractors.

U.S. Space Command was established in August 2019 as the military’s 11th unified combatant command. The future headquarters will have approximately 1,400 military and civilian personnel.

While there are many good reasons to pick Huntsville, I guarantee a major factor was the clout exercised by Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), head of the Senate appropriations committee. He will no longer be in charge of the committee with the new Senate, but in his final act as head he likely used it to get the Space Force to move to his state.

This decision however is not yet final. According to government officials, it will take six years (!) to make the move, and already the politicians in Colorado, where the Space Command is presently based, are lobbying to rescind it.

Republican congressman Doug Lamborn, who represents Colorado Springs, sent a letter to President-elect Biden urging him to reverse what he called a “political decision” to move U.S. Space Command to Alabama. “I am disappointed by the horrendous decision to rip U.S. Space Command out of its home in Colorado Springs and move it to a new location,” said Lamborn.

As always, pork is the goal, not defending the U.S. in the most effective manner.

Congress frees Europa Clipper from SLS

It appears that Congress has at last removed its requirement that the unmanned probe Europa Clipper must be launched on the continually delayed and very expensive SLS rocket.

Almost unnoticed, tucked into the 2021 fiscal NASA funding section of the recently passed omnibus spending bill, is a provision that would seem to liberate the upcoming Europa Clipper mission from the Space Launch System (SLS).

According to Space News, the mandate that the Europa Clipper mission be launched on an SLS remains in place only if the behind-schedule and overpriced heavy lift rocket is available and if concerns about hardware compatibility between the probe and the launcher are resolved. Otherwise, NASA is free to search for commercial alternatives to get the Europa Clipper to Jupiter’s ice-shrouded moon.

Not only will this secure Europa Clipper’s launch schedule, which had deadlines imposed by orbital mechanics that SLS was not going to meet, the more than $1 billion in savings by using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy will allow the probe to do more while giving NASA more money for other planetary missions.

This is excellent news. It signals that Congress’s long love affair with SLS because of the ample pork it sends to many districts might finally be waning. If so, there is a good chance it will finally be killed, freeing up its bloated budget.

Sadly, in a sane world some of those savings would be used to reduce the overall federal deficit even as some was also used to expand NASA’s space effort. We are not in a sane world, however, so expect no reduction in the federal budget, at all.

Still, this is a move by Congress towards some fiscal responsibility that will make NASA’s efforts more efficient. For that small improvement we should be grateful.

Puerto Rican government commits $8 million to rebuild Arecibo

The government of Puerto Rico earlier this week announced that it has allocated $8 million to rebuild the Arecibo Observatory.

Via an executive order, Gov. Wanda Vazquez made reconstruction of the observatory public policy. In a ceremony at La Fortaleza, the seat of the island’s government, Vazquez said that the Puerto Rican government believes that the telescope’s collapse provides a great opportunity to redesign it, taking into account the lessons learned and recommendations from the scientific community so that it remains relevant for decades to come.

…Vazquez said that she and her administration want the scope to once again become a world class center and the $8 million being allocated for reconstruction includes funds to repair the environmental damage caused by the collapse, something that has already begun under the supervision of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

We shall see what happens. $8 million is not really enough to rebuild Arecibo. And the NSF has been trying to unload it from its budgetary responsibility for almost a decade. I would be shocked if that agency now suddenly decided to fund its reconstruction.

Only if Congress gets involved will this likely change, and that wouldn’t surprise me, considering how nonchalant our present Congress is about spending money that doesn’t exist.

NASA budget passed by Congress rejects ’24 lunar landing

No surprise: The NASA budget that was passed by Congress this week as part of a giant omnibus bill only gave NASA 25% of the requested funds the agency says it needs to develop a human lander required for an Artemis manned mission to the Moon by ’24.

Overall, NASA will receive $23.271 billion, almost $2 billion less than requested. Importantly for the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, it provides only $850 million instead of $3.4 billion for Human Landing Systems.

…The Trump Administration requested a 12 percent increase for NASA in order to fund the Artemis program: $25.2 billion for FY2021 compared to the $22.9 billion it received in FY2020. While the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon has broad bipartisan support in Congress, the Trump deadline of 2024 — set because it would have been the end of his second term if he had been reelected — won lukewarm support at best from Republicans and none from Democrats who pointed to both budgetary and technical hurdles.

It was always clear that the Democrats were not going to cooperate with Trump to could get that lunar landing during his second term. Moreover, the real goal of Artemis is not space exploration, but distributing pork. Stretching out these missions so that they take many many years achieves that goal far better than a tight competitive schedule that gets things done. This is why SLS and Orion have been under construction, with no flights, for decades, even as SpaceX moves forward with Starship/Super Heavy in only a few years.

A Biden presidency actually increases the changes that Artemis will get better funding, but that funding will always be designed to stretch out the program for as long as possible. Our policymakers in Washington really do not care much for the interest of the nation. What they care about is their own power and aggrandizement.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation wins $885 million in federal subsidies

Capitalism in space: In awarding $9.2 billion in subsidies to providers of rural high-speed internet to rural customers, the FCC gave $885 million of this allocation to SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

SpaceX was not the biggest beneficiary, however.

Most of the RDOF Phase I subsidies are going to terrestrial broadband service providers, led by LTD Broadband with an award of $1.32 billion. CCO Holdings, a subsidiary of Charter Communications, is due to serve 1.05 million sites around the country, leading the list for that metric.

The FCC said 85% of the 5.2 million sites to be served would get gigabit-speed broadband. SpaceX is due to serve nearly 643,000 sites with download speeds of 100 megabits per second or more.

Regardless of its good intentions, this distribution of federal cash sickens me. These companies don’t need it to do what they are doing, and are all sure to make plenty of profit without it. The federal government meanwhile is trillions in debt. It has to print money to give this away, something that is not going to go well in the long run.

House rejects Artemis; Senate funds Artemis

The Senate gives, the House taketh away: Even as the Democratically-controlled House continues to refuse the Trump administration’s request for $2.6 billion to fund its 2024 manned lunar landing, the Republican-controlled Senate has provided $1.6 billion of those funds in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.

This illustrates why such stimulus packages are utterly corrupt. Much of the money allocated has little to do with helping the country recover from the Wuhan panic, but is instead earmarked for the favorite agencies of the politicians. The Republicans are also trying to use this package to sneak across funding for Artemis without the House Democrats noticing, or being able to object.

It remains to be seen whether that strategy will work. Either way, we continue on the road to bankruptcy and financial collapse, as the federal government is trillions in debt, and simply doesn’t have the money for any of this.

Midnight repost: Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: In 2013 Diane and I made a trip back east to visit the Smokey Mountains and do some hiking. Coincidentally, our trip took place at the end of September, when the budget battle between Obama and the Republicans in Congress was about to cause a government shutdown. This essay, the first of three, describes the extra effort and money being exerted by Obama’s administration to make that shutdown as unpleasant and as inconvenient to the American public as possible. The later two essays, linked to as an update at the top of the essay, outline what happened next.

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Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

See my October 2, 2013 update here.

Today, October 1, 2013, my wife Diane and I went hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We did this despite the news from Washington that the federal government had shut down due to the lack of a funding from Congress and that all the national parks were closed.

The news reports had said that the National Park Service would close all roads into the park except for New Found Gap Road, the one road that crossed over the mountains from Tennessee to North Carolina. They couldn’t close this road because it was a main thoroughfare used by the public for basic transportation. Moreover, my research into the hikes we wished to do told me that several of those hikes originated on trailheads along this road. In traveling the road the day before, we had seen that these trailheads would not only be difficult to close, it would be dangerous and stupid to close them. For one, the road was windy and narrow. If there was a car accident or someone had car problems, any one of these parking areas might be essential for the use of the driver as well as local police and ambulances. For another, there are people still backpacking in the mountains who will at some point need to either exit with their cars or be picked up at these trailheads. Closing the trailheads will strand these hikers in the park, with dangerous consequences.

So, despite the shutdown, off we went to hike the Appalachian Trail, going to a well known lookout called the Jump Off, an easy 6.5 mile hike that leaves from the parking area at New Found Gap, the highest point on New Found Gap Road that is also on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. It is also probably one of the most popular stopping points along the road, visited by practically every tourist as they drive across.
Smokies from the Appalachian trail

The hike itself was beautiful, if a bit foggy and damp. The picture above shows one of the clearest views we had all day. Nor were we alone on this hike. We probably saw one to two dozen other hikers, heading out to either the Jump Off or Charles Bunion (another well known day hike destination along this section of trail).
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Proposed House NASA budget flat, with some surprising support for Artemis

While the first House proposal for NASA’s 2021 budget has rejected the Trump administration’s request for a total $3 billion increase for the agency to fund Artemis so that it can complete a manned mission to the Moon by 2024, it also provided about 18% of the funds requested for building the manned lunar lander required for that mission.

Back in February, the White House asked for $3.37 billion in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate development of the lander.

Democrats in the House have been skeptical of the 2024 launch date—some see it as political due to the timing of the next presidential election—and so have been slow to fund the lander. In its budget, the House appropriates $1.56 billion for “Exploration Research and Development.” This includes funding for the lander, Lunar Gateway, and other activities related to the Moon’s surface, of which more than $600 million can be used for the lander.

The House also provided a boost of $343 million to SLS.

My guess is that the Democrats in the House are working to keep Artemis going because of the jobs it brings to their districts, but want to slow it down enough so that it cannot succeed while Trump is in office. Thus, the release of some funds for the lunar lander, but not enough to build it, now.

The House proposal also includes a loosening on Congress’s mandate that Europa Clipper must launch on SLS. NASA is now given the option to consider other alternatives if SLS is not avaiable, which means that NASA can now consider using the Falcon Heavy instead.

This proposal must still pass the Republican-controlled Senate, so expect more changes.

Midnight repost: NASA, the federal budget, and common sense

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Tonight’s midnight repost is actually two. First we have what might have been my most telling report for John Batchelor, aired in late July 2013. In that appearance I was quite blunt about my contempt for the politicians in Washington and the fake space program they had been foisting on the American public for decades. As I said,

What both those parties in Congress and in the administration are really doing is faking a goal for the purpose of justifying pork to their districts, because none of the proposals they’re making — both the asteroids or the moon — are going to happen.

Here is the audio of that appearance [mp3] for you all to download and enjoy. For reference, these are specific stories from then that I am discussing:

That rant makes for a perfect lead in to an essay I wrote in late 2011, outlining what I would do if I was in a position to reframe NASA’s budget. Everything I said then still applies. And that it does is a great tragedy, in that it means that nothing has changed, and our federal government continues to gather power while bankrupting the country.

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NASA, the federal budget, and common sense

Let’s be blunt: the federal government is broke. With deficits running in the billions per day, there simply is no spare cash for any program, no matter how important or necessary. Nothing is sacrosanct. Even a proposal to cure cancer should be carefully reviewed before it gets federal funding.

Everything has got to be on the table.
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Curiosity and other Mars orbiters threatened by budget cuts

The proposed budget for NASA in the Trump administrations 2021 budget request to Congress includes significant budget cuts to both Curiosity and several Mars orbiters needed to act as relay communications satellites.

The White House’s 2021 federal budget request allocates just $40 million to the mission, a decrease of 20% from the rover’s current funding. And that current funding is 13% less than Curiosity got in the previous year, said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

If the 2021 request is passed by Congress as-is, Curiosity’s operations would have to be scaled back considerably. Running the mission with just $40 million in 2021 would leave unused about 40% of the science team’s capability and 40% of the rover’s power output, which comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), Vasavada said.

In addition, the proposed budget will require a 50% reduction in imaging by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the end to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a significant but unspecified reduction in the use of the MAVEN orbiter.

I reported these facts back in March but there is no harm in noting them again.

The question is not whether there should be cuts at NASA. Considering the overall federal debt and annual budget deficit, NASA’s budget should be cut. The question is what to cut. The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut. Instead, the Trump administration should be cutting the waste and badly run programs, like SLS, that spend billions and accomplish nothing.

If Congress and Trump did this, they could cut NASA’s total budget and still have plenty left over for the commercial manned program — including going to the Moon — and also increase the budget to the planetary program. I’ve been saying this since 2011, and nothing has happened in the past decade to change that conclusion.

Another 4.4 million are out of work this week

Are you enraged yet? Another 4.4 million applied for unemployment benefits this week, bringing the total of new unemployed since the Wuhan flu panic began in March to about 26 million, and raising the unemployment rate to about 16%.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that the Wuhan flu is probably no more dangerous that the flu, thus making this entire government-imposed shutdown and resulting Great Wuhan Depression entirely uncalled for.

Worse, that any governor in any state is still refusing to end their lock downs at this point tells us that they goal was never to fight the epidemic, but to acquire unjustified power to rule us like dictators. If the voters don’t fire these people wholesale come November than the voters deserve the hell they are about to get.

Two NY studies suggest Wuhan flu death rate comparable to the flu

Are you enraged yet? A just released New York study now suggests that there are large numbers infected with the Wuhan flu with no symptoms, about 13.9% of the population, indicating that the overall death rate is probably quite close to the flu.

The article does not state that conclusion, being CNBC and therefore unwilling to come to any conclusion that might suggest things are not terrible. However, see this analysis of a different New York study, with comparable numbers:

Thinking about that study showing that 13.7% of pregnant women presenting for delivery at NYC hospitals in March-early April tested positive for COVID-19 AT THE TIME of admission. Unless one thinks pregnant women are more likely to have been exposed to the virus than other people in the population, surely must mean that ~15% of NYC has been exposed. (Recall also that the NYC study was only of active infections not of antibodies.) If so, then 10,000 deaths out of 15% of NYC (1.2 million) points to an infection fatality rate around .008, very much in the ballpark of seasonal flu. [emphasis mine]

The first reliable numbers from South Korea and the Diamond Princess had shown death rates of about 0.9% and 1.2% respectively. While about ten times higher than the flu’s death rate of about 0.1%, it was also very clear then that these death rates were grossly high because of very large underestimates of the total number of people infected.

Now we are getting better numbers on the total infection rate — including large numbers of healthy individuals who get the disease and never show symptoms — and the evidence is strongly telling us that the Wuhan flu is not that dangerous, killing mostly older and sick individuals, and doing it at the same rate as the flu.

For this we allowed the press and our power-hungry political class to nullify the Bill of Rights and bankrupt the nation? A lot of heads should roll. And soon.

Shutdowns forcing hospitals to cut staff during Wuhan panic

This makes perfect government sense: The shutdowns that our governments have imposed on people and businesses nationwide due to the Wuhan panic has forced hospitals to cut staff and shorten hours.

The article describes the growing collapse of medical services caused by the state-imposed lockdowns in Ohio, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut, South Carolina, Tennessee, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, and Arizona. That’s only ten states, but it is very likely the remaining states are experiencing the same problems, as described in the article:

The Connecticut Children’s Medical Center is furloughing 400 across its health system as a result of surgeries being delayed, which has caused patient volumes to plummet, resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue, according to the Hartford Courant.

The number of elective cases at Prisma Health in South Carolina has fallen by over 75% in two weeks. CEO Mark O’Halla issued a letter to employees informing them of furloughs, adding that they will be able to file for unemployment and apply for open positions at the hospital.

Two-hundred healthcare workers in Tennessee are being furloughed as a result of “dramatically reduced” hospital visits, which means a loss of revenue, according to the Tennessean.

We need to bankrupt ourselves in order to save us! Thank you government and centralized rule!

First estimate of the cost of the Wuhan panic shutdown

The estimated lose to the U.S. economy due to the shutdown over the Wuhan panic is now estimated at $32 trillion, more than the entire annual gross national product for the country.

That number is of course preliminary, but for a first guess I think it is probably low, especially because it does not include the following:

  • Lost opportunity cost for businesses
  • Lost opportunity cost for individuals who had to delay dreams, plans, etc.
  • The loss of freedom (priceless)
  • The cost of not educating millions of students and falling further behind in academic standards

It also assumes we get back to work relatively soon. Should the shut down extend through May, I think the Great Depression will appear like a lark in comparison.

Note that the overall social cost of this panic and shutdown cannot be measured, as it is also establishing new social distancing customs that are probably overwrought and counter-productive for a healthy society.

Pork galore in Senate-passed COVID-19 “stimulus” bill

The so-called COVID-19 “stimulus” bill that the Senate passed yesterday is apparently stuffed with billions in hand-outs to friends and buddies of Congress and the Washington bureaucracy, all of which have nothing to do with helping the American public being bankrupted by the forced shutdowns imposed on them by government.

Go to the link for a full list, which includes money for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kennedy Center in DC, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the post office, NASA, and the Department of Education, to name only a few. It also includes a pay raise for Congress, money to sanctuary cities to allow them to continue to flout immigration laws (thereby making it harder to control the virus), and half a billion in foreign aid to Africa. The bill also will force unions on businesses who wish to take any government money.

There’s more of course. It will take a few days for decent people to dig through the entire document [pdf]. By that time however the House, under Democratic Party control, will have added more goodies, the Senate and Trump will have approved, and the bill will be law.

Three cheers for Congress!

Details of the Wuhan virus Congressional pork bill

With the Democrats in Congress retreating from their effort to stuff the fake COVID-19 stimulus bill with many provisions irrelevant to the virus, including many that would have helped them steal elections, the basic features of the new $2 trillion bill are now becoming clear.

Not surprisingly, it is filled with wonderful payoffs to big and small business, as well as the voters, all of which our federal government cannot afford, and all of which are sadly desperately needed by the citizenry because of the very bad policies the government imposed on the nation because of the virus.

  • Big Businesses: About $500 billion can be used to back loans and assistance to companies, including $50 billion for loans to U.S. airlines, as well as state and local governments.
  • Small Businesses: More than $350 billion to aid small businesses, including $10 billion in SBA grants of up to $10,000 for small business costs, and $17 billion for SBA to cover six months of payments for businesses with current SBA loans.
  • Hospitals: A $150 billion boost for hospitals and other health-care providers for equipment and supplies.
  • Individuals: Direct payments to lower- and middle-income Americans of $1,200 for each adult, as well as $500 for each child.

The bill has a number of restrictions on these payments, which on their face make sense. The problem however is that so far the numbers of people sick from COVID-19 simply do not justify this spending.

No matter. Chicken Little has won again. Common sense no longer exists.

NASA shuts down all in-house work, suspending SLS/Orion testing

In its panicky response to COVID-19, NASA is now requiring all workers to work from home, forcing the agency to suspend all in-house testing of SLS and Orion hardware.

NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware. The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume. Once this is complete, personnel allowed onsite will be limited to those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure.

We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce.

This guarantees further delays to the first Artemis unmanned launch sometime in 2021. It also is par for the course for NASA’s entire effort to build this rocket. In just the past two weeks three different blistering inspector general reports have blasted different components of this project at NASA (overall management, construction of the launch systems, and development of software), proving that out-of-control cost overruns and endless delays in building SLS and Orion have been systemic throughout the agency.

Now they have shut down testing, even though the Wuhan virus is probably going to end up no more dangerous than the flu (now that treatment options exist).

NASA’s inspector general finds more budget overruns at Artemis

A new report [pdf] released today from NASA’s inspector general has found more budget overruns and managerial issues relating to developing the ground software required by both Orion and SLS.

There are two software components involved, called SCCS and GFAS for brevity. This report focuses on the latter. A previous report found that “SCCS had significantly exceeded its initial cost and schedule estimates with development costs increasing approximately 77 percent and release of a fully operational version of the software slipping 14 months.” According to that previous report [pdf], that increase went from $117 million to $207 million.

As for GFAS:

Overall, as of October 2019 GFAS development has cost $51 million, about $14 million more than originally planned.

This report, as well as yesterday’s, are quite damning to the previous management of NASA’s manned program under Bill Gerstenmaier. It appears they could not get anything done on time and even close to their budget.

It also appears to me that the Trump administration has removed the reins from its inspector general offices. During the Obama administration I noticed a strong reticence in IG reports to criticize government operations. Problems as outlined in both yesterday’s and today’s reports would have been couched gently, to obscure how bad they were. Now the reports are more blunt, and are more clearly written.

Also, this sudden stream of releases outlining the problems in Artemis might be part of the Trump administration’s effort to shift from this government program to using private commercial companies. To do this however the administration needs Congressional support, which up to now has strongly favored funding SLS and Orion. Having these reports will strengthen the administration’s hand should it propose eliminating these programs, as it is now beginning to do with Gateway.

More overruns in NASA’s SLS program, this time with the mobile launchers

A new inspector general report [pdf] has found massive cost overruns in NASA over the building of the two mobile launch platforms the agency will use to launch its SLS rocket.

The original budget for the first mobile launch was supposed to be $234 million. NASA has now spent $927 million.

Worse, this platform will see limited use, as it was designed for the first smaller iteration of SLS, which NASA hopes to quickly replace with a more powerful version. Afterward it will become obsolete, replaced by the second mobile launch platform, now estimated to cost $486 million.

That’s about $1.5 billion just to build the launch platforms for SLS. That’s only a little less than SpaceX will spend to design, test, build, and launch its new Starship/Super Heavy rocket. And not only will Starship/Super Heavy be completely reusable, it will launch as much if not more payload into orbit as SLS.

But don’t worry. Our geniuses in Congress will continue to support SLS no matter the cost, even if it bankrupts NASA and prevents any real space exploration. They see its cost overruns, long delays, and inability to accomplish anything as a benefit, pumping money into their states and districts in order to buy votes.

New inspector general report slams NASA’s SLS management

A new report [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general released today harshly slams the management of NASA for the never-ending cost overruns and scheduling delays that have plagued the agency’s effort to build and launch the Space Launch System (SLS).

From the report’s introduction:

Based on our review of SLS Program cost reporting, we found that the Program exceeded its Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC)—that is, the cost and schedule baselines committed to Congress against which a program is measured—by at least 33 percent at the end of fiscal year 2019, a figure that could reach 43 percent or higher if additional delays push the launch date for Artemis I beyond November 2020.

… [T]he SLS Program now projects the Artemis I launch will be delayed to at least spring 2021 or later. Further, we found NASA’s ABC cost reporting only tracks Artemis I-related activities and not total SLS Program costs. Overall, by the end of fiscal year 2020, NASA will have spent more than $17 billion on the SLS Program—including almost $6 billion not tracked or reported as part of the ABC.

The graph below, taken from page 45 of the report, illustrates the management failures here quite starkly.
» Read more

Space Force lobbies for $1 billion extra

The Space Force has put forth an extra wish list of missions/projects that require an $1 billion more above the $15 billion the agency has already requested in the next federal budget for 2021.

While about 10 percent of the request is for classified programs, the remaining funding runs the gamut, from bolstering space situational awareness to accelerating the development of navigational satellites to establishing new commercial satellite communication capabilities in low earth orbit.

Overall this wish list appears properly focused, aimed at upgrading or improving existing space military assets rather than growing the Space Force’s bureaucracy. We shall see over time if this proves true. I can’t help having doubts.

Trump proposes an increase in science spending in 2021

Read any analysis by any mainstream news or science publication of Trump’s 2021 proposed science budget, released this week, and you will come away thinking that the future of science research in the U.S. is doomed and that Donald Trump is a neanderthal who wishes to send us back to the dark ages.

Consider for example this article from the journal Science, Trump’s new budget cuts all but a favored few science programs, which begins like so:

For the fourth straight year, President Donald Trump has proposed sizable reductions in federal research spending. To be sure, it’s no longer news that the president wants deep cuts to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA. And in past years, Congress has rejected similar proposals and provided increases. But Trump’s 2021 request brings into sharper focus what his administration values across the research landscape—and what it views as unimportant.

The article then outlines how Trump is slashing spending on science research across the board, even to the point of spinning the NASA budget to make a significant budget increase appear as a cut, by cherry-picking only some of that budget’s science programs.

This article is typical of the mainstream press. These articles never provide any context for the proposed budget numbers. They look at what was spent the year before, see what is being proposed for the next year, and if they see any reduction they scream. And if it is an evil Republican president proposing the cuts they scream far harder, implying that those cuts will guarantee the coming of a new dark age.

Trump's proposed science budget compared to Obama's last science budget

To the right however are the budget numbers (shown in thousands) for five of the biggest science agencies in the federal government, comparing Trump’s 2021 proposed budget numbers with the last science budget approved at the end of the Obama administration in 2016.

Notice anything? » Read more

NASA get boost in Trump proposed budget for 2021

The 2021 budget request by the Trump administration includes a big budget increase for NASA while also proposing major cuts to many of its science programs.

According to the analysis at the second link, the big gainer is Artemis. The losers in astronomy are the space telescope WFIRST and the airborne telescope SOFIA, both of which the administration wants terminated. Also on the chopping block are two climate satellites.

I plan to go through the budget in the next day or so and do my own analysis, which will also provide a longer term context that I guarantee no other news source will do. For example, routinely when most mainstream sources declare a cut in any program, it only means either a reduction in its growth rate, or a reduction to spending levels deemed entirely satisfactory only a few years before. To understand any new budget proposal, you need to look at the long term spending trends.

I will, as I have done in the past, also include more than just NASA in my analysis, reviewing the budget changes for all the science agencies.

I would do this today, but an eye doctor’s appointment this afternoon takes priority.

Congress gets first organizational plan for Space Force

The Air Force has delivered to Congress the first of a regularly required series of reports on its organizational plans for creating the Space Force.

At first glance, the article makes it appear that both Congress and the Air Force under Trump are making an attempt to avoid the birth of a new bureaucracy that will coast billions of additional dollars. The following quotes highlight this:

The report delivered Feb. 3, a copy of which was obtained by SpaceNews, stresses that the Space Force will not have the traditional layers of bureaucracy that Congress cautioned it did not want to see in the new service.

…The Space Force in fiscal year 2020 is allotted a total of 200 people. The plan is to grow the staff over the next five years “within existing DoD resources,” says the report.

The article also outlines how the bulk of the Space Force’s staff will be taken from the Air Force.

One would think therefore that the overall military budget would not rise significantly. Hah! Fooled you!

The report says in the future the new service will not require more than $500 million annually over and above what DoD spends currently on space organizations. Total additional costs would not exceed $2 billion over the next five years, says the report.

Only in the government would spending an extra $500 million annually for an office operation taken from other parts of a company be considered inexpensive. For example, the initial capital funding for almost every single one of the new private smallsat rocket companies has generally been under $100 million, total. Later rounds of funding have generally only doubled or tripled that. The extra $500 million the military wants for the Space Force is actually a lot of money, and indicates that the Pentagon is definitely trying to pad the budget.

Our incompetent federal government grows again, and I guarantee we are getting less for our money than we should.

Trump signs defense bill which includes Space Force

It’s official: Trump today signed the annual NDAA defense authorization bill which also includes the creation of a new military branch dubbed the Space Force.

Whether this new branch will function to make the U.S.’s space military more effective, or merely act as a foundation for a bureaucracy in Washington requiring lots of useless jobs and lots of wasteful spending remains at this moment an unknown.

My instincts favor the latter, based on a lifetime of watching how Washington operates. Every time in the past half century Congress has created a new agency that was supposed to make the federal government more efficient it has instead accomplished the exact opposite. I see no reason at this moment to expect otherwise.

Note that for the immediate future not much is going to change, as this new branch will be operating initially from within the Air Force, where space operations have been based for decades anyway.

Shelby delivers big bucks to SLS, Gateway

The boondoggle that never ends! The Senate has passed a 2020 budget that includes an increase of $1.2 billion for NASA’s Artemis program and Trump’s 2024 manned lunar landing proposal, almost all of which will go to Alabama, the home state of Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama).

In the Exploration section of the budget that does include the Moon mission, the big new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) would get nearly $2.6 billion in 2020, a $1.2 billion jump from this year. SLS is managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

The Orion crew capsule program would get $1.4 billion for continued development, the planned Lunar Gateway would get $500 million and lunar landers would get $744 million.

If the Democratically-controlled House ever decides to do anything but pursue sham impeachment charges against President Trump (such as approve a budget or deal with the Senate’s proposed commercial space legislation), it remains doubtful it will approve similar increases. During recent hearings on the budget, when the House was actually doing its real job, the Democrats were very hostile to funding Trump’s 2024 Moon proposal.

And even if the House should eventually go along, unlikely as that is, the money will not really get us closer to the Moon. The bulk of this cash is targeted to pay the salaries of NASA bureaucrats at Marshall, not actually build anything.

Meanwhile the second link above, “Cruz criticizes House for lack of action on commercial space legislation,” highlights the irresponsibility of the House under Democratic control.

Cruz and several other senators from both parties reintroduced the Space Frontier Act in March. The bill, favorably reported by the Senate Commerce Committee in April, calls for reforms of commercial launch and remote sensing regulations, which are already in progress, extends the authorization of the International Space Station through 2030 and elevates the Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department to the Bureau of Space Commerce, led by an assistant secretary.

The House, though, has not introduced a companion bill or related legislation, a lack of action that Cruz criticized. “It’s now been nearly a year since the Space Frontier Act has been on the House floor, and airlines, airline pilots and commercial space companies are no closer to getting greater certainty or having more of a voice on how our national airspace is managed than they were a year ago,” he said.

The Democrats might not agree with the language in this Senate bill, but they have an obligation to offer some alternative. Instead, they spend their time trying to overturn a legal election that they lost.

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