Earlier this week, retiring Senator Tom Coburn, (R) Oklahoma released the 2014 edition (pdf) of the “Wastebook” of public spending. As always the publication includes a cherry picked list of the various ways in which government “wastes” taxpayer dollars, much of which is difficult defend no matter what your political point of view.
As usual, NASA comes in for its fair share of criticism, but in the case of the 2014 edition, the selection of the International Space Station’s entire $3 billion dollar budget as the single largest item mentioned offers some disturbing insight into how the nation’s elected representatives view, or perhaps deliberately choose to portray, the nation’s manned space program.
In particular, while the report gleefully takes a swing at CASIS sponsored materials science research which could among other things lead to better golf clubs, it also focuses on the supposed risks of choosing unproven commercial providers for cargo and crew transport.
““NASA’s decision to rely on the new
commercial vehicles to transport cargo starting
in 2012 and to transport crew starting in 2017 is
inherently risky because the vehicles are not yet
proven and are experiencing delays in development.
Further, NASA does not have agreements
in place for international partners to provide cargo
services to the ISS beyond 2016.”357
The problem here is that the reference cited to raise skepticism comes from a March, 2012 GAO report released just two months before SpaceX made its historic COTS 2/3 cargo run to the orbiting laboratory. No mention is made of the outstanding success of achieved by both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences in completing the COTS program and performing Commercial Resupply missions to date. And of course there is no consideration given to what it might have cost NASA to establish two independent supply sources, both with new launch vehicles and new cargo craft, which were necessary to replace the Space Shuttle.
While one could dismiss the oversight as irrelevant given the general context of the Space Station being labeled a waste of money, an opinion shared by more than a few, what stands out is several other instances in the the document where NASA transgressions such as attending Comic-Con or funding a hunt for Genghis Khan’s tomb using satellite imagery are preceded by statements such as “With NASA’s manned space missions grounded indefinitely…” In other words, the report continually seems to place the resumption of American crewed spaceflight, and an end to $70 million dollar rides on Soyuz as an overriding priority, but then goes on to undercut the means of doing so by using outdated reports to raise doubts.
As for the lack of agreements for ongoing cargo delivery by international partners cited in the 2012 report, an interesting issue is unintentionally brought up. In persuading Europe to drop further ATV missions beyond ATV-5 (which is presently docked at ISS) in exchange for contributing the service module for Orion under a similar barter agreement, NASA has effectively shifted new costs in the form of increased U.S. cargo runs onto the ISS budget to benefit SLS, without transferring anything from the latter to make up the difference.
So, if the International Space Station is as the report suggests, a $3 billion a year waste of taxpayer resources, and yet a resumption of domestic crew launch to the very same station is a worthy goal, which is it? Or is it really about turning a blind eye towards a concept of “leadership” in space exploration, which the report clearly favors, through a wildly expensive SLS/Orion architecture which has already been penciled in to some future edition of the Wastebook?