At the root of the problem is a 70-word sentence inserted into the 2010 budget -- by lawmakers seeking to protect Ares I jobs in their home states -- that bars NASA from shutting down the program until Congress passed a new budget a year later. That should have happened before the Oct. 1 start of the federal fiscal year.
But Congress never passed a 2011 budget and instead voted this month to extend the 2010 budget until March -- so NASA still must abide by the 2010 language.
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The Orlando Sentinel reports that, as the result of Congress extending the 2010 budget until March, NASA must continue paying millions every month for the Ares I rocket program essentially ended by President Obama when he signed a new NASA plan in October.
That's one small clause for Congress, one giant bill for taxpayer-kind.
The language in the 2010 budget that kept the program going was introduced by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL). According to NASA, $95 million a month is being spent on Ares I -- and about $165 million of the projected $475 million to be spent overall between October and March will go specifically to Alliant Techsystems, or ATK. ATK has a $2 billion contract "to build the solid-rocket first stage for the Ares I, the rocket that was supposed to fill the shuttle's role of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station." But it will no longer do so. NASA officials argued that the money isn't necessarily wasted -- the resources given to the program might be applicable to whatever rocket Congress eventually approves.
"Much of the Ares I work likely will be directly applicable to a heavy-lift vehicle if a shuttle-derived architecture is selected, including five-segment boosters, tank structures, upper-stage engine and avionics," Michael Cabbage, a NASA spokesman, told the Sentinel.
In a final irony, the paper points out that the agency has had to postpone the start of a program to modernize facilities at the Kennedy Space Center -- for lack of funds.