Congress Serving Pork — Not ‘Rocket Science’

Photograph by NASA via Bloomberg

The A-3 tower was designed to test a GenCorp Inc. engine for a rocket program canceled in 2010.

When Congress agreed with President Barack Obama in 2010 and shut down the Constellation program to send astronauts to the moon and beyond, it did so with one condition: NASA finishes construction of a tower to test an engine for a rocket that was being cancelled.

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, inserted the provision into the NASA re-authorization bill. The test stand, whose price tag grew to $350 million, was being built at the Stennis Space Center in his home state.

“Stennis Space Center is the nation’s premier rocket engine testing facility,” the senator said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg News. “It is a magnet for public and private research investment because of infrastructure projects like the A-3 test stand. In 2010, I authored an amendment to require the completion of that particular project, ensuring the Stennis facility is prepared for ever-changing technologies and demands.”

Critics of government spending say this should have been an easy project to kill.

“Current federal spending trends are not sustainable, and if NASA can make a relatively painless contribution to deficit reduction by shutting down an unwanted program, why not let it happen?” said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group that supports lower taxes. “It’s not rocket science, at least fiscally.”

While Congress was debating the future of space exploration, Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and the rest of defense aerospace industry spent $63.9 million on lobbying in 2010, its highest annual total from 1998 to 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.

Boeing, which had sought to help develop Ares V, is the lead contractor for the rocket cylinder and avionics for the new Space Launch System. Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed leads the team building the Orion capsule to carry astronauts.

Chicago-based Boeing spent $18.1 million on lobbying in 2010, its highest sum during that 15-year period. Lockheed spent $12.7 million. Both companies also lobbied on many other issues, including financial regulation and the defense budget.

“We supported Constellation when it was the NASA program of record, and we now support the agreement made between the Congress and the administration on space exploration, which includes a continuation of the Orion program,” said Gordon Johndroe, a Lockheed spokesman.

“Boeing continually advocates on behalf of its businesses,” said a spokesman, Marcellus Rolle.

Rancho Cordova, California-based GenCorp., whose Aerojet Rocketdyne unit built the engine, spent $590,000 that year, its biggest total from 2007 to 2011.

“It is disappointing to have cancellations like this since we are committed to our NASA customer, their mission and exploration and cancellations curtail progress to specific goals, but we are supporting the current path that NASA has outlined and our working hard to make it real,” said Glenn Mahone, a spokesman for Aerojet Rocketdyne. “There are numerous approaches to space exploration and helping make exploration real is very important to us.”

 

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