- - Wednesday, March 13, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When the federal government is struggling with debt in excess of $22 trillion and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, it makes no sense for there to be wasteful contracting within the Department of Defense on space funding.

It also does not make much sense when there are more efficient alternatives, like SpaceX, than to rely on programs that have been plagued by delays and cost overruns. President Donald J. Trump has promised more space exploration and he should dump the worst programs and move forward with best players, especially in duplicative services.

The Orion space capsule was started 16-years-ago as part of the “Constellation Program.” Orion itself is a capsule that is supposed to take astronauts to the moon, Mars or asteroids for space exploration. But after six years of cost overruns and running years behind schedule, the program was cancelled. Yet, only in the Washington swamp could a part of this program come back to life and end up costing the taxpayers tens of billions of dollars more in waste. Though Constellation was cancelled in 2010, the new Lockheed Martin Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle program, was brought back to life in 2012 by lobbyists for the program.

Orion has been a disaster for the taxpayer, according to government reporting. The General Accounting Office (GAO) in May of 2018 reported, Orion is continuing to advance development of systems started under the Constellation program, which was cancelled in 2010. The report indicates “NASA expects the program to exceed its cost baseline and is at risk of future schedule delays” and the cost will exceed the “$11.28 billion baseline.” In total, taxpayers have already spent $1.6 billion on Orion ($1.8 billion if adjusted for inflation).

What makes this so remarkable is that, in 16 years, Orion has never test launched with an astronaut on board. And the GAO says it still won’t be ready to fly until 2023. Orion is essentially a device intended to do little more than the space capsule that took Neil Armstrong to the moon 50 years ago.

Compare that to the capsule SpaceX designed, built and launched in just six years from start to finish for a tiny percentage of Lockheed Martin’s multi-billion-dollar price tag. The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule just launched on March 2, successfully docked with the International Space Station and returned to Earth without a hiccup last week. They plan to launch again — carrying two NASA astronauts — in July. Orion won’t launch until year 20 of its development — maybe.

It has not gone unnoticed that the Orion program only enriches lobbyists and Lockheed Martin. Mark Whittington wrote in the Washington Examiner on Jan. 4, 2019, “the lunar gateway is really a holdover from the Barack Obama administration, when NASA was attempting an asteroid retrieval mission that was subsequently canceled. Why the space agency is clinging to a plan that would take a decade and many billions of dollars before the first people return to the moon is open to conjecture. The more cynical might suggest that it provides a lot of fat contracts for aerospace companies.” This program should have stayed cancelled and the administration could have found lest costly alternatives to this bungled mess of a project.

SpaceX is doing what the Orion project should have done a decade ago at a fraction of the cost. In comparison, Orion is a waste of taxpayer dollars. In addition, there is the whiff of cronyism and there are obvious conflicts of interest in this project. Taken as a whole, this project has been a bad investment for the taxpayer, because the taxpayers have spent money with nothing to show for it.

Lockheed Martin is now coming back to the Defense Department and Congress for even more tax money for Orion. Lockheed Martin is slated to get hundreds of millions of more taxpayer dollars in next year’s budget, even though it’s clear this project will eventually be replaced by the SpaceX Dragon capsule. It makes no sense to pour billions of taxpayer cash down the drain on Orion when it will never be the vehicle used to go to the moon or Mars. Taxpayers have already spent far too much on waste, fraud and abuse.

It’s time for this administration and Congress to save some money by abandoning the Orion project.

• Bryan Crabtree is a radio host in Atlanta and the publisher of Talk40.com. His new book is “The Trump In You: Acting Like Trump Is Actually A Good Thing.”

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