Did NASA Really Waste $20 Billion in Cancelled Human Space Flight Programs?

Did NASA Really Waste $20 Billion in Cancelled Human Space Flight Programs?

When Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and several other House members introduced the Space Leadership Act on Thursday, a graphic was used to illustrate a 20-year history of $20 billion worth of NASA human space flight development programs that were cancelled.   That graphic must be used with caution, however.

The graphic has been in circulation in the space community for a couple of years, but it does not indicate its author.   Another version assigns dollar numbers to each of the programs included in the graphic, but the one used by Culberson and posted on his website does not.  Instead there is simply a declarative statement in a box at the bottom saying “in the last 20 years NASA has spent more than $20B on cancelled development programs.”  The title of the graphic is “Human Space Flight Development Programs” so one can infer that the box is totalling up only human space flight development programs that have been cancelled.

Source:  Rep. John Culberson’s website, visited Sept. 22, 2012.

Unquestionably, NASA has cancelled a large number of human space flight development programs over the years, but at least one shown on this graphic was not cancelled — Orion, and at least one is not a human space flight program — Prometheus/JIMO, the nuclear-powered Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter project initiated by former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and cancelled shortly after his departure.  The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) also was not specifically related to the human space flight program and was not a development program.  It was a grant-based program to fund studies of advanced concepts for NASA as a whole, and although it was terminated in 2007, it was reinstated in a modified manner in FY2011 as part of the Office of Chief Technologist.  Even more importantly, the money allocated to it was spent on grants for studies that were completed.  The National Research Council reviewed the work done through NIAC and advocated NIAC’s reinstatement.

“COTS-RpK” refers to Rocketplane Kistler’s participation in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, but it was not “cancelled” in the same sense as other programs on this graphic. RpK did not meet the agreed-upon milestones for the COTS program so NASA stopped funding them.  Orbital Sciences Corp was then selected to replace RpK.  Orbital’s COTS program is shown in this chart in yellow as “incomplete,” which is accurate, although SpaceX’s COTS program, also shown as incomplete, now has been successfully completed. 

Culberson, who is a member of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, said the bill (H.R. 6491) was being introduced to “make NASA less political and more professional by modeling their leadership after the FBI and the National Science Foundation” and to “make NASA funding more stable and predictable by enabling them to design and build rockets and new spacecraft in the same way the Navy designs and builds new submarines and ships.”   It is the latter point to which the graphic pertains, attempting to show that the fits and starts that have characterized NASA’s human space flight program in recent decades resulted in wasted tax dollars.  That point is accurate, but the graphic does not do a credible job of showing it or proving that it is $20 billion.

The full text of the bill (before it was assigned a bill number) is available on Rep. Frank Wolf’s website.  Culberson’s site summarizes the key points as follows, saying the bill would:

  • Create a Board of Directors chosen by the administration, House, and Senate, made up of former astronauts and eminent scientists responsible for:
    • Preparing a budget submission approved by the Administrator and submitted CONCURRENTLY to House and Senate Appropriations and the president.
    • Recommending three candidates for NASA Administrator, Deputy Administrator and CFO; the president is encouraged to select one of the above, who would then be approved by the Senate.
    • Preparing a quadrennial review of space programs and other reports.
  • Board terms would change to three, three-year terms. (Currently, two, six-year terms)
    • It will also include a clause that states that no board member can work for a company which has business with NASA.
  • The Administrator would be selected for a 10-year term.
    • This mirrors the FBI directors 10-year term.
    • The board will be allowed to remove the NASA Administrator for cause.
  • The legislation extends the provision for long term contracting from EELV (Evolvable Expendable Launch Vehicle) to rocket propulsion systems and manned and unmanned space transportation vehicles and payloads, including expendable launch vehicles, and related services.

In addition to the members who were at the press conference on Thursday to announce introduction of the bill — Culberson, Frank Wolf (R-VA), Bill Posey (R-FL), and Pete Olson (R-TX)  — Culberson’s website lists the following original co-sponsors:  Gene Green (D-TX), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Lamar Smith (R-TX), James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Ken Calvert (R-CA), Allen West (R-FL), Connie Mack (R-FL), Blake Farenthold (R-TX), John Carter (R-TX), Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Michael McCaul (R-TX), and Rob Wittman (R-VA). 

Rep. Mack is currently running against Sen. Bill Nelson for that Florida Senatorial seat.  Rep. Sensenbrenner is a former chair, and current vice-chair, of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee.   Several other co-sponsors also are members of that committee. 

The sponsor/co-sponsor list is heavily weighted with members from Texas, home not only to the bill’s primary sponsor, Culberson, but to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC).  The Houston Chronicle reported last month that JSC Director Michael Coats is a strong proponent of the bill and “keeps a list of about two dozen programs NASA has started — and then canceled.”  That suggests JSC may be the source of the graphic, which is widely assumed, but cannot be stated definitively since the graphic does not display its origin.

The large proportion of Texas representatives supporting the bill highlights the absence of another — Ralph Hall, chair of the House SS&T Committee.   That committee authorizes NASA activities and sets civil space policy.  Hall is an ardent NASA supporter.  The Houston Chronicle did state, however, the Hall promised to hold a hearing on the bill.

In any case, the bill is not expected to clear the 112th Congress, if for no other reason than how little time is left in this session.

Editor’s note:  This article was updated to provide the link to the text of the bill on Rep. Wolf’s website.

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