Congressional Food Fight over Rockets

Kent Johnson
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Posted: Apr 08, 2016 12:01 AM
Congressional Food Fight over Rockets

Like a messy scene from the old fraternity film “Animal House,” whereupon Delta house character Bluto starts a culinary melee in the chow hall, Congress cannot help itself.  Some members continue to engage in no-holds-barred personal food fights.  The most recent fight involves rocket engines.  On issues of national security, Americans long for common sense and level-headed policy-making – even on topics like our ability to launch heavy space assets into high orbit.  However, some members, led by Senator John McCain, seem more intent on scoring political points, lofting nonsense at each other, helping political friends by engaging in money-wasting food fights. 

Within the past few weeks, experts on space launch from across the country have been clear.  They said, as has been widely reported, Congress should stop considering placement of national security payloads on unproven – as yet unbuilt – American-made heavy lift rocket engines.  The engines not only do not exist, but using them short of a well-designed ten-year development and deployment schedule would be laden with unnecessary hazards and subject to untold consequences.  Such a move would be wildly expensive, almost certainly unsuccessful in the near term, and inherently “risky” for American national security.   

Making the food fight uglier, there have been angry congressional hearings that seemed to pit Senator John McCain (R-AZ) against almost all his colleagues, especially Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL).  These have apparently been followed by angry letters from Senator McCain to various places, including points in the Pentagon.  There have been public statements on both sides that seemed out of sync with most relevant facts, and then dive into the highly personal. 

Only a few weeks ago, Senator Shelby apparently felt compelled to defend his own position – and that held by most in Congress, as confirmed by legislation passed at the end of last year – that there is wisdom in working with a heavy-lift system that works, that is reliable.  And Senator Shelby should know, as he represents a state that has long and storied history in the rocket industry.  Senator Shelby rebuffed Senator McCain by arguing that the Arizona Senator may have mixed motives in defending a seemingly indefensible position on near-term heavy-lift options while at the same time dismissing counter security and trade arguments.

The McCain rejoinder and earlier (rather nasty) McCain-led hearing in February of this year, which castigated the US Air Force and Senator Shelby, amounted to the first throw in the new food fight.  These exchanges have been nothing if not loud and personal.  As Senator Shelby rationally laid out the logic of the present situation, and a long term plan of action, Senator McCain ramped up the velocity and ferocity of his personal responses.  

The irony is that we, average Americans, are the ones who pay for ugly “food fights” like this.  The experts have spoken – and clearly.  They have said, the current process of using Atlas V and RD-180 Russian engines is a sound one, with fewer risks and lower costs, than the alternative pressed so tenaciously and rather irrationally by Senator McCain.  But that aside, are these folks all tone deaf?  Have they not seen the ground swell of resentments that have already launched both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to unexpected heights?  Are they not aware that we, The People, are sick and tired of this horseplay with our money, time, and – yes – national security? 

The truth is this:  In an election year, if not in every other year, we do not need these juvenile, personal, messy and inglorious food fights.  On heavy-lift space launch, we have a strong, reliable, sustainable method for putting critical national security assets into space, and we should use it unencumbered by this sort of personal hash. 

Certainly, continuing to rely upon foreign technology for our most critical national intelligence means is a less-than-optimal policy – however, recklessly fast-tracking a sophisticated, costly and complicated defense program with an unrealistic and arbitrary timeline is equally undesirable.  And, quite frankly, Congress has had decades to authorize and fund American-made rocket engines but failed to do so.  

Over the next ten years, with time and sobriety, we should develop US-origin options, but that is no excuse for more congressional nastiness.  Let’s return to the gentlemanly decorum of the US Senate and end this “Bluto”-inspired congressional food fight over propulsion technology.