By Jonathan D. Salant
NASA will complete a $350 million structure to test rocket engines at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi early this year. Then, it plans to mothball the 300- foot-high, steel-frame tower for the foreseeable future.
The reason: Congress ordered the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to finish building the facility even though the agency doesn't need it.
The tower was designed to test a GenCorp Inc. engine for a rocket program canceled in 2010. Its funding survived thanks to Mississippi Republican senators led by Roger Wicker, who crafted a provision requiring the agency to complete the work.
The test stand is an example of how lawmakers thwart efforts to cut costs and eliminate government waste, even as they criticize agencies for failing to do so. Attempts to close military bases, mail-processing plants and other NASA facilities also have been fought by congressional members whose districts benefit from the operations.
"When it comes down to their pork, they're always going to defend it," said Rand Simberg, a space policy scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based research group that supports less spending and fewer regulations. "All that matters is maintaining jobs in the right states and districts."
Congress's interference also makes it harder for agencies to reduce their budgets at a time when they're absorbing across- the-board reductions under a process known as sequestration.
"Current federal spending trends are not sustainable, and if NASA can make a relatively painless contribution to deficit reduction by shutting down an unwanted program, why not let it happen?" said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that supports lower taxes. "It's not rocket science, at least fiscally."
A NASA spokesman, David Weaver, said the agency is "taking steps to manage its infrastructure."
"As we prepare for future exploration in a constrained budget environment, the agency is working to ensure we have the right skills, facilities and equipment to execute our missions," Weaver said in an emailed statement.
The John C. Stennis Space Center, named after a former U.S. senator, is located in Mississippi's Hancock County, which has an estimated population exceeding 45,000. With more than 5,000 workers, the center is the Gulf Coast locality's largest employer, according to the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.
The county's unemployment rate in November was 7.4 percent, lower than Mississippi's 7.6 percent while higher than the nation's 6.6 percent, according to state and federal data that isn't seasonally adjusted.
Wicker stands by his support for the test stand.
"Stennis Space Center is the nation's premier rocket engine testing facility," the senator said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg News. "It is a magnet for public and private research investment because of infrastructure projects like the A-3 test stand. In 2010, I authored an amendment to require the completion of that particular project, ensuring the Stennis facility is prepared for ever-changing technologies and demands."
Completing the so-called A-3 tower will cost $57 million, according to the agency's inspector general. The agency also plans to maintain it, which will run about $840,000 annually, according to Karen Northon, a NASA spokeswoman.
The A-3 tower is a relic of President George W. Bush's Constellation program, designed to send American astronauts back to the moon and beyond after the space shuttle's retirement in 2011.
President Barack Obama proposed canceling the Constellation program in 2010 after rising costs and delays, which meant an end to the Ares I and Ares V rockets. The tower was built specifically to test the J-2X engine, simulating how it would work in high altitudes as it powered those rockets.
The engine was built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based GenCorp, and is being tested elsewhere at Stennis to power other rockets.
There are no rockets being developed for NASA that would need their engines tested under the high-altitude conditions for which the A-3 was built.
It's conceivable that such a rocket may be built in the future. Companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne and billionaire Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, may need to test engines for yet-to-be-developed rockets that would send astronauts into space, said Chris Quilty, an analyst with Raymond James and Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"With all the discussion of going to Mars, going to the moon, they are going to need more advanced upper-stage engines," Quilty said.
Glenn Mahone, a spokesman for Aerojet Rocketdyne, said that while company officials know the A-3 test stand isn't "a near- term priority, it likely will be required to support exploration objectives in the future."
For now, though, NASA doesn't need it.
Obama's request to kill Constellation was included in a 2010 bill approved by Congress. At the time, NASA already had spent $292 million on the A-3 test stand, and it needed another $57 million to finish the work, according to a February report by the agency's inspector general, Paul Martin.
Martin highlighted the A-3 as an example of how efforts to cut costs and get rid of unneeded facilities are blocked by lawmakers.
"The political context in which NASA operates often impedes its efforts to reduce infrastructure," he told the House space subcommittee in September.
The February audit identified 33 facilities that NASA either wasn't fully using or had no future need for, including six of 36 wind tunnels, 14 of 35 rocket test stands, and two of three airfields. Those facilities cost more than $43 million to maintain in fiscal 2011, the audit said.
The A-3 structure is being built by mostly local, closely held businesses. Two of the contractors are in Mississippi: the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' IKBI Inc., based in Choctaw, and a Tutor Perini Corp. unit in Gulfport.
Others include Mobile, Alabama-based American Tank & Vessel Inc. and Decatur, Ala.-based M & D Mechanical Contractors Inc.
The tower is made of millions of pounds of steel - strong enough to hold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks weighing as much as 320,000 pounds apiece. The stand also includes chemical steam-generator units that would be used to help simulate the engine's ability to power a rocket to altitudes up to 100,000 feet.
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, then the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, also pushed NASA to complete the test stand.
"It is important that a large emphasis be placed on safety and testing, and we cannot launch any type of vehicle until we test it extensively using NASA's best tools for testing," Cochran said after a 2011 hearing on the agency's budget.
Barney Keller, a spokesman for Club for Growth, a Washington-based group that supports spending cuts and backs a challenger to Cochran in this year's Republican primary, called the A-3 funding "an excellent example of why so many people are fed up with Washington."