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America’s Impenetrable Congress Does It Again

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 14, 2015
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There’s a great scene in “2010: The Year We Make Contact,” in which Dmitri Moiseyevich (Dana Elcar) asks Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) what scientists had learned about the monolith brought back from the moon.

“Nothing,” Floyd replies. “It’s impenetrable. We’ve tried lasers, nuclear detonators. Nothing worked.”

I reached that same conclusion about Congress this week. The institution seems impermeable to facts, reasoned arguments, and even potential threats to the lives of America’s brave astronauts.

On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice, and science subcommittee reported a spending bill for NASA. Legislators one again took a substantial cut out requested funds for the Commercial Crew Program, reducing the budget from the requested $1.243 billion to $1 billion. That’s almost a 20 percent cut.

Now, we’ve seen this same movie year after year. We’ve seen NASA ask for a requested amount, Congress cut it, the program slip further into the future, and the space agency write ever larger checks to the Russian government to ensure access to a space station that was launched more than 30 years ago by the patron saint of modern conservative, Ronald Reagan. NASA officials have warned once again the program will slip without full funding.

All in all, the policy has been pretty insane. Congress can pay American companies now to produce U.S. rockets and spacecraft that can restore our independent access to space. Or it can be penny wise and pound foolish, enriching the Russians in the process. For reasons only known to itself, Congress has chosen the latter.

The most recent reduction threatens more of the same. It also comes as the Russians try to pick up the pieces of their latest launch failure, the loss of a Progress freighter headed for the International Space Station. This was the second loss of a Progress cargo ship in less than four years that resulted from launch failures. And it was yet another sign of the decay of a once venerable space program that has suffered numerous failures since the end of 2010.

There are multiple options for getting supplies to the space station. There’s only one for getting crew there and back, the Russian Soyuz. America’s entire 31-year investment in the station — nay, the investment of all the international partners — hangs on the thin thread that the quality control problems that affected the entire Russian space industry do not result in a bad day with a crewed Soyuz launch.

The Soyuz has been incredibly reliable over the years. It has flown for 44 years since the last fatal flight. The Russians have proven to be very skilled at launching these spacecraft safely. But, nothing lasts forever. Space is a risky business. And Russian quality control has slipped.

Despite clear signs that the Russian space program is in an advanced state of decay for nearly five years, Congressional appropriators have gone on their merry way, happily cutting the commercial crew requests to fund the longer-term Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle that won’t be ready for crews until the early 2020’s.

Hopefully, the Senate will fund the full amount and the House will accept it in conference.  We’ll see how the new Republican majority there handles the budget.

However, I fear there’s only one way to break through Congress’s impenetrable refusal to fully funding commercial crew: if the crewed Soyuz experiences an abort or fatalities. Our esteemed Congressmen will be up in arms, wondering why the U.S. doesn’t have its own access to the station. And they will largely have themselves to blame.

If we’re lucky, the Russians get a handle on the problem, nothing bad happens, and U.S. commercial crew service begins on schedule in 2017. If we’re not, we could be in real trouble.