NASA is an agency of the federal government that each year receives billions of dollars in funding. The process by which this agency has been commandeered is through the “no strings attached” policy, whereby NASA willingly gives astronomical amounts of public funds and benefits away without regard for accountability. All that is required to “qualify” for these funds is an earnest desire to hopefully do “something” that could possibly equal the agency’s mission.
The agency’s “mission” has not been clearly defined for over five decades; indeed, five decades have passed since the last defining “success” and confirmation of the agency’s stated purpose and reason to exist. Recipients of the agency’s billions of dollars in government grease need not bother to bid or even compete for the funds, nor provide any indicia of their ability to perform the tasks to further the agency’s mission for which the funds are provided because there are no audits of the expenditures.
All that is required to plunder millions, even billions of dollars of this agency’s funding is to look up at the heavens and set your sights on the cosmos with a passably earnest face and a reasonably articulable desire or plan to match what the agency has previously accomplished but now seems impotent to even attempt. Then, it’s welcome aboard matey, and set the mainsail to cash grabs of untold riches!
Look up! The Treasure Island of space exploration can be yours, if you have a vision and a dream to sell. Like Elon Musk, no need to be concerned with performance – he’s blown up countless rockets over the years, delaying NASA missions years into the future -- or even impossibility.
Look up Space Cadet, look up! Dreams come true and all you must do is attach yours to a NASA-based component or program (demonstrable failure is never a reason to be denied!) and you can take part in the Space Program that achieves at or below the level of 1963!
Case in point: SpaceX’s recent congressional “ask” to receive taxpayer funding for deep space missions even though the company hasn’t even been able to perfect simpler launches. There is a reason former NASA Chief Charles Borden said he is “not a big fan of commercial space companies building large, heavy lift rockets.” Why? Because he “believe[s] (NASA’s) responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do … like large launch vehicles.” Yet, that hasn’t stopped Musk from lobbying heavily.
Effort without performance? Concepts in disregard of the plausible? Ideas divorced from the scientifically possible? NASA is buying and has billions to give away! Yes, the money is there for the taking. Convincing earnestness and platitudes aplenty are all that is needed. All you have to do is look up and reach for the stars…
And climb on board, like Elon Musk, Space Pirate.
NASA, where have you gone? The agency created to give life to the hope of the future and the mythical Kennedy-esque mandate of the undeniable greatness of America and unconquerable drive for achievement that makes America great and exceptional. To all that grew up with the Cold War inspired Space Race and the desire to fulfill the American birthright of being the best and the brightest as expressed through technological achievement that could never remain earth bound, NASA embodied all that was good, hopeful, and possible about technology and the quest for a better life and a better humanity. It was our calling, heeding the American siren-call to save the world and save humanity – certainly we could not leave it to the Soviets to save humanity! God, (and President Kennedy – then Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Ford, sort of….) chose us, the U.S.A, to save humanity by landing on the moon. And we succeeded! The sky was literally the limit.
Then, nothing happened. The good ship NASA foundered, adrift without a rudder, though laden with treasure. NASA has not only lost its way like a damsel in distress cast amongst scalawags and privateers, it has de-evolved. It is the government counterpart to the fanatic—it has redoubled its efforts after having lost sight of its aim. Congress has fueled NASA’s lunacy by crowning it with virtually unfettered discretion to do anything that might be said to be a third cousin of “space.” Congress has supplied no metrics by which to measure performance, which is the very definition of crony capitalism.
NASA has become a clearinghouse for political favors and cash grabs for favored insider profiteers, like Elon Musk, who have boarded and commandeered the Good Ship NASA with over $5 billion in subsidies or incentives, despite his demonstrated incapacity to reliably launch even a single test rocket on schedule or budget.
What was once the paragon of American pride, hope for the future and virtue is now a seedy dealer of unchecked crony capitalism payouts and backroom deals. Unlike any other agency in the governmental constellation, NASA doles out dollars and contracts without regard to applicable law, the Federal Acquisition Requirements (“FAR”). by which executive agencies of the United States federal government acquire or provide goods and services by contract with appropriated funds. The FAR establishes procurement protocols for the acquisition or provision of goods and services by contract with appropriated funds for all executive agencies. The mandate of the opening paragraph of FAR, Title 48, Chapter 1 of the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”) could not be clearer:
The Federal Acquisition Regulations System is established for the codification and publication of uniform policies and procedures for acquisition by all executive agencies.
However, NASA has obtained an exemption through the Space Act, Pub. L. No. 111–314, 124 Stat. 3328 (Dec. 18, 2010), that permits awards of contracts and provision of services free of charge to favored, but essentially unvetted, contractors lined up at the feeding trough. The only requirement for these “non-reimbursable deals” is that the handout hopeful convince NASA that their projects will “benefit the government” in a nebulous and to-date unprecise way. Neither the demonstrated ability to escape the bonds of gravity or measurable performance are part of the equation. These cosmic cadets of crony capitalism soar to the dizzying heights of the hop toad when it comes to performance whilst continuing to collect billions of tax dollars for only having that necessary sense of earnestness and “vision”.
The estimated nominal annual cost to the taxpayer for these Moonage Buccaneer Daydream Deals is more than $36 million – excluding the $1.1 billion in funding for ongoing non-reimbursable deals for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) awarded to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the other space pirates who plunder NASA for their own privateering purposes. Congress welcomes NASA’s operations and enrichment of these cosmic cadets of crony capitalism - predictably because all members who are permitted to chair or sit on relevant oversight, appropriations, or authorization committees generally represent districts or states where the flags of space pirates like Musk are flown.
And yet, with regard to manned space travel, we are further from the stated ideal contained in NASA's vision statement: “We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind,” than we were in 1968 – the year before the Apollo 11 moon landing. There is no effort to benefit humankind. Only the space pirates benefit and we the taxpaying people pay for their singular enrichment. Yo Ho! Yo Ho! A space pirate’s life for me, indeed….
In addition to being the treasure chest of space pirates like Elon Musk, et al, NASA has become a dinosaur; an agency that has lost its way. NASA would crash and burn if subjected to cost-benefit analytical scrutiny. NASA cannot likely replicate its crowning achievement accomplished nearly 50 years ago. The Trump Administration would be well advised to avoid “looking up to the stars” and cease cowering before the Crony Capitalism Calico Jack when it comes to NASA and instead look down to the bottom line at a failed business model that costs the public billions in wasted giveaways while serving only the cosmic cadets of crony capitalism - Elon Musk, space pirate, foremost amongst them.
W Bruce DelValle is a litigator and founding member of the Washington, D.C. constitutional law, commercial and civil litigation firm Fein & DelValle PLLC. He is a native Texan who grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida. DelValle graduated from Penn State University and worked as a nuclear engineer prior to attending Washington and Lee School of Law.