In its 2017 budget request, NASA asked Congress for $1.3 billion to build its next jumbo rocket. Last week, despite years of fighting with the Obama Administration over its plans to explore an asteroid with the rocket, the Senate Appropriations Committee not only granted the request, but gave the space agency an extra $995 million to build it.
A surprise billion dollars may sound good. But while adding money to “Space Operations,” the Appropriations Committee also cut $660 million from NASA’s science, aeronautics, and space technology programs that build the telescopes, observatories, planes, and landers that make the agency so beloved. In justifying this decision, the committee wrote that the rocket “is the nation’s launch vehicle that will enable humans to explore space beyond current capabilities.”
The futuristic space rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), won’t send any astronauts into space until at least 2023, and it doesn’t even have a destination. But that doesn’t seem to matter to lawmakers. Since the moon landings ended, NASA is and has always been a jobs program, more about dollars spent on the ground than discoveries made among the stars, with the SLS bonanza just the latest example.
“It is more the politics of pork than the politics of progress,” former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a long-time pattern at NASA where money aimed at science and research ends up with builders and contractors instead.”