spacecraft design is best left to the experts

Lawmakers are now openly telling NASA exactly what rocket to build, what engines to use, and from what companies to buy them.
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By now, I’m sure we’re all familiar with the typical stance of Republican lawmakers on government. It’s bad. It wastes money. It should contract private companies to make the best and most efficient decisions. Unless of course the government is spending money in their districts and creating jobs. In that case, government is not only good, but it should be doing even more. That certainly seems to be the case when it comes space. After attacking Obama for involving “unqualified and unproven companies” in building spacecraft, Republicans used to NASA cash flowing into the districts have been trying to keep as much of it as possible, hence, earlier this month, three GOP lawmakers from Utah and their Democratic colleague decided that to tell the agency exactly what rockets to use for a new heavy lift vehicle according to their interpretations of the authorization bill asking for one. And wouldn’t you know it, they want NASA to use hardware being built by ATK Aerospace, a company based in their district and extremely unhappy that it won’t get to make boosters for the Ares rocket.

The problem is as follows. NASA needs to build a rocket that can deliver crew and cargo into orbit and beyond for future missions, and for its stage stage it could use liquid fuel rockets, a technology which proved its safety and reliability in the Saturn V. However, the lawmakers representing ATK’s interests want to stick to the plans laid down by the Constellation program: to use solid rocket boosters like the ones used in the shuttle today. In arguing their case, they insist that SRBs are the most practical technology to employ and that NASA is actually required to use them so they better stick to the Ares blueprint and buy themselves some of those ATK rockets, just to follow the president’s directives to the letter. Now, down here in the real world, where technology tends to be seen as something to be built on merit rather than on what company is in what geographical location, or what lawmaker decides to give it some pork to return the favor during election season, SRBs aren’t always the best or only possible choice for a heavy lift vehicle. As already noted, liquid fuel rockets are well tested and not only are they safer during an engine failure and quite reliable, they were used on the most powerful rocket that was ever built and the main stage for which could easily be made again.

But of course that’s unacceptable to our Utah politicians because the major defense contractor which built the rockets for Apollo and could do it again is now based in Illinois. Little details like the fact that the SRBs create so much vibration, crews in a capsule mounted at the top of it could be shaken to death or shredded with fuel from a failed rocket as they try to abort a mission, and what ATK plans to do about that, aren’t being covered in their pitch. And more importantly, there seems to be no reason why NASA needs to stay married to ATK. Sure, it makes the SRBs being used on the shuttle, but the shuttle is being retired. Who says that once NASA picks a company to build something, the agency must continue to buy the same things from them? Why won’t ATK simply offer a liquid fuel design and enter a bid for their piece of the new heavy lifter? Oh, right, that requires a fair bit of R&D and experiments to make sure they can actually built a liquid fuel rocket, and that’s a lot harder and a lot more expensive than just donating a good chunk of change to a few lawmakers and have them use their clout to mandate that a contract be given out the company, especially because it already expected to get paid for a project that’s being terminated because it was poorly planned and underfunded.

Really, we have engineers who are rather good at building spacecraft. We have rocket scientists who can run the necessary calculations and come up with exactly how a heavy lifter should be built to achieve the required results. These people have a lot of training, experience and education. So here’s a thought. Why don’t we just let them build the spacecraft that will do what we need it to do rather than tell them how to do it and with what company’s products? We generally don’t tell doctors how to perform surgery or programmers how to write the code for a new piece of software. Why tell NASA’s engineers how to build a rocket for campaign donations? Is competition for government contracts just a contest of what company can pay off more lawmakers?

# space // human spaceflight / nasa / realpolitik

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