Tea Party's Final Frontier: Save Space Programs

Tuesday, 16 Aug 2011 01:04 PM

By David A. Patten

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Not content with stonewalling President Barack Obama’s agenda, grabbing the House of Representatives, and forcing Beltway types to change their big-spending ways, the grass-roots conservative movement is now ready to launch into the final frontier – space.

Perhaps sending the tea party movement into outer space might sound like a skit by Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. But the Tea Party in Space is a real grass-roots organization with a very serious objective: Restoring U.S. leadership in space exploration and settlement, while reining in budget-busting aerospace programs they say are costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.

Andrew Gasser is a retired Air Force officer and founder of TeaPartyinSpace.com.

His interest in applying tea party principles to the space program began when the Obama administration canceled the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs in favor of domestic spending.

“President Obama really didn’t show he had a serious vision for what he wanted America to do in space,” says Gasser. “Basically, he’s relinquishing our leadership role in that capacity.

“What he has essentially done is pulled money out of NASA and put it into other programs, and allowed NASA to wither on the vine,” he says. “They’re not giving clear direction on what NASA should be doing, and how NASA should be going forward.”

But Gasser noticed that members of Congress aligned with the grass-roots conservative movement embraced the same massive NASA programs supported by Washington’s infamous “appropriators.” So he decided the nation needed to apply tea party principles to the space program.

That NASA programs are exorbitant is as obvious as a rocket launch. In 1990, the Government Accountability Office labeled NASA a “high risk” for cost overruns. A Congressional Budget Office review found that cost overruns of 50 percent or more are routine.

Constellation, the program designed to usher in the next stage of human spaceflight and exploration, cost taxpayers $11 billion and was five years behind schedule when President Obama decided to pull the plug last year.

Similary, the problem-plagued James Webb Space Telescope was expected to cost $1 billion and launch in 2010. Now, this replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope is expected to cost at least $6.8 billion -- and won’t launch until 2018 at the earliest.

That dismal history led Gasser and other tea party members to suppose there must be a better way: Why not apply the conservative, free-market principles of the tea party movement to space exploration?

He founded the TeaPartyInSpace.com organization, which is affiliated with Tea Party Patriots. Today, the group is pushing for measures it believes can restore NASA to its former glory despite the nation’s escalating budget pressures.

It seeks an end to single-source contracts, more competitive bidding, and a shift away from crash programs in favor of commercial space exploration that would rely on the innovation and efficiency of private firms wherever possible.

Barely had the Tea Party in Space launched itself than it became embroiled in the growing battle over the development of America’s next launch vehicle, known as the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS was supposed provide a system by 2016 that would replace the now defunct Space Shuttle. But NASA administrators have already admitted the soonest the SLS could be ready to go would be 2021.

In the meantime, the United States will often have to rely on other nations’ space programs for assistance.

When the legislation authorizing the SLS made its way through Congress, a little-noticed provision was inserted that specified NASA should rely as much as possible on technologies developed by the cancelled Constellation program and the now retired space shuttle. At the time, this was sold as a cost-saving measure.

But Gasser and his allies see the mandate to use recycled parts from Constellation and the shuttle program as a blatant attempt to fund the same contractors who have profited for years from cost overruns, often without producing systems that live up to expectations.

So far, there are worrisome indications SLS is following in Constellation’s path: Huge taxpayer costs and schedule delays.

The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that according to NASA’s own internal documents, the SLS and related programs would cost at least $38 billion – and that doesn’t even include the manned lunar landing that is the program’s ultimate objective.

“If we really want to go do something in space,” Gasser says, “this space launch system is not the way to go. We don’t need a big rocket. What we need are different, cheaper, less expensive ways that create jobs in the aerospace sector to go out and settle space.”

After being burned by serial cost overruns, NASA isn’t publishing its final design specs or cost estimates until the whole shebang can be reviewed by Booz Allen Hamilton, an independent outside consultant. Most observers expect the consultant’s price estimate to come in well north of NASA’s $38 billion.

NASA’s critics, however, aren’t waiting for another report to render their verdict. “This is an absolute waste of borrowed money,” says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a frequent critic of NASA’s way of doing business.

Gasser believes the real problem isn’t NASA or its dedicated engineers or scientists. He says NASA is handcuffed by powerful members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats -- who are more interested in winning single-source contracts for their friends than in seeing fair competition to develop the best, most efficient launch vehicles.

He complains special interests are manipulating the political process to distort the bidding process and reduce competition. And he says over 100 NASA scientists and engineers have contacted him to support his efforts.

“Honestly, who this really hurts are the NASA engineers, who are really trying to do a good job,” Gasser tells Newsmax. “But they can’t when they have senators playing rocket scientist from the Hill.”

As the latest example of how Congress tries to tilt scales away from science and toward vested interests, Gasser points to a letter dated Aug. 2 written by five U.S. senators to NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew.

The letter is signed by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and four Republican senators: Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho Sen. James Risch, and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller.

The letter ostensibly urges “NASA and OMB to publish its final design in an expeditious manner.”

But it also states: “It also has been brought to our attention some of our colleagues have written to Administrator Bolden requesting NASA conduct a competition for the booster portion of the SLS. Since the legal requirements for the SLS can only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors, we welcome a competition once the initial SLS flight testing is completed.”

In other words, in recognition of the fact that competition is beneficial, the senators urge NASA to assemble, and flight test, a launch system based on systems that were created by previous contractors.

Then, only after tens of billions have been spent developing and testing the system, they then “welcome a competition.”

Newsmax contacted the offices of several senators, and one confirmed the letter is genuine. Asked to explain why they invite competition to begin once the system has already been spent, a congressional source said the senators are merely reminding Bolden that the law authorizing the SLS program specified that the SLS launch vehicle should be based on systems already under development in the previous programs.

“That is a nice way of saying we want a sole-source contract the boosters to Utah,” Gasser says. “The problem is that’s maintaining the current, expensive infrastructure, and it’s a lot of overhead that could be used to develop a new liquid booster.”

Some tea party types are particularly aggravated to see Sen. Hatch’s name at the bottom of the letter, because he has made a concerted effort to reach out to conservatives as part of his bid for re-election in 2012.

“He’s been really trying to sound like he’s a fiscally conservative, limited government, free-market type of guy,” says Gasser. “But then in the middle of our worst financial crisis in at least 85 years, he tries to backdoor this letter and strong-arm NASA into doing something they might not want to do.

“The tea party is appalled that senator Hatch thinks he can pull one over on the tea party,” Gasser says. “He seems to think he can just sneak this by and we won’t catch it. But we did catch it, and we’re serious when we say we want him to come out, along with Senator Reid and other senators, and renounce this.”

Newsmax contacted Sen. Hatch, and was told by a staff member that the senator simply wants to ensure the SLS program complies with the law, and otherwise declined to comment. But SLS critics question the need to abide by the letter of the law, when NASA has already admitted it can’t meet the 2016 deadline in the legislation anyway.

So far, it does appear commercial space exploration is shaping up as a promising proving ground for the tea party principle that anything the government can do, private enterprise and free markets can do better.
Boeing, for example, recently announced that it will develop a capsule to place atop an existing Atlas V rocket capable of delivering a crew to the space station by 2015. It needs federal money to accomplish that, naturally, but most analysts believe it would cost a fraction of what a NASA program would.

Another firm, SpaceX of California, successfully put its Dragon capsule into orbit. The launch system it used to accomplish that feat, the Falcon 9, cost about $390 million to develop. A recent report to Congress found that for NASA to develop that same launch vehicle, the cost would have been between $1.7 billion and $4 billion.

Everett Wilkinson, a Florida Tea Party leader and the vice president of Tea Party in Space, says some members of Congress, in pursuing their own interests, are acting as NASA’s worst enemy.

“The same NASA centers and contractors who failed to complete the Constellation program are getting a bailout courtesy of the taxpayers,” Wilkinson says. “NASA is being forced to fund programs that are behind schedule and ridiculously over budget. It’s time to ask: ‘How much is enough?’”

Says Wilkinson: “Both NASA, and the American taxpayer, deserve a better plan.”


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