WASHINGTON — Key members of the U.S. Senate have given NASA until June 3 to produce a plethora of documents and other data detailing the agency’s efforts to comply with a 2010 law that requires it to begin work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule capable of manned missions beyond low Earth orbit.

In a May 18 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, leaders on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who are largely credited with drafting the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, say the agency is dragging its feet in carrying out the law.

“NASA’s current inaction and indecision in implementing this transition could impact our global standing and take many years and billions of dollars to repair,” states the letter, which was signed by Sens. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the committee’s chairman and ranking member, respectively, and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the panel’s science and space subcommittee. “As a result we are requesting bi-monthly briefings and detailed information documenting what steps NASA is taking to comply with the law.”

More than seven months have passed since U.S. President Barack Obama enacted the bipartisan legislation, which directs NASA to start work this year on the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle. But the effort remains on hold as the U.S. space agency weighs options for building an affordable space exploration architecture while fulfilling Obama’s desire to nurture development of privately built space taxis within an annual budget that is expected to remain flat for the foreseeable future.

The letter says NASA’s failure “to decisively move forward with implementation … is adding to the overall cost and schedule by delaying the transition from Constellation-related work and contracts to the new human space flight program,” the letter states. “Due to the urgency of the situation and the scale of the transition, Congress and NASA will need to work more collaboratively than ever to ensure that policy and execution is aligned to most effectively achieve our space flight goals.”

NASA officials insist the agency is complying with the law, but point out that its efforts were hindered by Congress’ failure to pass a 2011 budget until this past April. The letter also charges that NASA has failed to produce a number of reports ordered by the legislation, including one that outlines the agency’s designs for the new heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule.

In addition to the bimonthly briefings to the committee, which are expected to begin the week of May 30 and continue “until further notice,” the letter calls on the agency to provide draft studies, analyses, communications — including emails — and other documents related to the reports. These include: A draft of a study detailing how the agency’s transition to a new heavy-lift launch vehicle will affect the U.S. propulsion industrial base, as well as a report on solid-rocket motor utilization that was purportedly presented to NASA leaders March 8; an update on the status of a study detailing designs for the new heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule, which the agency outlined in a preliminary report delivered to Congress Jan. 10; and documents related to an assessment of the non-U.S. government market for commercial space transportation, which NASA delivered to Congress in May. The latter request also requires NASA to provide a copy of a study the agency commissioned from the Los Angeles-based Aerospace Corp. that suggested the nongovernment market for such transportation systems does not exist.

In addition, the letter calls for: A list of agency personnel responsible for meeting the law’s requirements to develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule, as well as copies of all communications, including emails, in their custody that relate to such efforts.

Documents relating to NASA plans to utilize existing contracts to develop the heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft.

A list of all contracts NASA has extended or modified in the course of implementing the law’s requirements.

A copy of an internal study of the Orion crew exploration vehicle contract and its applicability to the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Documents related to NASA plans to transition the agency’s human spaceflight work force to the new heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule programs as directed in the law.

Documents detailing efforts to lower costs associated with the new space launch system and crew capsule development.



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