SAN FRANCISCO — NASA and its contractor teams are making significant progress toward their goal of building the Orion crew capsule, designing its future heavy-lift launch vehicle and integrating the two elements for a planned flight in 2017. That timeline would be in jeopardy, however, if NASA does not receive funding for the program at the currently budgeted level of approximately $2.7 billion per year for the next five years, witnesses told the U.S. House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee during a Sept. 12 hearing.

“Funding stability of any endeavor of this magnitude is critical to program success,” said Dan Dumbacher, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems. “Instability in the funding takes away from our ability to get the hardware developed and build the program.”

Consistent funding also helps contractors attract and retain skilled workers, witnesses told the panel. Lockheed Martin plans to rely on the same skilled work force during Orion’s engineering, development and testing phases. “Stable funding allows us to keep that professional work force which is vital to these high-performance programs,” said Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager.

Jim Chilton, space exploration vice president and SLS program manager for Boeing Defense Space & Security of St. Louis, added that many of the young engineers working on the Space Launch System are eager to see the project through to flight. When funding is cut and programs are canceled, young workers often leave the industry because “they begin to see it as unattractive or unstable,” Chilton said.

Consistent funding for space exploration also supports small companies that manufacture specialized parts for space-based systems, Lacefield told the panel. “Our supply chain in the United States is very fragile,” he said, adding that some of the avionics and electronic components needed to build the crew capsule have been difficult to obtain in a timely manner. “We need to see some stability there for the suppliers to make it,” Lacefield said.

The White House 2013 budget plan released in February asked Congress to provide NASA with $2.77 billion for Orion, SLS and related ground systems. The budget blueprint signaled the space agency’s commitment to future funding by revealing preliminary plans to request $2.91 billion for the same programs from 2014 through 2017, Dumbacher said.

On July 2, Lockheed Martin delivered the first Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., for testing and assembly. NASA plans to mount the crew capsule on a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket for a 2014 flight test.

“This will be an uncrewed, two-orbit, high-energy-re-entry test that will obtain critical performance,” Dumbacher said.

The test is designed to confirm Orion’s detailed design, demonstrate postflight spacecraft recovery procedures and test a new adapter to mount the spacecraft on the launch vehicle. NASA plans to use the same adapter, which is being designed by the SLS program team, to join Orion on SLS for the first uncrewed flight scheduled for 2017 and the first mission with astronauts onboard in 2021.

The SLS program also is on schedule, Dumbacher said. Contractors are making progress in designing SLS components and related manufacturing processes, while NASA is preparing the launch infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center to support the Orion and SLS programs, Dumbacher told the House panel.

Rep. Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, said that in spite of serious federal budget constraints, she hoped that Congress would be able to provide NASA with enough funding to keep the SLS and Orion programs on schedule.

“It’s clear that NASA and its contractor team have made significant progress under very challenging conditions,” Johnson said in a statement. “However, they can’t do it alone. We — Congress and the White House — can set them up for failure if we disrupt their funding and programmatic plans in the name of short-term cost savings or if we allow the funding that Congress provides for these programs to be reallocated or otherwise restricted within NASA during the upcoming Continuing Resolution.”

Congress and the White House have agreed to a plan to fund federal programs with a continuing resolution that would lift spending 0.6 percent above 2012 appropriations for a six-month period beginning Oct. 1. NASA plans to spend 50 percent of the funding appropriated in the 2012 budget on the SLS and Orion programs during the six-month period, Dumbacher said. “We do have to recognize however, that the uncertainty of the potential budget appropriations for the remainder of the fiscal year also needs to be included in our planning,” he added.

During the hearing, Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, also described ambitious science missions that could be conducted using SLS, including massive space telescopes and planetary probes bound for distant targets, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa. With a heavy-lift launch vehicle NASA could conduct a Mars sample-return mission in a single flight instead of using three separate launches, which would be necessary using the current fleet of launch vehicles, Mountain said.

Mountain cautioned, however, that the dramatic scientific potential of SLS will be realized only if flights are available at least once per year and are “not excessively costly.” Like the space shuttle, SLS should be provided to science missions as part of NASA’s spaceflight infrastructure, Mountain said.



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Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...