President Trump’s recent ambition to create a “space force” has been met with laughter and optimism. It also raises important questions like “why is a space force necessary?” and “how much would it cost taxpayers?”
There is also a growing concern that “space could become an “Achilles’ heel” for America’s high-tech forces,” since satellites are vulnerable to attack. But there are reasons to be cautious about creating such a force. One is the likelihood of creating a space arms race that would stress alliances. The other is the cost of research and development that could stress taxpayers’ wallets and the nation’s debt that has already eclipsed $21 trillion.
Space related projects are no stranger to expensive cost overruns and schedule delays. Last week, the House Science Subcommittee on Space held a hearing targeting those issues within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA is experiencing serious cost growth as well as schedule delays in its portfolio of projects, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. GAO found one of NASA’s most expensive projects, Orion, does not have a current cost estimate, but expects costs and schedule to grow. The Webb telescope, which hopes to be Hubble’s successor was delayed by 19 months and is projected to cost more than its $8 billion cap. GAO also found that launches were delayed an average of 12 months – the longest GAO has ever reported.
Perhaps NASA’s most famous example of waste is its A-3 rocket testing tower. Dubbed “Launchpad to Nowhere” and the “Tower of Pork,” the project cost $350 million to complete, has no purpose, but continues to cost taxpayers money. Completed as part of President George W. Bush’s Constellation program, NASA hoped to send astronauts back to the moon. However, President Obama cancelled the program in 2010 due to schedule and cost overruns. The tower continues to costs $840,000 every year to maintain, in addition to the $43 million taxpayers pay to maintain other NASA facilities that are not being used or are obsolete.
While there will always be some uncertainty with innovation, particularly space related, the agency’s $19.1 billion budget should have more accountability from Congress. “[We need] more frequent conversations with members of Congress, more fidelity to cost-estimating that NASA does right now, and the occasional example that projects, large or small, are going to be terminated if they go too far over cost and schedule,” says Paul Martin, the NASA inspector general.
Space, after all, is the final frontier. If Congress and the Administration decide it is necessary to create a space force, it should do so with tax dollars in mind. Until then, Congress should be focused on oversight of our current space programs so our nation’s fiscal problems don’t force us to move to the moon.