Over the Moon

What happens when a space program gets canceled?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Barack Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011, released Monday, would kill NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon—a program that has already cost $9.1 billion. What will NASA do with all the technology that it has already developed but can no longer continue financing?

Give it away, sell it, or toss it. When NASA cancels a program or no longer needs certain pieces of equipment, it hands the material over to a property disposal officer who then finds the best way to get rid of it. First dibs go to programs within NASA that may have use for the equipment, and then to other federal agencies. The Defense Department might find some use for rocket parts in missile construction, for example, or the Smithsonian might want a particular spacecraft with historical significance. Sometimes entire locations are preserved for history, such as the old mission control room used during the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission at the Johnson Space Center. NASA often provides unneeded parts free of cost, but the receiving agency has to arrange and pay for shipping. If no agencies want the equipment, NASA will arrange a public sale. If no one wants to buy an entire spacecraft, the government can usually find someone willing to buy its spare parts. (For example, NASA sells used spacecraft tires.) Otherwise, NASA will destroy the equipment or throw it away—but only after extracting any precious metals.

NASA also tries to preserve and pass on any knowledge gained from the program, known in business lingo as “knowledge capture.” Spacecraft schematics, engine designs, computer models, and test data are all archived in the NASA Center for Aerospace Information. Important records are also stored at the National Archives. Since so much of what NASA produces is through private contractors, it also keeps records of its contracts with companies like Lockheed Martin. Sometimes companies like to maintain their trade secrets, in which case NASA doesn’t have to make their research public.

Canceling programs also means reshuffling labor and resources. Many engineers get relocated within the agency. Others get laid off. Private contractors, too, usually lose employees. NASA will also often pay contractors a “termination fee” for killing the project before it’s complete.

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Explainer thanks Ashley Edwards of NASA and Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum.

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