William Gerstenmaier, NASA association administrator for human exploration and operations. Credit: House Science Committee webcast screenshot

WASHINGTON — As U.S. lawmakers criticized the Obama administration at a Dec. 10 hearing for not requesting sufficient funding for NASA’s Orion and Space Launch System programs, a top NASA official said no amount of additional funding at this point would allow them to be ready for a 2017 launch.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told members of the House Science space subcommittee that the middle of 2018 was now the agency’s planned launch readiness date for the SLS.

“We were holding December of 2017. I would say we’ve now moved off of that date,” he said. “That’s just based on the reality of problems that have come along in the program, and some uncertainty in funding.”

Gerstenmaier said in an interview after the hearing that NASA was working to a “June or July timeframe” in 2018 for SLS. That schedule, he said, would still keep the program ahead of the November 2018 date set by the Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review of SLS completed in August.

At the hearing, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) asked how much funding would be required to bring the first SLS/Orion mission, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), back to December 2017.

“In terms of the technical work, I think we’ve really probably moved off of December 2017,” Gerstenmaier responded, “so I don’t think funding will pull us back to that date.”

Orion will not complete its KDP-C review, and thus have an estimated readiness date for EM-1, until spring. However, Orion program manager Mark Geyer said at a Dec. 2 briefing at the Kennedy Space Center that the spacecraft would not be ready for that mission until 2018.

That assessment was shared by Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “At this time, it does not look like they can make 2017, and 2018 is even a challenge in and of itself,” she said of Orion at the hearing.

Some members of the committee used the hearing to criticize the Obama administration for not including sufficient funding in NASA’s budget requests to keep SLS and Orion on track for a 2017 first launch.

U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss).
U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss).

“The administration has consistently requested large reductions for these programs, despite the insistence of Congress that they be priorities,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.). “Congress has once again demonstrated support for the SLS and Orion by providing funding well above the president’s budget request in the omnibus for fiscal year 2015.”

In that omnibus spending bill, released by appropriators Dec. 9, Congress provided $1.7 billion for SLS, $320 million above the administration’s original request. The bill also gives Orion $1.194 billion, more than $140 million above the request.

“If you had come to us for additional funding a year or two years ago, would you have been able to mitigate the risk, or buy down the technical risk, or would we be having the same conversation that the test is going to slip to the right regardless of the amount of funding that we may have been able to appropriate to the program?” Palazzo asked Gerstenmaier.

“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” Gerstenmaier responded, saying that he took a broad view of all of NASA’s human spaceflight activities, including not just SLS and Orion but also the international space station and commercial crew and cargo programs. “I have to look at a balancing across those programs. I can’t optimally fund any one of those programs.”

One committee member, though, said Congress was at fault for any problems with SLS. “We should not be blaming the people at NASA and our professionals in the executive branch,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a longtime critic of the SLS. “We made a wrong decision when we went down this road.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...