In June, NASA finished work on a huge construction project in Mississippi: a $349 million laboratory tower, designed to test a new rocket engine in a chamber that mimicked the vacuum of space.
Then NASA did something odd.
As soon as the work was done, it shut the tower down. The project was officially “mothballed” — closed up and left empty — without ever being used.
“You lock the door, so nobody gets in and hurts themselves,” said Daniel Dumbacher, a former NASA official who oversaw the project.
The reason for the shutdown: The new tower — called the A-3 test stand — was useless. Just as expected. The rocket program it was designed for had been canceled in 2010.
But, at first, cautious NASA bureaucrats didn’t want to stop the construction on their own authority. And then Congress — at the urging of a senator from Mississippi — swooped in and ordered the agency to finish the tower, no matter what.
The result was that NASA spent four more years building something it didn’t need. Now, the agency will spend about $700,000 a year to maintain it in disuse.
The empty tower in Mississippi is evidence of a breakdown at NASA, which used to be a glorious symbol of what an American bureaucracy could achieve. In the space race days of the 1960s, the agency was given a clear, galvanizing mission: Reach the moon within the decade. In less than seven, NASA got it done.
Now, NASA has become a symbol of something else: what happens to a big bureaucracy after its sense of mission starts to fade.
In the past few years, presidents have repeatedly scrubbed and rewritten NASA’s goals. The moon was in.
The moon was out. Mars was in. Now, Mars looks like a stretch. Today, the first goal is to visit an asteroid.
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.
In Mississippi, NASA built a monument to its own institutional drift.
The useless tower was repeatedly approved by people who, in essence, argued that the American space program had nothing better to do.
“What the hell are they doing? I mean, that’s a lot of people’s hard-earned money,” said David Forshee, who spent 18 months as the general foreman for the pipe fitters who helped build the tower. Like other workmen, he had taken pride in this massive, complicated project — only to learn that it was in mothballs.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that, you know, you thought you’d done something good,” Forshee said. “And all you’ve done is go around in a damn circle, like a dog chasing his tail.”
Giving up on the moon
Back in Washington, it wasn’t long after the groundbreaking that NASA officials began to hear about problems with the project.
For one thing, the estimated cost increased to $163 million. To $185 million. Then beyond that. NASA’s inspector general said the design contractor, Jacobs Engineering Group, blamed changes in the design, plus unforeseen increases in the cost of labor and steel.
NASA paid the higher price. The builders kept building.
“I don’t think the contractors were attempting a scam. I think, in all honesty, that they did not understand the magnitude of the job,” said one former senior NASA official who was familiar with the project. “I know people involved as human beings. I do not think they were trying to take advantage” of NASA, the former official said.
Paying and paying
“The [International] Space Station was sold as an $8 billion program. It ended up costing $100 billion. The Webb telescope was sold as a $1 billion program. It’s now up to $8 billion,” said Lori Garver, who served as the No. 2 official at NASA from 2009 until last year. “It usually works out for them,” she said, meaning the contractors get paid, even when they raise the price.
Decision-making about NASA was twisted, she said, because of a mismatch between its huge funding and its muddled sense of purpose. “There’s no ‘why’ ” in NASA anymore, Garver said.
Instead, she said, there was only a “how,” a sense that something big still needed to be done. “And the ‘how’ is all about the [construction] contracts and the members of Congress.”