WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told U.S. lawmakers that spending more on the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule would not allow the government-owned vehicles to make their debut any sooner than 2017.

“More money would not change that date,” Bolden told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a March 7 hearing on NASA’s 2013 budget proposal.

“We want to reach a date in the future where everything comes together. It doesn’t do us any good if I have an Orion vehicle that’s ready to fly a year before I have a launch vehicle. It doesn’t do any good to have a launch vehicle to fly a year before I have a crew module to put on it,” he continued. “And it definitely doesn’t do me any good if I have Orion and SLS teamed together and ready to launch sitting in the [Vertical Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center] because the launch facility is not complete.”

Bolden made his assertion in response to complaints from the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, that President Barack Obama’s $17.71 billion NASA budget proposal draws funds away from SLS and Orion to pay for a steep increase for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

NASA is seeking nearly $3 billion for SLS and Orion for 2013. But with about 10 percent of that money budgeted for related ground and support infrastructure, funding for actual vehicle development would be about $325 million less than Congress provided for 2012.

At the same time, NASA is seeking to raise the Commercial Crew Program’s budget to $830 million for 2013, which is significantly above the $500 million Congress authorized for the program and more than double the program’s current budget.

NASA’s plan to cut SLS and Orion while increasing commercial crew did not go over well with Hutchison, whose state is home to NASA’s lead human spaceflight center.

“You called me with your budget proposal that was going to come out of the administration and I see a $326 million combined reduction in Orion and SLS and a corresponding increase of $330 million for commercial crew,” Hutchison said. “I was, frankly, floored, as you know from our conversation that it would be so blatant to take it right out of Orion and SLS and put it into commercial crew.”

Bolden defended NASA’s 2013 request for SLS and Orion as “consistent” with the funding levels envisioned when he shared a podium with Hutchison and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) last September to unveil the agency’s plan for building the congressionally mandated rocket and conducting its first unmanned test launch in 2017 followed by the first crewed launch in 2021.

“We have not slowed the development of SLS and [Orion],” Bolden said. “In fact we have actually done some things we did not know we were going to do. Our prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft has put in a 2014 test … that was not originally in our plan.”

Hutchison challenged Bolden’s assertion that 2021 is the earliest NASA could launch a crewed Orion atop SLS.

“That date may change,” Bolden replied. “That’s a date we look at based on a level budget run out. … I am a conservative person and 2021 is a conservative estimate for the first crewed mission on the integrated SLS/[Orion] combination.”

When Hutchison accused Bolden of “overprioritizing the commercial” at the expense of SLS and Orion, Bolden reminded her that the Commercial Crew Program is making do with a much smaller budget than originally envisioned for the effort.

“When we talk about commercial crew, it’s very easy to use $406 million as the baseline. That’s not the baseline,” Bolden said. “If you all will recall, my original request — my original request — was over a billion. We brought that down for [2012] to $850 million. We were cut by half.”

Bolden noted that he testified last year that funding the Commercial Crew Program substantially below $850 million would delay delivery of commercial crew capability.

“That is how we got to 2017 instead of 2015, 2016,” Bolden said. “Any subsequent reductions from what the president has requested for commercial crew only serves to delay the amount of time that we have an American capability to get our crews to the international space station.”

Nelson stood with Hutchison, insisting that NASA’s effort to foster development of private crew taxis must not come at the cost of SLS and Orion.

“I’m very sympathetic to what you’re saying, that in order to stay on a schedule in 2017 to launch commercial crew, you’re going to need more than $406 million. The question is, where are we going to get that? We certainly don’t want to take it out of the big rocket or Orion.”

Bolden defended NASA’s 2013 budget as a good-faith effort to sustain U.S. leadership in space amid tough fiscal times.

“As I mentioned before we had to make very difficult choices because we were $2 billion below what we thought we would be for a fiscal year 2013 budget. Cuts came from everywhere. Reductions came from everywhere,” Bolden said. “What we tried to do was maintain a balanced program.”

Bolden also reminded Hutchison and Nelson that the Commercial Crew Program is central to NASA’s plan for utilizing the space station without continuing to pay Russia $400 million-plus per year for Soyuz rides.

“I need to get American crews to station on American vehicles, and decreasing the amount of money will not help close that gap,” Bolden said. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but this is going to be cheaper for the American taxpayer in the long run.”


Round Two

Bolden endured a similar grilling later the same day when he testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the committee’s Republican chairman, charged NASA with “continu[ing]…to ignore” its congressional mandate to build SLS and Orion “in time to provide a backup capability to reach the international space station if the Russians or the commercial companies are unable to perform.”

Hall’s fellow Texan and Democratic counterpart, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, was only slightly less direct.

“I am puzzled by the de facto priorities contained in this year’s NASA budget request,” Johnson said, taking issue with NASA plan to reduce SLS and Orion funding.

Hall and Johnson also prodded Bolden about whether the Commercial Crew Program could turn out a safe, cost-competitive alternative to Russian Soyuz capules.

“Using NASA’s own budgetary projections, the full cost per seat when NASA’s share of the development cost is factored in, is likely to be much greater than we are charging by the Russians,” said Johnson. “That might be justifiable, if the government investment was opening up large new markets. But so far, the only potential non-NASA markets you have identified for Congress are super-wealthy space tourists and non-U.S. astronauts.”

Hall, as he has in the past, asked whether NASA’s procurement strategy for the Commercial Crew Program meant that the agency was rolling the dice on safety.

NASA had planned to switch from Space Act agreements to more traditional government contracts for the next phase of the Commercial Crew Program, but that plan went out the window when Congress halved NASA’s request for the program.

Space Act agreements, in contrast to traditional government procurement contracts, preclude the agency from dictating design requirements.

“How can we be assured that NASA is developing safe systems if it’s prohibited from imposing any requirements or performance tests from the company?” Hall asked .

Bolden acknowledged that NASA cannot impose design requirements during the upcoming phase of the program, a 21-month effort to mature at two competing crew taxi designs. But the agency has issued a set of safety guidelines and companies know they must be able to meet them if they want to win follow-on flight contracts.

“The main recourse I have is that I pick the winner,” Bolden said.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.