Bad Astronomy

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex) disses private space

spacex_f9logoI’m scratching my head over the reactions of some Congresscritters about the successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX on Friday. Given that NASA has several billion dollars it will be giving to commercial transport systems over the next few years, you’d think that Congress would be happy that a private company was able to get a medium-lift rocket into orbit on their first try.

But then, you wouldn’t be Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. This Texas Republican – that’s important, hang on – gave a short statement after the launch that was at best tepid, and in reality a slap in the face to SpaceX and all the other private space companies:

This first successful test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs. While this test flight was important, the program to demonstrate commercial cargo and crew transport capabilities, which I support, was intended to enhance not replace NASA’s own proven abilities to deliver critical cargo and humans to low Earth orbit. Make no mistake, even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well. This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously cancelled [sic] as the President proposes.

kaybaileyhutchisonSenator – with all due respect – that’s baloney. Plain and simple.

First of all, her passive aggressive stance – using the word “modest” not once but twice, as well as using the term “belated sign” – are ridiculous. This is unexplored territory for the private sector, so while the delays have been irritating for us space enthusiasts, they’re expected. How many delays has NASA had over the years developing new tech? That statement from her is prejudicial and ridiculous.

Second, with her last sentence she continues with the blatantly false meme that Obama is to blame for the gap after the Shuttle; this is the same patently wrong claim she made in an editorial she wrote for the Houston Chronicle in March. Senator, in case you or one of your staff actually reads this, let me be very clear here: there will be a four to five year gap, at least, between the Shuttle retirement and any new NASA heavy-lift rocket, no matter what Obama does. It was the Bush Administration that made 2010 the retirement date for the Shuttle program, and did not have a replacement plan in place for it.

NASA logoTo be certain, I am not blaming (only) Bush for this; both NASA and Congress should have been working on a realistic Shuttle replacement ten years ago. More.

That gap will happen no matter what. Period. Senator Hutchison could sign a check to NASA for twenty billion bucks today, and we still won’t have a post-Shuttle heavy lift capability until 2015 at the soonest. So this idea that Obama is to blame for the gap is nonsense at best, political spin for sure, and dangerously close to an out-and-out lie at worst.

Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, points out that his company is based in Texas, so he’s a little miffed that she would snipe at it. Also, since she’s a Republican, I would expect her to support private industry.

To make it worse, she’s joined by Representative Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), who said:

“Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human space flight program,” Shelby said. “As a nation, we cannot place our future space flight on one fledgling company’s definition of success.”

“So-called”, Sen. Shelby? How do you define “commercial” then? And he’s precisely wrong: this is in fact and in deed progress for our nation’s space flight program. The Falcon 9 will be used to bring people, including American astronauts, to the space station. They are working with NASA right now to get the hardware in place to meet NASA’s safety requirements.

And his last sentence is a strawman argument; a distortion of what he opposes so he can tear it down. No one is betting our entire manned program’s future on SpaceX. They’re a part of it, to be sure, but not the be all and end all.

And remember, throughout all this, Obama’s plan calls for NASA to create a new heavy-lift rocket (see point #2 in that link). But that plan doesn’t include Constellation.

So again, we have a Republican who appears to be against privatization. Why would this be? Of course, Hutchison’s state has NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center, which controls manned spaceflight, and Shelby’s district state includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Sigh.

But because this isn’t bizarro enough, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and former astronaut, is hugely enthusiastic about SpaceX. Not only that, Representative Suzanne Kosmas – also a Democrat; whose district includes Kennedy Space Center – warmly praised the launch. If Hutchison and Shelby are playing state and district politics, then why do Nelson and Kosmas take the opposite stance?

It’s getting to be that I can’t tell the industrialists from the socialists without a program.

Anyway, I expect to be countering these fallacious claims for a long time. I cannot understand what is motivating some of these politicians, but the blatantly wrong and twisted spin needs to have a light shone on it. I have problems with Obama’s space policy as well, and at some point I’ll shake all that out, but casting aspersion on SpaceX is ridiculous. What they have done is amazing and important. They’re the first to do this, but there are several more companies close behind. This is the future of near-Earth space travel, and the folks in Congress better figure that out sooner rather than later, or their districts really will be in trouble. Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Slashdot.