Is NASA HSF Headed for a Train Wreck?

How this conversation might go today….

INT. STUDY — DAY
Lurch shows SAM HILLIARD into the study.
LURCH
Senator Hatch.
Hatch ignores his guest, maniacally focused on the trains containing NASA’s human spaceflight programs.
HILLIARD
Senator Hatch, I’m Sam Hilliard from NASA Commercial Crew.
HATCH
How do you do, Mr. Hilliard?
HILLIARD
I just stopped by to talk to you about….They’re going to crash!
HATCH
You think so, huh?
Hatch pushes the plunger. The bridge blows up — and the trains with them.
HATCH
Beautiful. Beautiful.
HILLIARD
You meant to blow them up?
HATCH
Of course, why else would a grown senator play with trains. Want to blow up the science budget?
HILLIARD
Some other time.
HATCH
You know how it is with elected representatives and toys. What can I do for you?
HILLIARD
It’s about sending more money to the CCDev budget.
HATCH
Ah, Sen. Shelby is in charge of human spaceflight. He’s in the guest room playing darts with Mike Griffin.

NASA’s human spaceflight program is heading for a similar train wreck unless something changes.

If the Obama Administration’s effort to bring genuine change to America’s space program have been about anything, it has been focused on ending the perpetual cycle of NASA spending so much money developing, operating and maintaining systems that the space agency can’t actually do much of anything in space.

Sadly, Congress has had other ideas.

The rocket and capsule that NASA is proposing to return astronauts to the moon would fly just twice in the next 10 years and cost as much as $38 billion, according to internal NASA documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

The money would pay for a new heavy-lift rocket and Apollo-like crew capsule that eventually could take astronauts to the moon and beyond. But it would not be enough to pay for a lunar landing — or for more than one manned test flight, in 2021….

According to preliminary NASA estimates, it would cost between $17 billion and $22 billion to ready the new rocket and Orion capsule for a test flight in December 2017 that would put an unmanned capsule into a lunar orbit. An additional $12 billion to $16 billion would be needed to launch the first crew on a lunar flyby in August 2021.

NASA spokesman David Weaver said nothing was final, however, and that the agency still was crunching numbers. “We want to get this right and ensure we have a sustainable program so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” Weaver said in a statement….

The agency also has contracted with Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia consulting firm, to conduct an independent assessment. The firm’s findings are expected in mid-August, and even agency insiders expect Booz Allen Hamilton to come back with a higher price tag given NASA’s history of lowballing initial cost estimates.

A decade of work for two flights. Nearly $40 million more spent. And no money to actually do much of anything once we get out of LEO.

Meanwhile, the House wants to freeze spending on CCDev at a paltry $312 million next year, a fraction of the $850 million NASA says it needs. That will push the first flights ever further into the future.

I personally have no trouble with NASA building a heavy lift vehicle. And I think Orion is fine. It’s the budget priorities and timing that are screwed up here. We’re pouring billions into a program that will do nothing to shorten the spaceflight gap.

Unless something gives, a train wreck is inevitable. Congress will insist that NASA build the SLS. It will keep CCDev on life support. The debt reduction deal will force deep cuts elsewhere in the space agency’s budget, squeezing out money for new tech development that would make space more affordable.

The result: a hollowed out NASA that has to continue to pay the Russians indefinitely to send astronauts to a space station that we largely funded. A commercial sector that can’t get off the ground. And little or no serious exploration beyond Earth orbit.

This is just not a viable human spaceflight policy.  Something has to give.