Fiscal Transparency Critical As USA Ramps Up Space Exploration

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Stephen Beale Freelance writer
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As the United States aims to reclaim its position as a leader in space exploration, it’s important to keep our space program grounded in fiscal reality.

Earlier this month, President Trump directed NASA to get astronauts back to the moon, with the goal of eventually sending Americans on a mission to Mars. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of potential new technological achievements and forget the very real costs that are associated with them—costs that are incurred regardless of whether such programs are successful or not. It’s a particular worry with NASA, an agency that has a history of cost overruns.

A recent GAO report found that the cost of NASA’s new manned Orion spacecraft had soared $707 million over budget. Nearly a decade earlier, a former NASA administrator had warned of systemic cost overruns and delays. A delay in one project added $400 million to the bill, according to one report.

The need for transparency and accountability is particularly apparent in the case of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, one of the companies that works as a contractor for NASA and could end up designing and building one of the rockets that propels men to Mars.

Musk himself has a track record of landing government subsidies to fuel his ventures. Last year, a Reason magazine columnist dubbed Musk a ‘crony capitalist’ for reeling in $4.9 billion in government handouts for his three companies: Telsa, SolarCity and SpaceX. Nevada alone chipped in $1.3 billion a lone to lure Musk — who was worth $14.3 billion last year — to build a battery factory in the state.

So taxpayers have good reason to be on guard when it comes to SpaceX’s role in publicly-funded space exploration.

Already, it has cost taxpayers more than it should have. In 2015, a SpaceX rocket exploded destroying a cargo of equipment and food headed to the space station. But SpaceX still got paid even though the mission failed—a reported 80 percent of its normal $100 million fee per launch, according to the Los Angeles Times.

SpaceX reportedly investigated the crash on its own, although the FAA and NASA were supposedly involved too. NASA promised to release its own findings, but then reneged, leading one contributor at The Hill to call out the space agency for giving preferential treatment to SpaceX. He noted that NASA had made public its report on a similar 2014 launch failure of an Orbital’s Antares rocket. Although NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) thought SpaceX’s results could be inaccurate and there might be several reasons for the explosion, the American people will likely never know.

The funding stream to SpaceX isn’t about to stop anytime soon. According to the Los Angeles Times report, an estimated $11 billion NASA had budgeted for space station operations from 2016 to 2020 was slated to go to contractors like SpaceX.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is still experiencing launch failures. In early November, one of its Merlin engines exploded during a test at a company facility in McGregor, Texas, according to Space.com. Getting to the bottom of this one is important because the engine is expected to eventually send astronauts to space.

Once again, SpaceX is leading its own investigation into the cause. In a statement, the company promised a “thorough and fully transparent investigation.” True transparency means being transparent to the public. This is no time to mess around; human lives are at stake. Let’s hope that SpaceX turns a new page not only on improving its new engine but also in being more accountable to taxpayers.

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I. E-mail him at bealenews@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @bealenews.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.