WASHINGTON — Seeking to hold NASA to account for what he called deliberate attempts to stall the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs, U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has blocked the White House’s nomination of the agency’s chief financial officer, Beth Robinson, to become the U.S. undersecretary of energy. 

“Are you intentionally trying to kill SLS and Orion?” Vitter asked in an Oct. 21 letter to Robinson. 

Among other things, Vitter demanded to know why “NASA has failed to approve contracts for the [SLS and Orion], which would be built at the Michoud Assembly Facility” near New Orleans. “Approval of the delayed projects could mean putting approximately 300 to 600 Louisianans back to work,” he said.

The Louisiana lawmaker also asked why Boeing Space Exploration’s “SLS contract still has not been definitized,” and why Robinson is apparently withholding $125 million in termination liability funds from Boeing. 

“How do you explain that withholding these funds appears to be using of termination liability as a tool to slow progress of SLS?” Vitter wrote.

Termination liability funds are typically held in reserve to cover any costs associated with canceling a project. The letter did not specify the program for which Boeing is owed the money.

Vitter also complained about what he said is the uneven application of sequestration cuts across the agency, pointing out that funding for the Commercial Crew Program was not reduced at all while appropriations for SLS and Orion were. 

“I would appreciate your prompt answers to these questions as the Senate considers your promotion to the Department of Energy,” Vitter wrote.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...