The quick passage of the 2015 NASA Authorization Bill in the House has already come under heated criticism from certain commercial space advocates, not only for its continued support for the heavy-lift Space Launch System, but for its support for space exploration beyond low Earth orbit in general. Stephen C. Smith, a space blogger and commercial space advocate, was especially caustic in his criticism in a Saturday post. This is turn set up a twitter exchange between Richard Garriott, a computer game magnate and private space traveler and Jeff Foust, a reporter for Space News.
Smith offered familiar arguments against the Space Launch System. “SLS was, from its inception, workfare for NASA space centers and their contractors. Critics dubbed it the Senate Launch System because senators that represented NASA space center/contractor states crafted the SLS language to protect jobs in their states.” He also suggested, somewhat misleadingly, that the SLS is, “based on 1970s-era Space Shuttle technology. So this committee would have us believe that this technology should still be used for another 85 years.” In fact, the components of the heavy-lift rocket will be built using modern additive manufacturing techniques (i.e. 3D printing) and will use modern electronics and avionics. Moreover, it will have the capability to evolve over time.
Smith obliquely addressed criticism that available commercial launch vehicles would be inadequate to perform deep space exploration missions, say to Mars. “The House Subcommittee on Space has yet to articulate a compelling reason why this should be NASA’s raison d’être, other than vague assertions that it will ‘inspire’ people. They’ve never offered any evidence to support this assertion, nor have they explained why NASA shouldn’t continue with its far safer and cheaper program of exploring Mars with robots.” In other words, NASA should not explore space beyond low Earth orbit with human beings, particularly Mars. This stance is contrary to the one expressed by Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO and commercial space superstar who is an enthusiastic supporter of Mars colonies and who is said to be mulling his own heavy lift rocket in order to accomplish that dream.
The exchange the blog post sparked on Twitter was particularly illuminating, Garriott, picking up the theme that the Space Launch System is nothing but pork, tweeted, “On Capitol Hill I was shocked to hear ‘I must vote to spend money in my state not what’s best for country else lose job.’” Garriott was not forthcoming about who actually said such a thing, a bit of political intelligence that would be enlightening, to say the least.
Foust chimed in with, “Worth noting that the bill in question (HR 810) does not appropriate any funding.” This is a true statement, but one that should provide little comfort for Smith or Garriott. The House subcommittee that appropriates NASA funding is chaired by Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, a warm advocate of the SLS and space exploration in general. Culberson is looking at the SLS as the launch vehicle for a mission to Europa. The Senate Appropriations subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, in whose state the Space Launch System is being built.
Smith also offered a tweet, “Our focus needs to be on the Senate side now. Hopefully the space subcommittee has a shredder for this bill.” That subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz. R-Texas, a supporter of both commercial space and space exploration based around the SLS, two concepts that he sees no inherent contradiction. Cruz is therefore not likely to cancel the Space Launch System nor curtail NASA’s plans for space exploration.