The search for funding for NASA’s human spaceflight program is one way to get a glimpse inside the murky world of Congressional subcommittees. To summarize, in the absence of the space shuttle since its retirement, NASA has been dependent on the Russians for crew transportation to and from the International Space Station. In order to get around this, and continue to fly crewed missions to the ISS, NASA has been setting aside money for its Commercial Crew Program, which would see commercial space corporations taking over the role of the Russians while NASA develops its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle; the development of which began under the Bush presidency’s Project Constellation – which was canceled under the Obama administration, but many programs under it continue under new names. The lineage of American space exploration programs since Apollo is worthy of a blog post of its own – although possibly a very depressing one.
The commentary by Sen. Richard Shelby is very interesting however:
“This budget focuses, I believe, too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles, which diverts, I think, critical resources from NASA’s goal of developing human spaceflight capabilities with the SLS,” he said in his opening statement.” 
The SLS, or Space Launch System, is one of the many Space Shuttle derived launch vehicles that have been proposed since the Shuttle entered service (ie, the rocket would use Shuttle components like engines or the external tank to save costs). This also has the effect of allowing existing infrastructure built to support Shuttle operations to continue on – and preserve the jobs of the workers employed at these facilities. I suspect this is what drives Shelby’s opposition to commercial space launch in this instance; even if commercial space operations could deliver a working crew return capability at lower cost then NASA, the SLS and Orion would still be defended even if made redundant by a commercial heavy launch vehicle. The programs are important to Shelby’s constituents, the Marshall Space Flight Center is located in Alabama for one – and not preceding with a Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle would not be good for the workers employed in the Shuttle-era industries hoping to support it. As the Competitive Space article points out:
“Note also that there are many heavy-lift concepts that do not employ solid rocket motors, and that the only thing for which they are “critical” is the maintenance of a jobs base in the state of Utah…All of this is code for “preserve the Shuttle infrastructure and all the jobs associated with it.” And the notion that this would ever be amenable to commercial operations, particularly in light of the fierce competition it will have from true cost-effective commercial operators, domestic and foreign, is ludicrous.”
Large aerospace corporations, like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have, and continue to have, an almost cartel-like control of space launch options in the United States. It is reasonable to assume that they have no desire to either compete with other corporations for launch contracts, or lower launch costs to win a bidding war with cheaper options by upstart commercial space startups. The SLS, which as the Competitive Space article points out is intended to support space station operations despite being extreme overkill for the job, would funnel money into the hands of the large aerospace contractors like nothing else – Competitive Space, despite an obvious bias against the SLS, cites a launch cost of a billion dollars per flight. At that going rate, it would not be surprising if there was an army of lobbyists working behind the scenes to convince Shelby and others of the necessity of maintaining this program against competitive flight options from the upstart commercial space industry.
In the end what this provides us with is a glimpse into how pork barrel politics works at the subcommittee level. The sad result being that we could probably built a tower into space from the combined dead tree material of all the programs started and canceled over the years since Nixon ended Apollo. Its also interesting to note that Congress is mandating aspects of spacecraft design, ie:
“The Space Launch System shall be designed from inception as a fully-integrated vehicle capable of carrying a total payload of 130 tons or more into low-Earth orbit in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit.”
This isn’t an aspect of Congress that gets mentioned in the textbooks. On one hand, it would be interesting to learn how Congress makes these decisions – but on the other it raises the question of whether at the end of the day you would rather have a launch vehicle developed by engineers from the get go, or one built to the specifications of a congressional subcommittee. This was actually part of the reason the Space Shuttle ended up as such a boondoogle, rather then the inexpensive space truck that it was intended to be at first. But, like many other things raised in this post, its a story for another day.
1. Foust, Jeff. “NASA uses Soyuz deal to push for commercial crew funding « Space Politics.” Space Politics. http://www.spacepolitics.com/2013/05/01/nasa-uses-soyuz-deal-to-push-for-commercial-crew-funding/ (accessed May 17, 2013).
2. ” The Senate Launch System.” Competitive Space. http://www.competitivespace.org/issues/the-senate-launch-system/ (accessed May 17, 2013).