NASA’s A-3 Test Stand Branded a ‘$349 Million Monument to its Drift’

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The latest entry in the Washington Post’s ongoing “Breaking Points” series (“examining the failures at the heart of troubled federal systems”) trots out the congressionally mandated completion of Stennis Space Center’s A-3 test stand as “evidence of a breakdown at NASA” and “a symbol of … what happens to a big bureaucracy after its sense of mission starts to fade.”

The story, “NASA’s $349 million monument to its drift,” debuted Dec. 15 on the  Washington Post‘s website and ran  in the next morning’s paper at the top of page one.

NASA's A-3 embarrassment at the top of A1 Credit: SpaceNews photo
NASA’s A-3 embarrassment at the top of A1. Credit: SpaceNews photo

Never mind that Bloomberg wrote almost the same story nearly a year ago; the Post’s piece puts NASA in a rather harsh spotlight just as a new Congress is about to be seated:

“Jerked from one mission to another, NASA lost its sense that any mission was truly urgent. It began to absorb the vices of less-glamorous bureaucracies: Officials tended to let projects run over time and budget. Its congressional overseers tended to view NASA first as a means to deliver pork back home, and second as a means to deliver Americans into space.”

It’s hard to argue with that last point, especially considering how the 2010 cancellation and partial resurrection of NASA’s Constellation program played out.

And indeed, the most damning details in the Post’s article concern why NASA finished a $349 million test stand three years after stopping development of the J-2x  upper-stage engine that A-3 was built to test.

An amendment offered by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) during markup of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act required NASA to “complete construction and activation of the A-3 test stand with a completion goal of September 30, 2013.”

Wicker’s amendment was approved without objection. The bill — which also mandated the completion of Orion and development of its companion heavy-lift launcher — passed the Senate, then the House, and was signed into law by Obama in October 2010.

NASA contractors finished work on the A-3 test stand this summer. According to the Post’s article, NASA will spend about $700,000 a year to maintain it — down from the $840,000 figure Bloomberg cited in its article back in January.

You can read the Post’s story here.