As summer starts to give way to fall and the end of the current fiscal year draws nigh, demands that NASA’s commercial crew program be fully funded are being heard with greater frequency and urgency. Astronaut Scott Kelly took time off from his year-long sojourn on the International Space Station to entreat Congress to pony up. IO9 was a little more caustic, stating “Dammit, Congress: Just Buy NASA its Own Space Taxi, Already.” Monday, Slate became the latest media outlet to take up the cause.
The situation is depressingly familiar to those who have followed the fortunes of the space program since the Apollo moon landings. When President Obama started the commercial crew program in 2010, NASA estimated that it would take a certain amount of money to get government funded and commercially operated spacecraft running by 2015. Then the space agency would no longer be dependent on Russia for rides to the International Space Station.
Congress has decided to allocate less money than NASA feels it needed for commercial crew. This situation is not unusual, as Congress often does this to space projects. However, the politics surrounding the creation of the commercial crew program, which featured the abrupt cancelation of the Constellation space exploration program, has exacerbated the conflict between NASA’s will and Congress’ won’t. President Obama did not consult Congress when he cancelled President Bush’s return to the moon program. Congress has been displeased ever since.
The author of the Slate piece, as so many others have, casts Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees NASA, as the villain of the story. “Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, is the chairman of the Senate’s committee that funds NASA, and he has Marshall Space Flight Center in this district. Marshall is where SLS is being designed and built. Shelby also has a history of throwing roadblocks in the way of funding Commercial Crew and SpaceX.”
Many in the space advocacy community believe that if NASA would just cancel the Space Launch System, the heavy lift rocket that the space agency is basing its space exploration program on, all will be well. NASA could then just pour money into cheaper, smaller commercial rockets.
The problem is that without a rocket with the lifting power of the SLS, the most NASA can hope to do is to place a few people on the lunar surface with some degree of difficulty and complexity. Mars, which most people agree is the ultimate destination for American astronauts, will forever be out of reach. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, is relying on his own heavy lift rocket, the Mars Colonial Transport, for his Mars dreams.
In any case, even if that last statement was not true, Shelby believes it and he will not be moved. Any space plan that begins with “First, we cancel the big rocket” is a waste of breath.
Of course one does not have to be an expert in the art of the deal, like Donald Trump, to see the solution to the problem. The solution lays in the fact that Richard Shelby is not the man you complain about or try to overcome. Senator Shelby is the man you buy. Someone should really write a book about how such things are done.
The key to getting Shelby to say yes to full funding for commercial crew is to give him something he wants. Shelby would like to see the big rocket used to the fullest extent possible. So, one could make him an offer he would have difficulty refusing. He should be promised at least two launches a year of the SLS starting in 2021 and extending to the indefinite future. An agreement should be hammered out to fund some use for the big rocket, such as building a lunar base and launching big probes to destinations such as Europa and Titan. The commercial space sector would win too since, especially the lunar base effort, would involve commercial launches as well.
President Obama could hammer out the deal in an afternoon round of golf, if he wished to. The foursome would be the president, Shelby, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and someone from the House, say Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the appropriation subcommittee that funds NASA. Fixing the space program that he helped to break would be a better legacy for the president than Obamacare or the Iranian nuclear weapons deal.
Of course, the inevitable objection is, the deal would cost some extra money. That is a true statement. But if the government is good at anything it is spending money. The amount necessary is but a rounding error where the federal budget is concerned.