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U.S. Out of Space

Obama's space policy was one of his administration's bright spots.

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Barack Obama, privatizer.

That's not how historians will likely describe him. But when Obama killed George W. Bush's Constellation program—a roadmap for getting humans back to the moon and eventually on to Mars—he declared it "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation." In other words: a government program.

Conceived in a state of panic triggered by the impending death of the space shuttle program, Constellation was larded up with space pork. By the time Obama got around to scrapping it in 2010, the effort had already burned through $9 billion with little to show for it. Anything that Washington touches pretty much immediately turns treyf; a certain amount of bacon buildup around any appropriations bill is inevitable.

After Obama nixed Bush's pie-in-the-sky scheme, stick-in-the-mud Republicans hustled to remind anyone who was paying attention that they, too, could be the party of big government and bureaucracy. The Space Launch System, an expensive post-Constellation scheme, was designed by Congress to Frankenstein heavy-lift rockets and a capsule out of the scavenged remains of the shuttle program—to be built, naturally, in the districts of powerful lawmakers, including Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida. It is sometimes affectionately referred to as the Senate Launch System, for obvious reasons.

Amid the usual horse trading, though, the Obama administration managed something rather remarkable: It carved out a little money and a lot of room for the private space industry to flourish, extending another Bush-era program that most people assumed was on the chopping block. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project—funded at the cost of less than a single shuttle flight—was aimed at encouraging private companies to develop the capacity to serve the transport needs of the International Space Station (ISS). The result was successful public-private partnerships with Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk's SpaceX. An adjacent effort created Commercial Resupply Services contracts with private companies to deliver cargo to the space station, and later commercial crew vehicles to carry human passengers.

The Republican Congress repeatedly tried to cut funding to these programs, intending to redirect the money to the old space-industrial complex. Obama's original budget asked for $5.9 billion over five years to fund the effort. The House countered with an offer of $250 million in the first year.

These programs work thanks to a wonky but essential fact about their creation: The contracts they create are different than the NASA norm. The government and the contractor agree on a price for a certain number of runs back and forth to the ISS, for instance, and the firm provides that service at that price.

This is, of course, the way people handle most transactions in their normal lives. But these common-sense practices frequently don't apply when government money flows to contractors under so-called cost-plus arrangements, especially those who are perceived to be doing something with relevance to national security.

To understand the weirdness of cost-plus, try this: Imagine you want a cone of mint chocolate chip ice cream. You walk into an ice cream store and say, "How much for mint chocolate chip, please?" They either say, "That'll be $3," or, "We don't have that flavor right now. Try the shop next door."

Here's how the U.S. government conducts the same transaction under cost-plus. It stands in the middle of the street and shouts "I WANT ICE CREAM" until someone who makes a related product—pudding, say—comes by and says, "I might be able to make you some ice cream. What were you looking for?" Then the government says, "Great, we will draft hundreds of pages of specifications for the ice cream, and send officials to your R&D facility, your factory, and your distribution warehouses to supervise and advise you while you make it. That way we can be sure to get the ice cream we want. Also, you can't hire any foreigners and you can only make the ice cream with American ingredients. At the end of the process, you can add up all the costs you incurred to make our special ice cream, charge us the full amount, and then add a little extra on top so that you make a profit." Four years later, the government gets a $1,263 cup of slightly melted fudge ripple.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the bespoke pudding peddlers. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry's.

Let's be clear: In this analogy, under both systems we're talking about buying dessert with money taken from citizens via taxation. We're still letting politicians decide whether ice cream is really a good idea right now, especially after that whole pizza they ate for dinner. And the guy who owns the ice cream shop might be an abrasive billionaire whose business endeavors have benefitted from years of unrelated government subsidies (cough, Elon Musk, cough). Plus, mint chocolate chip? Really? Who actually likes that stuff?

Still, as the Obama administration expanded the initiative from commercial cargo to commercial crew, government spending on spaceflight became much more efficient, and a competitive private industry got a little breathing room to come into its own.

At the moment, the feds are pretty much out of the Mars business, leaving the private sector to lead the way on interplanetary travel and colonization schemes, a role SpaceX's Musk has embraced. In fact, he has been beefing with physics celeb Neil deGrasse Tyson about whether a Mars mission is an appropriate undertaking for a private entrepreneur. In November 2015, Tyson told The Verge, "The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That's just not going to happen." Calling a Mars mission too time-consuming and expensive, Tyson declared: "A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments."

But as space journalist Alan Boyle noted in GeekWire, Musk seems perfectly cheerful about the expense and rather more optimistic than Tyson about the time horizon. The billionaire has been pretty clear about how he hopes to overcome the commercial pressure to think short-term: The company will remain privately held for now. "When we're doing regular flights to Mars, that might be a good time to go public," he said in March 2015. "But before then, because the long-term goals of SpaceX are really long term—it takes a long time to build a city on Mars—that doesn't match with the short-term time frame of public shareholders and portfolio managers that are looking at the two- to four-year time horizon."

Early in the campaign, Donald Trump told a boy who asked him about NASA that "space is terrific." (Fact check: true!) At press time, even as a stream of would-be courtiers sashayed through the lobby of Trump Tower, there was no evidence that the president-elect had met with any senior officials at NASA or any candidate to head the agency. Right now, what little we know about Trump's space policy suggests that continued privatization isn't out of the question. In October, a couple of his senior policy advisers published a single op-ed that seems to constitute the whole of Trump's known space policy. "Government must recognize that space is no longer the province of governments alone," Robert Walker and Peter Navarro wrote at Space News. "Public-private partnerships should be the foundation of our space efforts. Such partnerships offer not only the benefit of reduced costs, but the benefit of partners capable of thinking outside of bureaucratic structures and regulations."

On the flip side of the two-faced Trump coin is the perennial nationalistic overtones that plague space policy. "Giant leap for mankind" rhetoric aside, people tend to get pretty patriotic when it comes to human spaceflight. Heck, we have different words for spacefarers depending on their nation of origin—astronauts come from the United States, cosmonauts from Russia, taikonauts from China, spationauts from France—as if their most relevant characteristic is the citizenship of the people who were taxed to foot the bill for the mission. And if there's one thing Donald Trump is into, it's American greatness.

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  1. Gutting NASA to funnel money to Musk’s crony-tastic ponzi scheme and turning it into another source of global warming propaganda isn’t what I’d call a bright spot.

    1. Except that somehow, in the process of funneling it to Musk, the monetary value diminishes while the actual value increases. It’s still crony capitalism, but at least it doesn’t cost extra like when Boeing or Lockheed are on the receiving end like a reverse funnel.

    2. Thank you, my friend. No one could have put it better and more succinctly.

    3. Nicely put. I was gonna say the same thing.

  2. The space shuttle launch system was the most complex machine ever built by man, at the time. And it was around- fully subsidized by the government and making private alternatives impossible for 20+ years. As much as I geeked out over that system it held a private space industry back for two decades.

    Today, we are iterating on new private launch systems every year. There are two heavy launch systems in development, a private trip to Mars planned, private space habitats, and private low earth orbit competitors.

    If this doesn’t show the power of a little privatization (because most of the players are still cronies) I don’t know what else can. People lamented the loss of the shuttle as a decline of American power. But in another decade, we will have a space industry with multiple launch platforms that is producing ever more complex systems at fractions of the cost, faster than ever. Compare the development of SpaceX systems with the speed of development of the F35 and the difference is amazing.

    Again, companies like SpaceX are still heavily dependent on Uncle Sam Moneybags, but the nature of contracting- treating them as a service, rather than an expensive manufacturer carrying none of the risk, has done wonders.

    1. So, what you are saying, is get the gov’t out of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, and we’ll have them 20 years earlier?

      Oh, wait. China is already doing that.

    2. Space travel is way too cool to select for the worst and most expensive. But if anything would convince communitarians of their error I’d think airline deregulation would have done so. the idea that cool shit HAS to be expensive before it can be cheap needs more proponents. What if Clinton had been against briefcase size cell phones unless they were distributed more equally?

  3. Standard fare. Cancel previous administration’s ambitious space program, ruining their ‘legacy’, begin legacy project of your own. Same thing happened to Bush Sr. and Clinton.

    The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project?funded at the cost of less than a single shuttle flight?was aimed at encouraging private companies to develop the capacity to serve the transport needs of the International Space Station

    A brief spell of pragmatism, considering their only other option is using the Soyuz, and we all know the Russians are just doing that to hack astronauts’ equipment.

    that “space is terrific.” (Fact check: true!)

    Actually, space is horrific. Numerous problems with living in space are still not addressed. I didn’t know that space causes bloody eye damage, for example.

    1. Extended time in zero gravity also causes your heart to flip over. Then there is the radiation. Yeah, there are some serious issues we haven’t addressed. My number one question is – where is the profit?

      1. that “space is terrific.” (Fact check: true!) Actually, space is horrific.

        The fact check was that Trump actually said “space is terrific,” not that the statement is correct.

        Numerous problems with living in space are still not addressed.

        There are lots of places living is problematic. The Antarctic, the sea floor, New York City. Doesn’t mean people won’t go there.

    2. In space, no one can hear you vomit…and it floats.

      1. You boil before you freeze.

    3. This is what annoys me about this whole situation.

      And it isn’t just the administration. They killed off Bush’s mission to mars simply because Bush had his name on it. Then after a couple of years Obama put forth basically the same plan, only with Obama on it. And all of the science advocacy types – Neil Degrasse-Tyson, Bill Nye, the Planetary Society…. basically every public face of “science communication” was on the band wagon for how great it was that Obama was killing off manned space exploration.

      And then they started advocating for a manned mission to mars. Which they universally cheered the great light-bringer Obama for announcing, as he is refreshingly science-driven and enlightened. I’ve never heard any of them even acknowledge that it was Obama who killed the whole thing in the first place, nor that they were cheerleaders in the effort.

      Politics really is one of the great “root of all evil” stains on humanity.

      1. No, not politics itself, it’s the coercive government monopoly that makes politics such a zero-sum game. Politics happens all the time in private companies and is relatively harmless because (a) it’s confined to that one company, and (b) so few people see it as central to their well-being and future.

        Coercive government is the root of all evil.

      2. I should have read your comment firs its better than mine

      1. I take that as a compliment.

    4. its typical that Bush had a specified goal of the moon then mars, over bloated as it may have been but Scientific American or should I say the magazine of “hate all things republican” gave vast credit to Obama for doing the same thing after canceling Bush’s plan.

      1. Yes, Scientific American left the “science publication” track back when Bush got elected. They started in with the most irrational screeds imaginable. Every issue had to have some anti-Bush content. Now, I was reasonably anti-Bush myself. But not irrationally so. They were like 9-11 truthers, with every thought being about how Bush is anti-science. So when he proposed expanding the manned space program, it was because he was anti-science. It was just nuts.

        I actually took the time to write them a couple of times, letting them know that their politics were getting in the way of their reporting. They didn’t listen, so I eventually cancelled my subscription. It was very disappointing that they became so overtly and distractingly political. I had been a subscriber since the late 70’s.

        A pox on everyone who strives to make all of life about politics.

  4. “It is sometimes affectionately referred to as the Senate Launch System, for obvious reasons.”

    Cool! We can now launch the whole Senate into space? Finally, Obama does something right!

    1. If so, I hope that there’s a launch pad fire. I just hope that it happens while Sessions is still a Senator.

    2. Another benefit of the Senate Launch System is that it has to be manufactured in multiple states…. to garner extra votes for funding. Because that makes sense.

    3. We could call it the Guy Faulkes Project.

  5. No mention of Obumble reassigning NASA’s mission as outreach to muslims?

    1. I had forgotten that gem.

      1. The guy has done a shit-ton of dumb stuff and vomited up some of the worst gibberish of any president but that one is near the top of the stupid list. I figured it was just a big ‘fuck you’ out of spite. America is an exceptional country and that grates on his sensibilities.

  6. in the districts of powerful lawmakers, including Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida.

    Districts? When referring to Senators, at least in the United States, we would be speaking of “States”.

    /preens about being technically correct

    1. It’s the best kind of preening.

    2. They’re already planning the first Hunger Games. They need to start sneaking the word “districts” in more often.

  7. P.S> Who is steppin’ on SugarFree’s turf?!!

    http://townhall.com/tipsheet/c…..a-n2269811

    1. I saw that yesterday along with the Bailey article on geoengineering. The world is reaching new highs of insanity.

    2. *narrows urethra*

      1. *squirts*

        1. I wanted – so badly – to believe it was something other than pee.

    3. “If this is true, this effectively means that 4chan trolled the U.S. intelligence system and the majority of the U.S. media with what’s basically Donald Trump erotic fanfiction, which is terrifying.”

      Coincidentally, saw “Our Man in Havana” yesterday. Had read the book several years ago. One of those VERY rare movies that met or exceeded my hopes for it (released in 1959, much of it shot in Cuba with Fidel’s permission). Anyway, the gist of the book/movie is that the intelligence services acted upon fake reports.

  8. “Heck, we have different words for spacefarers depending on their nation of origin?astronauts come from the United States, cosmonauts from Russia, taikonauts from China, spationauts from France”

    Yes, indeed. And in English, Russian, Chinese, and French, we have different words for most things. Some good points are made in this piece, this one, is just plain stupid.

    1. Boy, those French: they have a different word for everything!

      1. But they understand surrender in any language.

        1. +1 French army rifle. Never fired, dropped once.

      2. Merci beaucoup, +1 Academie Francaise. L’anglais n’est pas acceptable.

      3. Yep. It’s “tout”.

    2. And all of them are inaccurate. No one has ventured to nearby stars, or out into the cosmos. Mostly it’s been low Earth orbit and a few moon shots.

      1. “Spationaut” is accurate.

  9. Trump doesn’t have any bad things to say about a space program, so you invent them?

    What the fuck?

    Is this reason or Vox?

    And praise for Obama on space?

    He redirected NASA to Muslim self esteem and climate change. His ‘input’ regarding privatization was letting people keep doing thing they were doing before he got to the White House. The X prize was won when he was a state senator.

    So let’s not tingle our legs and give him credit for things he only ‘voted present’ for.

  10. Obama’s original budget asked for $5.9 billion over five years to fund the effort. The House countered with an offer of $250 million in the first year.

    But these common-sense practices frequently don’t apply when government money flows to contractors under so-called cost-plus arrangements…

    The irony is that if the Congress really wanted to strangle commercial space flight in the crib, they should have funded it at the full amount that Obama asked for. If they had done that, NASA would have converted the contracts over from Space Act Agreements to regular cost plus contracts years ago. That would have required Spacex et al to have to deal with the full weight of the NASA bureaucracy, required them to comply with all the FAR regulations that LM and Boeing have to deal with, which would have inevitably caused the cost of the program to sky rocket, etc. But by funding it at such a low level, it forced NASA to keep the program under a Space Act Agreement, which kept the costs down and allowed the commercial companies to operate free from all that “oversight” that usually comes from working for NASA.

    1. The NASA bureaucracy repaid the Dems (and Green party spoiler votes) by altering temperature data to make it look like the Millerite prediction of Global Warming Armageddon had some basis in scientific fact. Ironically, satellite observations have falsified those efforts. Atmospheric temperatures correlate almost perfectly, with the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, and show very little correlation with CO2. This information arrived just in time to expose the Democrats as looters-through-pseudoscience and work in favor of the Republican and Libertarian party candidates.

      1. I’m a lazy asshole, citation please.

  11. Plus, mint chocolate chip? Really? Who actually likes that stuff?

    You’re trolling, right? RIght?

    YOU BETTER BE TROLLING

  12. The result was successful public-private partnerships

    There is no such thing. All public-private partnerships are “unsuccessful” from the libertarian POV, by definition.

  13. “Obama administration managed something rather remarkable: It carved out a little money and a lot of room for the private space industry to flourish, extending another Bush-era program”

    I had always given Obama credit for allowing privatized space exploration but according to your article it was started under Bush. Is that correct and if so that means that I have nothing of value to credit Obama with, which I’m okay with

    1. Then recognize that the first Executive Order Georgie Waffen Bush signed established government tits to be suckled on my faith-based prohibitionist fanatics, the economy be damned to the seventh circle of asset-forfeiture to pay them. Obama took that project and altered it slightly so that faith-based mohammedan fanatics might suddenly have separate-but-equal access to those government tits. Feel better now?

  14. why is it a good thing when Obama carves out money for privatized space programs but when Trump talks to companies about keeping work in America its authoritarianism with a side crony capitalistic nazism.

    I cant keep track of what Reason is thinking here other than Trump bad everybody else better no how bad they are

  15. It is a treat that Reason has someone other than Jesse and Sullum able to turn out interesting libertarian journalism. Austin bottleneckers in 1977 sought to impose licensing on roofing contractors and extort the terms of moronic government RFPs. One contractor saw through the thing and submitted an affordable bid for reroofing a school building. Naturally he was hissed and booed by the publicly-funded parasites, but the lesson remained. You can’t have your cake and order your neighbor to buy the ingredients, mix and bake it to idiotic specifications, then eat it too.

  16. The description of cost plus contracts is seriously overblown here.

    Nobody uses a cost plus contract to produce a product which has close analogues in existance, cost plus is actually a very common thing, even in Business to business deals where the exact parameters of the end state of the contract are not well known or well understood.

    The proper analogy would not be “standing in the street shouting for mint chocolate chip ice cream” it would be approaching every company that makes any product even remotely ice cream like who wants in on a project to create a vegan calorie free mint chocolate chip ice cream like product which is completely indistinguishable in taste from the real thing and can retain it’s cool creamy texture at room temperature indefinately. Then they get proposals from several of those companies of how they plan to approach developing such a product and it awards to contract to the one it thinks has the best odds of succeeding. However since nothing remotely like this technology exists in the world yet no body knows how to price the contract. Is a billion dollars in development costs an order of magnitude too high? too low? or just about right? it is impossible to say because you won’t have any idea how hard it will be to accomplish the end goal till after you are close to done so to eliminate the uncertainty for both sides you make the contract cost plus

    1. You can argue about whether the government should be spending money on this, whether they have any idea if they are over or under spending or even that the government is misusing cost plus contracts in places where they should be be used but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of cost plus contracts nor are they in the sole realm of government contracts

    2. You can argue about whether the government should be spending money on this, whether they have any idea if they are over or under spending or even that the government is misusing cost plus contracts in places where they should be be used but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of cost plus contracts nor are they in the sole realm of government contracts

      1. Mmhmm. If I got mugged by a thief who promised to use my money for the greater good, id doubt him before I even got angry about it.

  17. “we have different words for spacefarers depending on their nation of origin”

    Same goes for pudding, believe it or not.

  18. Delaying the Mars landing program by 8 years (his entire administration) isn’t exactly a bright spot. “No, let’s go visit an asteroid! That’ll get people fired up! I need this money to bomb a bunch of people instead.”

    Even Ayn Rand thought space exploration was one of the few things the government should be doing.

    1. Even better, he cancelled constellation and kept spending $8bb on the orion capsule. Yes, he got rid of the rocket but kept funding the bit the rocket was supposed to launch.

      God save us from pop science journalists.

  19. That way we can be sure to get the ice cream we want. Also, you can’t hire any foreigners and you can only make the ice cream with American ingredients.

    NPO Energomash RD-180 motors on Atlas cores, along with Russian liaisons etc., are interesting deviation.

    1. start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this ? 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail?

      ??? http://www.JobMax6.com

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  21. Where operating in space is concerned, my libertarian knees get weak.

    We aren’t talking about a “normal” environment where a private concern can operate, possibly screw up and then say oh darn we’ll clean this mess up, e.g. Exon Valdez, BP gulf disaster, etc, etc, etc, throughout history. Mistakes in space self propagate almost like a virus. We need/want the benefits we enjoy from satellite communications, google earth type imagery, really long distance astronomy (Huble and future versions of it). The LEO and HEO/Geosyncronous environments must be preserved in as pristine a condition as possible or it becomes a dystopian future type environment in those regions of space. Cowboys that might have their eyes on just the bottom line might not care that they are shitting where they eat and that the shit spreads itself and then smashes into useful satellites at 17,500 mph.

    We need control on this environment and looking at a normal Bejing morning atmosphere I sure don’t want it to be their government doing it.

  22. I can see what your saying… Raymond `s article is surprising, last week I bought a top of the range Acura from making $4608 this-past/month and-a little over, $10,000 this past month . with-out any question its the easiest work I’ve ever had . I began this five months/ago and almost straight away startad bringin in minimum $82 per-hr
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