A widespread opinion is that the sequestration--the blunt whack of $85 billion from the national government's budget--was, as UPI puts it, "a dumb idea when it was created and it's a dumb idea now." But the sequestration may be far dumber than most realize. To save money, this budget bash is about to gush over three quarters of a billion dollars from America's space budget directly into the coffers of the Russians. Penny wise and billion dollar foolish.
How does this astonishingly self-defeating cash transfusion to Moscow work?
NASA has a little-known but crucial project called the Commercial Crew Program. In the days of the Space Shuttle it cost roughly $37,500 per pound to get an American astronaut into space. Let's say that you are that astronaut. Adding in all the oxygen, food, water, and equipment it takes to keep you alive, that's close to $82.5 million to get you into orbit. Which is the price of flying the entire population of Pittsburgh to LA and back with tickets from cheapoair.com. But if America can get that cost down, it can make space as accessible as, well, airline trips from Pittsburgh to LA.
This is where the Commercial Crew Program comes in. In the Program, three private companies are competing to deliver US astronauts to the International Space Station. Those companies are Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and Space Exploration Technologies (better known as Space X). All are under contract to meet performance milestones on a timetable that would deliver US astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017 or sooner.
And so far, things look promising. SpaceX has already built the rockets it takes to get to orbit and has put them into regular commercial use. What's more, SpaceX has designed a Dragon Capsule capable of putting seven humans into space, and has launched two of these capsules, orbited them, and brought them safely back to earth. But that's not all. On launch number two, the Dragon Capsule carried a load of NASA cargo, docked with the International Space Station, uneventfully transferred its 1,200 pound load, took on 1,673 pounds of used hardware, supplies and more than a ton of scientific samples from the Station packed in a GLACIER (General Laboratory Active Cryogenic ISS Experiment Refrigerator) freezer, and brought that crucial payload to earth. SpaceX plans its third launch of the Dragon capsule with 1,268 pounds of crew supplies and scientific equipment for the International Space Station Friday, March 1st, the day the sequestration is scheduled to take effect.
Normally delivering cargo to orbit costs NASA roughly $10,000 per pound, a lot less than delivering people. But SpaceX's Dragon Capsule and Falcon 9 can cost an estimated $2,500 per pound, a galumphing 75% savings. What's more, SpaceX's head, Elon Musk, has stated that his goal is ten dollars per pound. Yes, you read that right: ten dollars a pound to orbit. Which would bring the cost of putting you into orbit along with the oxygen, food, and water necessary to keep you alive down to $22,000. Not exactly the cost of an airline ticket from Pennsylvania to LA. But within the range of reality for a business traveler, researcher, space colonist, or asteroid miner.
What would sequestration do to this cost-reduction drive? And how do the Russians get into the act? There's another government blunder that's been hidden from you and me, hidden in plain sight: America's space gap.
Ever since the retirement of the Shuttle in 2011, America has been unable to launch astronauts into orbit on American launch vehicles. Yes, there is currently no American craft, no matter how modest, that can put humans into space. At a time when even the Iranians are launching monkeys. Embarrassing, right?
As NASA administrator Charles Bolden told a NASA audience in Huntsville, Alabama, on February 22nd: "Budget sequestration will slow NASA's effort to start a commercial space industry to take astronauts to the International Space Station on American spacecraft. The gap between America and Russia, which can still launch astronauts, will not close. The gap is going to get bigger. Anybody who thinks this is no big deal - it's a big deal."
Despite this space gap, the United States has obligations to the fifteen countries it seduced, kidnapped, and recruited into a $35-100 billion project, the vastly underutilized International Space Station. The International Space Station is an incredible achievement, a historically monumental construction on a par with the pyramids and the Parthenon. And to fulfill our obligations to our partners, we are committed to sending roughly 56 more astronauts to the station. Which leaves us with a problem. How do we send our men and women to space when we have no launch vehicle capable of carrying humans?
It's simple. We rely on a nation some of whose media outlets, believe it or not, still portray us as the enemy: Russia. Yes, Pravda.ru, which has been described as "the largest news and analytical Internet-holding in Russia," says week after week that the USA is a degenerate and murderous nation. With headlines like the current "Killing Russian Children Not a Tragedy for U.S."
Only a few months ago, the Russians charged us $55.8 million a ticket to send a single astronaut to space and to bring her back on their Soyuz rockets. But since they have no competitors to drive down the price, the Russians have hiked the fare by 12% to $62.7 million dollars per ticket. And the price could go up farther.
Here's where the ability of the sequestration to turn the saving of a penny into the loss of a billion comes in. Inside sources at NASA say that the sequestration will only cut $25 million to $30 million from the Commercial Crew contracts. By government standards, that sounds like a mere piffle. Right?
But through the magic of cumulative blunders, that tiny loss of money will turn into a torrent. It will delay the Commercial Crew Program for roughly two years. And every year we go without our own access to space, we are forced to pay another $350 million to $400 million to the Russians. In fact, on March 14, NASA reached an agreement to pay Russia $753 million for twelve round trip tickets to our station in the sky. That's three quarters of a billion dollars. And if the U.S.'s period without American vehicles stretches out, that figure will increase. Think about it. $753 million or more siphoned from the American space program and used to underwrite Russian research and development and Russian leadership in space. When Russia's Sputnik went up in 1957 and shocked the USA, the idea of underwriting Russian space development and crippling ours would have been unthinkable.
Nearly as bad, the Commercial Crew Program works by paying the three competing companies only when they meet milestones. Until then, these firms have to advance their own cash. They work "on the come." If these companies have factored the government payment into their projections of cash flow and if they reach their milestones, the government's refusal to pay up can bankrupt them. Or seriously set them back. This is NOT the way to encourage American ingenuity, American entrepreneurship, and American job creation. It makes the American government, the government that represents you and me, a bad business partner. A deadbeat.
Concludes Dave Dunlop, head of the International Committee for the National Space Society and a member of the group I run, The Space Development Steering Committee, "No wonder recent polls show that colonoscopies are more popular than Congress." Or, as percussionist Ralph MacDonald once advised, "Don't stop to pick up the pennies when the dollars are flying over your head."