WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told U.S. lawmakers July 12 that the agency might not unveil the technical and budgetary details of the next U.S.-owned heavy lifter, the Space Launch System (SLS), until the summer is out.

“While I would hope to have a final decision to announce this summer, the absolute need to make sure our SLS program fits within our overall budget constraints suggests that it may take longer,” Bolden told the House Science and Technology Committee during a hearing members scheduled last month with the expectation that NASA would have announced its SLS decision by now.

Bolden also said that the rocket may not be able to fly its first unmanned test flight until 2017. Congress, in legislation signed last October, said that the rocket must launch no later than Dec. 31, 2016.

Moreover, it would not be until “late this decade or the early [20]20s before we had a human-rated vehicle,” Bolden said.

Bolden was the sole witness at the hearing, which was chartered by the committee with the expectation that the NASA chief would be ready to discuss the agency’s design and acquisition strategy for the SLS.

SLS and its companion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) are to be the next U.S. government-owned spacecraft. NASA announced in May that Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver would develop the MPCV under the Orion crew capsule contract the company was awarded under the now-canceled Constellation program.

While there was some expectation that NASA would make an SLS announcement July 8 following the launch of Atlantis on the final mission of the U.S. space shuttle program, that did not happen.

NASA has instead kept SLS details close to the vest, which turned the House Science Committee’s July 12 hearing into a grilling, with the committee taking Bolden to task for his agency’s long delay in producing an SLS design and acquisition strategy.

“The fact that we do not have a final decision on the SLS … is almost an insult to this committee,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the committee’s chairman.

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to report on the SLS design by Jan. 9. On Jan. 15, NASA produced a preliminary report for Congress, detailing the space agency’s evaluation of possible designs. NASA said in that report that it could make a choice as early as spring. That slipped to the end of June, leading to speculation that the SLS unveiling would coincide with the final shuttle launch.

Hall, in his opening remarks, hung the threat of an investigation over Bolden’s head, telling the NASA chief that the committee has “run out of patience.”

“I would like to point out today that this committee reserves the right to open an investigation into these continued delays and join the investigation initiated by the Senate,” Hall said.

The Senate, which originated the authorization law mandating SLS and MPCV, in May ordered NASA to turn over all internal documents relating to SLS development.

Bolden, for his part, said he was following the lessons learned from the Constellation program, the Moon-return project initiated by former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004 and killed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

“One of the reasons that I’m being very cautious about bringing numbers to this committee or to any other committee of the Congress is because I don’t want to end up where we were with Constellation,” Bolden said. “I don’t want to bring you an unexecutable program.”

Bolden said that until SLS completes its preliminary design review, it would be difficult for NASA to provide the Congress with credible cost and schedule estimates.

“I should not give you a hard number on cost and schedule until I get to” preliminary design review, Bolden said. “If I give you a hard number before that stage, I can almost guarantee you that I’m wrong.”

A preliminary design review is a development benchmark wherein NASA certifies that a project meets its design objectives and can be executed within specified time and cost boundaries. Under Constellation, NASA completed the preliminary design review of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle in September 2008, some three years after the agency decided on the basic design concept for the rocket.

Also at the hearing, Bolden publicly acknowledged, for the first time, that he has approved technical specifications for SLS and sent them on to the White House for review.

“On June 20, I approved a specific design that our experts believe is the best technical path forward for SLS,” Bolden said. “I’ve shared that design with the Office of Management and Budget and others at the White House.”

Prior to the hearing, NASA would neither confirm nor deny reports from government and industry sources that Bolden had approved a design for the Space Launch System nearly identical to the Ares 5 heavy-lifter concept that NASA selected in 2005. The reference design Bolden forwarded to the White House in June would consist of a liquid hydrogen-fueled core stage powered by space shuttle main engines, an Apollo-derived J-2X upper stage, and — at least for its first few flights — side-mounted solid-rocket boosters with space shuttle and Ares 1 heritage.

Eventually, NASA would open a competition for the booster stage, leaving the door open for the next U.S. heavy lifter to use liquid-fueled strap-ons.

Bolden, at the July 12 hearing, maintained that the booster-stage competition will not put SLS any further behind schedule than it is already.

“It’s going to be full and open competition if I could do what I’d like to do,” Bolden told the assembled lawmakers.

The NASA boss added that he would like to throw seed money at U.S. aerospace companies in hopes of encouraging them “to at least take the risk of producing [liquid oxygen/kerosene] engines for boosters.”

U.S. lawmakers with space-industry constituents have lobbied NASA hard to hold a competition for propulsion components of the SLS. The agency’s plan to solicit bids for the SLS booster stage appeared to be aimed at accommodating these calls for competition.



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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.