Wicker defends move to fund mothballed NASA rocket project

Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi was unbowed Tuesday in the face of disclosures that he kept alive funding to complete a $349 million Mississippi rocket-testing project, only for it to be immediately mothballed because it was part of a canceled NASA program.

“Congress agreed that it was not in the best interests of taxpayers, in Mississippi or elsewhere, to allow the site to sit incomplete, abandoned, and neglected, quickly falling into a state of disrepair,” Wicker said in a statement.

He sought to redirect the blame on President Barack Obama, who Wicker said “has abandoned America’s manned space program” and “lacks the vision of his predecessors.”

In a lengthy narrative, The Washington Post detailed how construction of the three-story rocket test stand at the Stennis Space Center moved ahead even as its costs spiraled to triple the original estimate.

Wicker was instrumental in resuscitating the so-called A-3 test stand, the Post reported. He inserted an amendment to fund it to completion at a 2010 Senate Commerce Committee hearing after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced plans to cancel the Constellation manned space program, of which it was a part.

There’s little indication that Wicker was plied with campaign donations. A McClatchy search through campaign finance reports found only one potentially related contribution to his political committees: a $1,000 check from Jacobs Engineering about three months before Obama signed Wicker’s legislation into law. Jacobs designed a fake huge vessel to test a rocket engine in a sort of vacuum on stilts to mimic how it would perform in space, the Post said.

Wicker said that Obama left Congress with three choices in canceling the Constellation program: “leave a partially built stand; bring in a wrecking crew; or complete the construction, protect our asset, and try to persuade a future administration to resume the program.”

He said he chose option No. 3 because “infrastructure projects like the A-3 test stand are important for public and private investment at Stennis Space Center.”

Wicker said the legislation “allowed NASA to maintain this national asset in safe condition for future use.”

Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo, who chairs the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on space, said that the rocket stand was “already two-thirds of the way complete,” with $292 million spent when the decision was made to finish it for possible “future government or commercial industry objectives.”

He said members of both parties in Congress have asked Obama to lay out a space exploration road map.

“While it is disappointing to have a project like this in mothball status,” Palazzo said, “I remain extremely hopeful that it will be of great use in the future and the decision to maintain this test stand will ultimately save us millions if not billions of dollars down the road. “

Wicker’s Mississippi Senate colleague, Sen. Thad Cochran, was unavailable for comment Tuesday, the day his late wife Rose Cochran was laid to rest.

NASA had no immediate comment on the disclosure.