NASA Spent $349 Million for a Useless Lab Tower for a Project that had Already been Cancelled

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
NASA's A-3 Test Stand under construction in Mississippi (photo: NASA/SSC)

With help from Congress and particularly a U.S. senator, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spent four years and hundreds of millions of dollars building a special tower for a program that had already been cancelled.


The “A-3 test stand” tower was originally designed to test a new rocket engine—the J-2X—that would be used to take American astronauts back to the moon and even to Mars. It was to cost $119 million and take three years to build.


“You who live in Mississippi and who work at this space center will see that frontier opening,” promised Shana Dale, who was NASA’s deputy administrator when the A-3’s construction began in 2007. “You’ll hear it, too: the rumble of moon-bound rockets being tested here. The thunder of possibility; the roar of freedom.”


But in 2010, those anticipated sounds fell silent just as the 30-story tower was nearing completion. After numerous cost overruns, the government shut down the program. Consequently, the tower was never used as it would no longer serve a useful function.


But, remarkably, work on the A-3 continued … thanks to NASA and members of the U.S. Senate. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker was key to keeping funding for the tower’s construction going, even though it wouldn’t have any purpose after it was completed.


“It was a pretty strange feeling,” Joel Ellis, a pipe installation contractor for the tower, told The Washington Post, “to know that we were working on a project that, you know, seemed like that was just the local politician’s pet project but didn’t necessarily fit into the national scheme.”


The construction finally finished in June. The price tag: a $349 million. Presumably to no one’s surprise—the completed tower has now been mothballed.


Even more remarkably, the tower will continue to eat up tax dollars--$700,000 a year just for people to perform maintenance on something never put to use.


“What the hell are they doing? I mean, that’s a lot of people’s hard-earned money,” David Forshee, a foreman who helped build the tower, told the Post. “It’s heartbreaking to know that, you know, you thought you’d done something good and all you’ve done is go around in a damn circle, like a dog chasing his tail.”


The Post’s David Fahrenthold wrote that the tower “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,” he added, “NASA has become a symbol of something else: what happens to a big bureaucracy after its sense of mission starts to fade.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

NASA’s $349 Million Monument to its Drift (by David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post)

Congress Makes NASA Finish Useless $350 Million Structure (by Jonathan D. Salant, Bloomberg)


anonamouse 9 years ago
Hey, it ain't easy disposing of a trillion plus dollars. Think of this as a variation on the theme of economic stimulation through make-work, a sophisticated version of the proposal to re-employ jobless Americans by paying one group to dig holes and paying another group to fill them.
Scott 9 years ago
The full Washington Post article pointed out that Congress insisted on continuing to construct and to complete after NASA determined that it was no longer necessary. In addition, with NASA's budget cuts over the years how are they supposed to engage in the long range research, development and planning space exploration involves? NASA was once populated by a cadre of dedication, talented scientists and engineers. No more after a couple of decades of Congressional interference.

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