Six months ago, NASA finished building a brand new $349 million vacuum test chamber—but it was no occasion for celebration. The space program it was built for was canceled years ago. This huge structure in Mississippi is now more readily seen as a massive symbol of pork.
In the Washington Post today, David A. Fahrenthold writes about the troubled history of the A-3 test stand at the NASA's Stennis Space Center. Even after its associated spaceflight program was canceled in 2010, construction on A-3 continued thanks to a sneaky amendment by Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. And now, NASA will continue to spend $700,000 a year maintaining the unused structure.
How did this fester for so long? If you're familiar with the background of the Orion space capsule, then you'll already know the broad outlines of NASA's problems. In 2004, NASA had Constellation, a plan to send humans back to the moon and then onto Mars. But Constellation was canceled in 2010, replaced by a plan that begins by sending humans to an asteroid. Orion was salvaged out of that mess, and it had its first test flight earlier this month. If all goes to plan, Orion will one day take astronauts to the asteroid.
The A-3 test stand, however, has now been mothballed. Its vacuum chamber was designed specifically to test a rocket engine that would ignite after leaving the Earth's atmosphere and take a spacecraft to the moon. We aren't going to the moon anymore. There are currently no plans to use this rocket soon, according to the Post, or anything like it that could make use of A-3.
A-3 is emblematic of NASA's lack of a clear goal. As it's skipped from one mission to another, the agency has inspired little vision but a lot of pork barrel spending. When the Post asked Senator Wicker about how his amendment continuing to fund A-3 got passed after it was clearly not going to be used, he laughed and said, "Just talented legislating." [Washington Post]