Bill Would Direct NASA to Begin Work on Heavy-lift Rocket Next Year

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WASHINGTON New authorizing legislation taking shape in the U.S. Senate would require NASA to begin development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle in 2011 that takes advantage of the U.S. space agency’s investment in the retiring space shuttle and follow-on Ares 1 rocket.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science and space, outlined key elements of the 2011 authorization bill he is drafting in a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending. Nelson said his bill, which would set funding limits and dictate policy guidance for the agency in the budget year that begins Oct. 1, would address the future of space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and urge NASA to work with other nations to define near-term missions to deep space destinations.

“The authorization bill will direct NASA to initiate development of a heavy-lift vehicle in fiscal year 2011, both to support these new human space flight activities and to serve as a contingency capability to the [international space station],” he wrote. “The authorization will propose that both the heavy-lift and crew exploration vehicles leverage the workforce, contracts, assets and capabilities of the Shuttle, Ares 1 and Orion efforts.”

Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled plans to abandon the government’s $10 billion investment in NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program, Nelson has maintained a preference for continuing at least some elements of the effort, including the Orion crew capsule and testing of the Ares 1 rocket that was designed to launch Orion.

Nelson’s letter did not spell out a plan for Orion, which was initially targeted for termination next year along with the rest of Constellation but later spared when the president proposed using a slimmed-down version as a crew lifeboat aboard the space station. Since then, NASA officials have said the Orion lifeboat could cost as much as $7 billion and take roughly five years to develop.


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Nelson said the heavy-lift rocket and crew exploration vehicle would constitute “NASA’s core contributions” to future space exploration missions that would incorporate “robotic capabilities and the development of on-orbit capabilities, technology, and infrastructure.”

He said initial missions to Lagrange points gravitationally stable locations in space or lunar orbit would form a foundation for follow-on missions to other destinations, ultimately leading to Mars.

“I am also exploring the idea of authorizing a mechanism to provide long-term strategic guidance on human space flight,” he wrote.

Nelson said his bill would take a “walk before you run” approach to the private-sector space-taxi services Obama proposed funding with almost $6 billion in new spending over the next five years.

“The bill would support the continuation and expansion of the current risk reduction, safety, and technology development effort known as the ‘Commercial Crew Development Program,’” he wrote. “The bill would also require NASA to complete a number of studies, assessments, and milestones as we progress from a commercial cargo capability to the commercial crew services.”

Nelson said astronaut safety which tops Mikulski’s list of concerns regarding NASA’s new direction “will be the core component of all of these requirements, as with any human space flight program.”

The authorizing legislation would support Obama’s plan to continue operating the space station through 2020 and provide “the logistics and support necessary to maximize the scientific return on our investment” in the orbiting outpost. “Commercial cargo delivery is an important component of this overall strategy, and the flight of an additional space shuttle mission the current ‘Launch on Need’ flight will help ensure that the [international space station] remains robust until the space shuttle is gracefully retired.”

The so-called launch-on-need flight refers to the space shuttle NASA keeps at the ready to launch on a rescue mission if something goes awry during another shuttle’s mission. The additional shuttle flight would be authorized only after successfully completion of an independent safety review patterned after the study that Mikulski requested prior to NASA’s most recent Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission last year.

The bill would seek to ensure NASA maintains a “balanced space program that includes and protects its aeronautics, science, technology, and human space flight missions,” and that “strong cost and schedule oversight will remain essential to that effort.”

Nelson’s letter came in response to a Feb. 16 letter from Mikulski in which she outlined a number of principles she wished to see incorporated into any draft authorization bill for NASA.

“I share fully your sentiment that our committees must work together to define the best path forward for America’s space program,” he wrote. “Over the last four months I have been studying the President’s budget request, as well as various alternative proposals, in determining how we can best move ahead to the next era of human space flight.”

Nelson said discussions with key lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.); Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce space and science subcommittee; Sen. David Vitter (R-La.); and other committee members informed his review of NASA’s proposal.

In a statement issued by her office June 14, Mikulski said the elements of the authorization bill outlined in Nelson’s letter offer “an alternative framework for NASA’s human space flight program that could snap us out of the ‘stagnant quo.’”

“I look forward to seeing the details and how this alternative meets the principles outlined in my February 16, 2010 letter: astronaut safety, mission destination, balanced space program, scientific utilization of human space flight, workforce transition, and taxpayer protection,” she said.

Mikulski said Congress must help NASA preserve robust capabilities for Earth and space science, aeronautics research and technology development, as well as a safe and reliable human spaceflight program.

“I will continue to work with Senator Nelson and our colleagues as we move our respective NASA authorization and funding bills this summer,” she wrote.