The NASA 2010 Authorization Act (for fiscal 2011-2013) authorized expansion of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) to maintain U.S. leadership in space exploration. NASA was directed to retain critical skills and capabilities and develop a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) based on Orion, and a heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) based on the space shuttle and Ares 1, both to be available by the end of 2016. The bill was approved with bipartisan congressional support and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Administration support, however, now appears to be wavering: Funding for the MPCV and SLS in the president’s 2012 NASA budget request has been significantly reduced. According to a report in Space News, Administrator Charles Bolden said in congressional testimony that “NASA would have no use for a heavy-lift rocket and deep space capsule before the end of this decade” [“U.S. Lawmakers Question Choices on Manned Spaceflight in NASA Budget Request,” March 7, page 7]. The continuing resolution compounds the problem by reducing funding available for the MPCV in 2011 and postponing the start of work on the SLS.
Our nation runs the risk of losing the capability to produce the MPCV and SLS if there is an extended program hiatus. Designing and developing deep space capsules and heavy-lift boosters is very challenging and requires a national team effort, and has been done before by only one nation, the United States, with the deep space Apollo and Orion capsules and heavy-lift Saturn 5, shuttle and Ares 1 boosters. This hard-won capability, if lost, will be very expensive and difficult to reconstitute due to a critical loss of momentum, experienced personnel and industrial base. The knowledgeable people currently working on the shuttle and Constellation will move on to other work, our highly experienced astronaut corps will atrophy, and unique facilities and equipment will not be maintained if there is a loss of continuity in human space exploration. We as a nation risk losing our world leadership position.
MPCV and SLS development will draw on our successful heritage and knowledge base and expand our capabilities. These essential architectural elements will enable our nation to embark on a challenging program of human exploration beyond LEO, in a flexible path of progressively more ambitious missions. Our nation cannot afford a long gap in human space exploration capability. The time is now, and Congress must take the lead: Pass a 2011 NASA appropriation bill and fully fund the MPCV and SLS in accordance with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.
The name of the letter writer, a Boeing engineer, has been withheld by request.