- - Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Late last month, SpaceX successfully launched its upgraded Falcon-9 into orbit, highlighting that for the first time since Yuri Gagarin circled the Earth, the most exciting developments in aerospace are not taking place at NASA. Innovations in commercial space dwarf the possibility offered by even the most ambitious NASA programs. While Elon Musk rounds the International Space Station (ISS) and plots colonization missions to Mars, NASA is stuck plotting a solitary trip to an asteroid in the almost fictionally distant 2030s. What happened, and who is to blame for this travesty? Certainly not NASA. As an institution, it remains one of the greatest repositories of talent in the United States. The answer is inescapable: Congress.

The lack of vision at NASA has never been a consequence of its scientists or administrators. Extremely ambitious plans for missions to Mars, space colonization, interstellar probes, and more have been raised up by the adventurous explorers and scientists of NASA, only to be dashed by Congress. This skepticism has been compounded by unpredictable and mercurial project management, which has seen multibillion-dollar ventures begun in one administration only to be canceled in the next. Equally devastating is a system of patronage that sees congressional partisans who couldn’t care less about our space program placed in charge of it solely because of the presence of aerospace plants and facilities in their districts.

Take the Space Launch System (SLS) as a prime example of where our space program has gone off the rails. The SLS is largely a replication of earlier rocket systems such as the Saturn V (the one that took us to the Moon), and this lack of innovation means it will do very little to reduce launch costs or make space exploration more accessible. Designed for cargo delivery and exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), it was initially priced at around $18 billion with a project-completion date of 2017.

As you may have already guessed, this deadline and the project costs have already spiraled out of control. Speculation has run rampant that it could further be delayed until 2022 with costs having already surged to $22 billion. A 2011 report issued by Booz Allen Hamilton estimated that costs for the project plus just four launches could be as high as $42 billion by 2025, with possible delays into 2030.

What makes this so staggering is not just how much is being expended for so little, it is imagining all that could be done with those resources in that same period of time.

Commercial space companies such as Mr. Musk’s SpaceX are roaring onto the scene. They have brought launch costs to LEO (the realm of the ISS and an essential zone for planning deeper missions and projects in space) to their lowest in history. The Falcon-9 could arguably achieve more than any rocket of its class and went from drawing board to completion in 4 years for a measly $300 million. That’s the power of the free market. New rockets under development include the Falcon Heavy, which is aimed at more ambitious missions, while SpaceX’s reusable-rocket program, Grasshopper, could revolutionize the space industry.

Nor is SpaceX alone. Companies such as Blue Origin compete with SpaceX in their pursuit of cheaper launch options, while other firms, such as Planetary Resources, aim to exploit the prodigious resources of the high frontier, and still others such as Bigelow Aerospace seek to accelerate the development of human space habitats. All of these companies are charging towards the future with innovative plans, plunging costs and enormous ambition. They all have the potential to be truly revolutionary, and have already changed the narrative of space exploration.

Imagine what could be done if resources being thrown into the furnace for the Space Launch System was repurposed for technology incubation, commercial projects, or heaven forbid, actual missions. For the cost of SLS, you could afford close to 170 launches to the ISS, 55 missions to Mars with cargo or for probes, or more than 220 Falcon Heavy launches. There are opportunity costs to funding bad projects, and funding SLS costs mankind nearly 500 opportunities to actually go to space.

Something is wrong with our space program, and while Congress rightly deserves the greatest censure, it is assuredly not alone. When President Obama came to office, NASA was working on the Constellation Program, its most ambitious project in decades. The plan would have seen the United States return to the moon and establish a permanent base as a first step toward the manned exploration of the solar system. Fiercely lauded in the scientific and space community, it even earned the rare but ringing endorsement of Neil Armstrong. However, this highly ambitious project was clumsily canceled by the Obama administration in the name of cost-cutting in 2010 — only to be replaced with the government monstrosity known as SLS a year later.

It is high time for a change, and a good place to start would be canceling an out-of-control Space Launch System. With SLS canceled, we could extend new launch contracts to private companies that actually compete for those contracts and have to contend with pricing pressure that force them to give the taxpayer the best value for his dollar. Most importantly, canceling SLS could refocus our efforts on new projects chosen by scientists not legislators — not to mention freeing up money for, you know, actually going to space.

It’s only a first step, but it has to start somewhere. We could accomplish so much over the next decade and accelerate the development of the high frontier, but we have to act.

Joshua Jacobs is a founding member of the Conservative Future Project.