A Well Earned Mistrust

And, just in case any of you out there were wondering how I actually do feel about the president's space policy... here's a piece that I published on ANN back on Sept. 20th, 2011... Oh, and by the way, I am all for SpaceX, the SNC Dream Chaser and the Boeing CTS-100, I'm simply not a Newspace zealot.

When President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 it placed into effect PL111-267. This law mandated that it will be the policy of the United States to have a Federal space launch system and that NASA must develop a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle- it was called the “Space Launch System” or “SLS.” In that law Congress saw fit to specify lifting tonnage, launch date, exploration destinations, use of existing materials and man power and a very clear date for reporting to the Congress on the beginning of development as well as the progress of the program. Although that action caused the Internet critics of human spaceflight to try and malign the proposed system by dubbing it the “Senate Launch System.” The program specifics were not born out of the desire of the Senate or the House to design a launch system. These specifics were instead born out of a well earned mistrust of NASA’s politically appointed upper management to actually follow through with the intent of the Congress.

          Since the beginning of the Constellation program, which was supposed to be the follow-on to the Space Shuttle, the project had wide support. For example, in 2005 the House approved the program by a vote of 385-15 and in 2008 the vote was a 409-15 approval. Thus both Republican and Democrat controlled Congresses approved of the direction in which NASA was headed. Yet in the beginning of 2010, in his Fiscal Year 2011 budget Proposal, President Obama saw fit to simply cancel Constellation and re-direct the funds for NASA’s human spaceflight program to start-up “commercial” operators. There was no goal for NASA that proposal, no schedule, no launch system- it was, in fact, a program to nowhere. This sent a shock wave through the Congress and the aerospace industry.

Prior to his election, candidate Obama had stated that when elected he  “…will expedite the development of the Shuttle's successor systems [Constellation] for carrying Americans to space so we can minimize the gap,” [between the Shuttle and Constellation]. But on February 1, 2010 President Obama did exactly the opposite.  

To say that the Congress was outraged would be somewhat of an understatement. Aside from a hand full in the Congress, the opposition to the Obama space program was quite heated. In the first hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology following the bombshell of the Obama FY2011 Budget Proposal, the normally reserved senior Representative Ralph Hall started to read his opening remarks and then stammered and stopped and said “…I’m so damned mad I can’t even read this.” There were applause in the chamber. In every hearing thereafter, in both houses of Congress, there was great opposition to the Obama space program to nowhere.

The spin quickly began and the script was made official with talking points saying that there was nothing wrong with the Obama proposal, it was simply that NASA had “Rolled it out poorly.” The Obama appointed NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and his ever grinning side-kick Assistant Administrator Lori Garver spouted this talking point many times as did a select few in the Congress such as Bill Nelson. This loyal Democrat who helped Obama win Florida, where the president’s new space program was about to put thousands of skilled workers out of a job while bankrupting much of the Space Coast. In late March of 2010 Nelson, along with KSC Director Bob Cabanna, did a panel discussion at the University of Central Florida. There Nelson assured the crowd that the president was going to “fix” his FY2011 space proposal on April 15 when he was scheduled to visit KSC. When asked, “What if he doesn’t?” Nelson frankly replied, “Then we (the Congress) will fix it for him.” For the next few weeks Nelson repeatedly stated that he had assurances from the White House, that the president would make major changes in his proposal on April 15th and would make a major announcement on a time-table for NASA and an objective- which would be Mars.

On the appointed day the president arrived at KSC as Bill Nelson stood proudly by waiting for the big announcement. Instead, President Obama visited the SpaceX facility, rubbed elbows with Elon Musk, went to designated speaking area and announced that the Orion spacecraft that he had canceled would now serve as a multi-billion dollar rescue pod to be hung on the International Space Station (ISS). He also sneered at returning to the moon with a been there, done that, quip… and other than some standard Obama circle-speak, that was that. He then boarded Air Force One and jetted down to Miami for a campaign fund raiser.

It is said that in Washington D.C. a friend is someone who stabs you in the chest rather than in the back- the president was apparently not being friendly to Senator Nelson.

From that point on the Congress went about “fixing it” for the White House. They invited NASA and aerospace industry engineers to conceive of a launch system that could take the Orion from the Constellation Program and use it to explore beyond low earth orbit and to back-up the Obama blessed “commercial” operators who were supposed to take over shuttling U.S. astronauts to the ISS. They asked the engineers to make, to the greatest extent practical, use Space Shuttle hardware and facilities as well as those that were in development for Constellation. Additionally, the Congress asked that the new program consider current and future budgetary restraints. By mid-summer the Senate had what they needed to mandate a palatable and realistic direction for NASA. Following the Congressional summer recess of 2010 the Senate’s Authorization Act was accepted by the House and went before the President, who signed it into law. You would think that was it- done- let’s get started, but you must remember that this is the Obama Administration we are talking about.

Members of the Senate did indeed remember that they were dealing with the Obama Administration. This president wants things done his way- period. If he cannot get his way past the Congress, he will make an end run around that body and get his way administratively. A good example of this can be seen in “Cap-N-Trade.”  This pet project of the Obama White House could not get past the Congress, so the administration simply went around the Congress and is currently trying to impose it by way of the EPA. In the nine months between the announcement of the FY2011 Budget proposal and the signing of the NASA Authorization Act the Congress developed a well earned mistrust where the President was concerned. Additionally, the members of Congress clearly did not trust the politically appointed “leaders” at NASA to execute the law to any greater degree than they trusted the Obama Administration to follow the law.

For that reason, the members of the Senate who wrote the Authorization Act placed some specifics into the act. These included a 90 day countdown from the day of the Act’s entry into law that required the production of a full report on vehicle specifications must be delivered to the Congress and made public. The Congress did NOT “design the rocket.” That little myth has become a common slur used by those who still want the original Obama program-to-nowhere to return. Another common slur that is used by the fans of the Obamaspace is to say that SLS stands for “Senate Launch System.” When you read a comment posted anywhere in the Internet’s assorted public space “forums,” it should be considered to say nothing more than “I want the Obama plan to nowhere.” It also says that the person posting that message knows nothing about NASA as a whole and cares little about the agency itself.

Of course the opinions of the semi-informed lemmings of the Internet forums are of no matter in this saga- the real struggle is in the political arena. You see, the Congress established NASA and the agency is under their direction. NASA, however, is administered by persons appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the President. That, is the real ball to which we must keep our eye upon.

Likewise, we often hear and read the saying “The Congress writes the checks.” That is not correct- in fact, the Congress only APPROVES the checks. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) actually “writes the checks.” What most people do not realize is that OMB is not required to disburse as much as Congress has approved. They can, and often do, disburse far less and can also delay funds as they wish in order to steer an agency in one direction or another. OMB is under the direction of the President.

For 339 days after the president signed the law that created the SLS, Congress waited for the report that was to be submitted by NASA’s politically appointed “leadership” within 90 days after the President’s signature. Likewise the engineering specifications for the SLS were being held up, not by NASA’s career civil servants, not by engineers, not by contractors- but by…  (you’ll never guess)… OMB! Yes, OMB, which- again- is under the direction of the President, had insisted on an “independent” review of the costs in the SLS plan before it invested billions in the system. This sounds quite responsible until you know that OMB has NOT called for any independent review or accounting of those so-called “commercial” operators that Obamaspace desires to become the exclusive providers of transportation of humans to and from space and who will also be getting billions of dollars to fly rockets.

While announcing the SLS, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden as well as Senator Bill Nelson attempted to spin the administration’s delaying tactics and as being the grand plan of the President all along intended to ensure that the new program would be “sustainable” and “affordable.”

Sorry- NO SALE guys.

This was Obama playing basketball and trying to run out the clock until he could get that last three point shot and win the game for himself. Tell the thousands of honest, hardworking spaceflight workers who lost their jobs, homes and self-worth in the nine months that it took to start this program, all about this study. While you are at it tell the businesses, the restaurants, mom and pop stores, the auto repair shops and so on that depended on those same workers all about the studies and other delays.  No sale.

Tomorrow, September 22, 2011 there will be a House Hearing concerning the question of “NASA Human Spaceflight Past, Present, and Future: Where Do We Go From Here?” Which is still a critical question even though the SLS has finally been announced. That is because when it comes to NASA’s human spaceflight program there is a well earned mistrust so far as the agency’s politically appointed administrators and the Obama Administration are concerned. The games, political tricks and delaying tactics are not over.

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