NASA’s report on the state of the Space Launch System, reflecting its completed preliminary design review, is a clear indication that the NASA/industry program team is on track to deliver a deep-space exploration capability for the future. 

What is not immediately apparent in the announcement is that the schedule set forth by NASA is based on a version of the future budget that is inconsistent with higher historic funding levels passed by Congress since the SLS program began. NASA’s commitment to SLS includes an evaluation of all identified program and technical risks in calculating a conservative statistical program schedule estimate. 

The fact that a budget has not been passed for fiscal year 2015 forces NASA to work under a continuing resolution (CR), causing a pessimistic budget and schedule perspective. In my experience, under a 2015 CR, NASA can spend $1.6 billion, which is the lowest amount between the 2014 budget appropriation and 2015 House or Senate budget marks. However, the programs will likely receive conservative budget allocations defined by the president’s 2015 budget request of $1.38 billion. 

Operating the program at the lower requested level prevents overspending before the budget is passed, but slows the program pace. If the appropriated budget is more than the president’s request, spending can be increased later in the year, but it is inefficient. However, if the program takes a risk and spends at a higher rate than the final appropriation, spending for the remainder of the year must be reduced drastically to accommodate both the overspend and the reduced approved budget. 

NASA acknowledged current planning is to the president’s request during its press conference on the report.

Forcing the program to slow implementation based on an unrealistically low budget is detrimental. A schedule for the first flight based on the request for 2015 and future years is therefore stretched out compared with a schedule that is consistent with what the program likely will receive ($1.6 billion to 1.7 billion) and has been receiving. In fact, NASA’s biggest identified risk (50 percent of the program risk) is not technical, but uncertain budget availability.

In addition to an unnecessary program slowdown, there are other consequences to consider. Generally speaking, budget equals people. So a cut consistent with the president’s request starting Oct. 1 undoubtedly means fewer people working on the program. It also probably means cuts to valuable program content. It is inefficient and can lead to cost growth.

While political and budget machinations impact the programs, SLS is still making unprecedented progress. The core stages program (Boeing) has successfully completed both preliminary design review and the subsequent critical design review five months ahead of schedule. The use of existing and characterized space shuttle main engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne and shuttle-derived boosters from ATK allows for low-risk integration with the core stage. The core stages production factory is installing the final manufacturing tool with the factory ribbon-cutting at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana on Sept. 12. The core stages program is reducing typical rocket system risks by initiating avionics and software development early in the design phase and is currently running simulations on flight-type hardware.

The SLS booster program has completed its critical design review on schedule. Three test firings of the five-segment booster have been successfully conducted and a fourth is planned for early 2015. Independent testing of the new booster avionics has been completed, and they have been integrated with the core stage avionics to conduct complete vehicle avionics testing.

The Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines, previously flown on the space shuttle, will undergo their SLS critical design review this fall. A new engine controller will begin testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi this fall.

The assured way to keep our deep-space programs on schedule is to maintain the consistent congressional and administration support and pass a stable NASA budget with $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion for SLS as soon as possible. Passing the budget will help other NASA programs stay on the right path for the same reasons. It will prevent disruption of progress and inefficient replanning. It will maintain a stable, committed and productive work force that is making remarkable progress. Based on progress to date, I believe it will provide the opportunity to begin flying SLS in late 2017. 

SLS is a key to human exploration beyond Earth orbit and is currently on track. Let’s enable this future for our nation. 

Doug Cooke, owner of Cooke Concepts and Solutions, spent 38 years at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and headquarters and is the former associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

Doug Cooke is an aerospace consultant with over 49 years in NASA programs.