NASA’s $349 million monument to its drift

NASA’s $349 million
monument to its drift

Construction of a test tower in Miss. continued long after the rocket project was scrubbed

Published on December 15, 2014

GULFPORT, Miss. — In June, NASA finished work on a huge construction project here 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.



Sixth in a series examining the failures at the heart of troubled federal systems.

Above: The A-3 test stand, shown under construction at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, was built for a rocket program that was canceled. (NASA)

“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.

GRAPHIC: NASA's mothballed test towers

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 pipefitters 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.”

“It’s heartbreaking to know that ... you thought you’d done something good,” said David Forshee, who spent 18 months as the general foreman for the pipefitters who helped build the tower. “And all you’ve done is go around in a damn circle, like a dog chasing his tail.” (William Widmer for The Washington Post)

Creating a vacuum

Seven years ago, when the tower still seemed like a useful idea, the governor came to the groundbreaking. So did a congressman. Two senators. On a hot morning in August 2007, next to a canal full of alligators, somebody laid down AstroTurf and clean dirt over the sandy Mississippi soil. The dignitaries stood on the fake grass. They stuck gold-painted   shovels into the fake earth.

They said they were starting one of the greatest journeys in human history.

Right here — at a 30-story tower rising out of the woods — NASA would test the rockets that would take Americans back to the moon. And then even farther, on to Mars.

“You who live in Mississippi and who work at this space center will see that frontier opening,” said Shana Dale, who was then NASA’s second-in-command. “You’ll hear it, too: the rumble of moon-bound rockets being tested here. The thunder of possibility; the roar of freedom.”

This tower was intended to test a rocket engine called the J-2X. The plan was for a spacecraft to carry this engine, un-lit, up out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Then the engine would ignite and propel the spacecraft toward the moon.

But, before NASA stuck an astronaut on top of that idea, it wanted to test the engine. In the near-vacuum at the edge of space, would the whole thing vibrate, crack or blow apart?

There was only one way to know.

“You have to fake the vacuum,” said Dumbacher, the former NASA official.

To do that, NASA had to create a giant pressure cooker on stilts. Workers would build a sealed metal container, big enough to hold a school bus. Then they would install it in the middle of a 300-foot-tall steel tower, reinforced to resist 1 million pounds of upward thrust from a rocket.

Then, they would put the rocket engine in the container. Seal the door. Suck out the air. And light the fire.

At the very beginning, NASA projected that the tower would cost $119 million. It was supposed to be finished by late 2010.

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 main 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.

Jacobs declined to comment.

At NASA, as at other large government agencies, this was an old institutional vice: making a big purchase, then letting the cost get bigger and bigger. Studies had found that when NASA projects ran way late or way over budget, the agency rarely took the hard step of killing them.

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It kept 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 number two 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.”

At the same time that the test stand was busting its budget, NASA  had a much bigger problem to deal with. The whole effort to return to the moon — a suite of projects called “Constellation,” which included the A-3 tower and the engines it was meant to test — was falling deeply behind.

That program had begun in 2004, with a call from President George W. Bush. “We will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015,” Bush said then.

But its funding never matched its ambitions. The nation’s ETA on the moon was repeatedly pushed back. By 2009, a study commissioned by President Obama found that — at its current budget — NASA might not get a man back to the moon until the 2030s.

“They were trying to do more work than they had money to do. And they tried to make it up by slipping” the due date further and further into the future, said Norman R. Augustine, a former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, who led the study.

What was left was a choice, he said.

“We have to decide in this country whether we want a jobs program,” he said, “or a space program.”

Finally, in early 2010, Obama made a stunning announcement.

He wanted to give up on the moon. In fact, he wanted to scrap the entire Constellation program, including the rocket engines that the Mississippi tower was meant to test.

At that point, NASA officials said, about $200 million in federal money had been committed to the Mississippi project. But the thing was still nowhere near done. In fact, officials said, it might need another year and a half of work.

What was left was a choice.

“If it didn’t look like we were going to use it again, I would have stopped it right there. Just to save the money,” said Douglas Cooke, the NASA official who was tasked with making that decision. He was a lifer, 35 years in.

In the spring of 2010, Cooke was not ready to kill the tower.

After all, Obama had only proposed killing the Constellation program. Congress hadn’t signed off. In fact, lawmakers already were howling, outraged that home-district projects might be cut. So what if lawmakers decided to save that rocket engine that fired in space after all?

Just to be safe, Cooke kept it going.

“If we just stopped work on it, in the middle, it was going to be a pretty high recovery cost, to go back and restart it,” he said. “So we just decided to go ahead.”

Keeping eyes on the prize

In Mississippi, construction continued without a break. To the workers on the ground, the test stand was looking like a major achievement — a demonstration of what NASA and America and they were capable of.

Steam billows from the A-3 test stand during a preliminary test of one system at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (NASA)

First, they put up the steel. There was 4 million pounds of it, with holes for 450,000 bolts — a thicket of metal so dense that workers joked about a “bird test.” Any bird that tried to fly straight through it would conk into a beam.

For workers, the job was hard because the structure was naked. No ladders. No railings. No floors. To build it, they had to stand on the bare skeleton itself, high enough in the air that the swinging steel blended in with the passing clouds.

“You’re standing on a steel beam 100 feet in the air,” said James Blackburn, whose company, then called Lafayette Steel Erector, worked on this phase of the project. “The crane is swinging, one of these large steel members is coming toward you. . . . As the clouds are moving by, this piece is moving at you, your brain easily gets confused.”

After the steel went up, the workers attached the sealed metal container. The hardest part to build was the 120,000-pound door. It had to swing open to let the rocket engine in, then swing shut and hold up under 40 pounds per square inch of pressure from the inside.

“You stop and realize 40 psi is — what’s 40 times 144?” Jasper Reaves asked aloud at American Tank & Vessel, in the basement of a grand mansion in Mobile, Ala.

“Five thousand seven hundred sixty pounds” per square inch, said William Cutts, the company’s chief executive, working the calculator.

“ . . . per square foot,” Reaves, the chief engineer, finished the sentence. “That’s a hell of a lot of pressure on this thing.” Reaves gestured toward a photo of the door, crosshatched with a grid of steel bars. It looked like the door to a super-villain’s jail cell. “So that’s all to make the door keep its shape.”

Just the paint job was enormous. It took two days for a man hanging in a “spider basket” to paint one wide stripe from bottom to top. Then he moved  over a few feet, and started at the bottom of another section.

But the payoff would be enormous, too.

Years later, they would have touched the thing that touched the thing that put humans on another planet.

“I mean, you talk about something neat,” said Brent Anthony, who spent days inspecting the stand, hanging in a basket that swung unnervingly in the breeze. “You’re talking about building something that’s going to help us go to Mars.”

In the final years of the project, however, word began to filter out on the jobsite. The thing they were working on might not be needed after all. Not for Mars. Not for anything.

“Yeah, yeah. It was a pretty strange feeling. 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. Well, I don’t think the rank and file really had a morale issue with that. You know, to them, it was another construction project,” said Joel Ellis, a contractor who helped install the pipes on the stand.

For Ellis personally, the key was to take pride in the work, even if the work wasn’t ever used. “There’s no sense in dwelling on it,” he said.

Sealing tower’s fate

In the summer of 2010, Congress saved the tower in Mississippi for good.

It happened without anybody mentioning the project’s name aloud.

“This is a big day for America,” said then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), as it was about to happen. Hutchison was speaking in July 2010 at a meeting of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“We’re doing the right thing for America. For our economy. For our creativity,” she said. “For our science. And for our security.”

Hutchison was announcing a new compromise with the White House, which would finally settle the fight over Constellation. Constellation was dead. Instead, the senators were telling NASA to build something that they had just made up: a “Space Launch System” (jokers at NASA call it the “Senate Launch System”).

The new plan for NASA was, as usual, long on “how” and short on “why.”

The senators were clear about what they wanted NASA to do: keep some Constellation-era projects going, with all their salaries and spending, and try to integrate them into a new system.

But what was the goal of all that? The moon was off the table. Instead, NASA is now focused on a less impressive rock: an asteroid. Sometime in the 2020s, NASA wants to capture one about the size of a house, and then have astronauts zoom up and examine it. This was not a mission chosen to captivate the world’s imagination. It was a mission chosen to use the leftovers that Congress had told NASA to reheat. (Mars still remains a distant goal: At the earliest, NASA might get there in the 2030s.)

At first, the Senate’s new plan looked bad for the tower in Mississippi. At best, it now would be a project built on spec: erected in the hope that someday NASA might return to the idea of a giant rocket engine that fired in a vacuum.

But, in the committee room, Hutchison was still talking.

“I move that the following amendments to the NASA reauthorization bill be adopted,” she was saying. “Wicker Two, as modified. Wicker Three, . . .and Wicker Four,” Hutchison said.

“All those in favor?” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee chairman.

Everybody said aye.


Nobody said anything.

“It does appear to the chair that the ayes have it,” Rockefeller said.

“Sherlock Holmes, you are,” Hutchison said.

And that was it. “Wicker Three” was an amendment sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). His amendment said NASA “shall complete construction and activation of the A-3 test stand with a completion goal of September 30, 2013.”

That language was included in the bill that passed the committee. Then the Senate, then the House. In October 2010, Obama signed it into law.

“Administrations come and go. I think it makes sense not to leave a partially constructed asset sitting there,” Wicker said this month, in an interview in a hall outside the Senate chamber. “I do believe, a decade from now, we’ll look back and see that it has been used in a very positive way.” He did not name a specific NASA program that he believed would use it.

In a separate interview this year, Hutchison — who is now retired — had said she couldn’t remember how Wicker managed to get his amendment included in that compromise.

So how did he do it?

In the Capitol hall, the senator burst out laughing.

“Just talented legislating,” he said, and then walked away.

William Cutts, left, chief executive of American Tank & Vessel in Mobile, Ala., and Jasper Reaves, the company’s chief engineer, look at photographs of the A-3 test stand. (William Widmer for The Washington Post)

Test stand, at a standstill

Work on the tower finally concluded this past summer. By then, the project had cost $349 million, which was nearly three times the original NASA estimate. It had lasted almost seven years, which was 3 1 /2 years longer than first expected.

But at last, the A-3 test stand was done.

Or, mostly done.

“A-3 could not be used for testing right now, if we wanted to,” said Dumbacher, the NASA official, who left in July to become a professor at Purdue University. He said instruments still needed to be installed, and the pressure vessel needed to be tested to see if it would hold a vacuum. How much work would it take to get it ready?

“Probably another two to three years, I would guess,” Dumbacher said. (A current NASA spokesman gave a slightly shorter time frame, saying that “probably less than two years would be required.”) But, he said, Congress had assured NASA behind the scenes that this stage of completion would be enough to satisfy them. So construction work ended on June 27, and workers began the job of mothballing the stand.

The dignitaries did not come back to see that.

“There was no ceremony,” a NASA spokesman said.

The revelation that the tower was going to be mothballed was revealed in an inspector general’s report in January.

For now, the stand does not seem likely to be needed anytime soon. NASA says it has no rockets, even in development, that would require the kind of test this tower does.

So the tower stand has taken its place on NASA’s long list of living dead. Last year, the agency’s inspector general found six other test stands that were either in “mothball” status, or about to be. Some hadn’t been used since the 1990s. Together, those seven cost NASA more than $100,000 a year to maintain.

Forshee, the pipefitting foreman, had no idea. He had left the tower job years ago, had gone to work in Montana, and then had come back to Mississippi to build a firehouse. But he had kept a jacket with the NASA logo, which he had been given on the tower project. He savored the idea that his kids might one day see an American walk on Mars, and know their father helped make it possible.

Then, in July, Forshee got an odd job offer. Could he come to Stennis Space Center to work on a new rocket test stand?

Forshee was confused. Didn’t he just build one of those?

“They told me, “Hey, you know, they mothballed A-3.’ I said, ‘What?’ ” he said, in an interview at the bar at a Hooters restaurant in this industrial city of Gulfport. “And they said, ‘Yeah, they’re gonna do this one’ ” instead, he said.

It turned out that the engines required for the new Space Launch System needed a new test stand, with no vacuum involved. So NASA is renovating another stand just a short distance away from the A-3, called the B-2. That project is supposed to cost $134 million.

Forshee is a tea party supporter, somebody who hates for government money to be misspent. And here, he sees, it was misspent on him. After his interview at Hooters, he called a reporter back to be sure he had it right.

“They’re just saying they spent $350 million for no reason?” he asked.

Yes, he was told.

“Well,” he said. “Nice.” (He took the job at the new test stand anyway, to be sure the work stayed with his union local: “If we don’t do this work, then they’re going to give it to Local 60 out of New Orleans.”)

NASA would not allow a reporter to visit the disused tower up close. The only way to see it at all was to pay $10 at the visitor center and take the official Stennis Space Center bus tour.

On the tour, the guide drove by several test stands left over from the glory days of the 1960s, and recounted how exhaust billowed, and the earth shook. The bus drove by the B-2 stand, now under construction.

Then the bus passed a skeletal, white-painted tower, alone in the distance.

“The one to the left there is called the A-3,” the guide said.

So what does that one do?

“It actually does not have a customer,” the guide said. “So it’s just kind of hanging out right now.”

This article has been update to reflect that the door on the A-3 tower’s pressure vessel was designed to handle 40 pounds per square inch of pressure from the inside, not from the outside, and that this pressure is equal to 5,760 pounds per square foot.