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January 8, 2014

Useless $350 million NASA space project mandated by Congress

WASHINGTON — 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.

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