As an industry leader representing an extensive and dedicated human spaceflight work force, Boeing firmly believes that America should re-establish the capability to execute human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The U.S. Congress and the president clearly agree in that they placed into law the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which endorses exactly that.
As directed in this law, such a capability requires a transportation system that can keep humans alive and deliver them to the locations we want to explore, and then return them safely to Earth. Fortuitously, NASA already has initiated the development of a deep space capable capsule, Orion, that is part of such a system, and should continue at an affordable pace to complete it. To get the capsule where we want to explore, NASA must initiate the development of a launch vehicle that can accelerate the capsule to Earth gravity escape velocity. In the NASA Authorization Act, this is called a heavy-lift Space Launch System ().
NASA, as a good steward of taxpayer dollars, has aptly stated that SLS has to be affordable, sustainable and realistic. We believe that these NASA tenets are achievable within the time frame and budget specified in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
The NASA inspector general’s letter to Congress of Jan. 13 concluded that restrictive language in the Appropriations Act of 2010, along with the fact that the 2010 Authorization Act is not currently funded via a commensurate 2011 Appropriations Act, creates a situation that “requires immediate action by Congress.” Because of this disconnect and the programmatic restrictions that operating on a 2010 continuing resolution places upon NASA, the inspector general reported that NASA was expending significant funds on contract efforts that senior NASA officials felt had little application to their future exploration program. The inspector general pointed out that in fiscal year 2011, through the end of February, NASA would expend $83 million on Boeing contracts by continuing the development of cryogenic propulsion stages and associated avionics. The inspector general indicated NASA officials “likely would have considered canceling these contracts with Boeing” were they not precluded from doing so — “because those elements are less likely to be applicable to the new heavy-lift system.”
Based upon our understanding of heavy-lift launch vehicle design and the contract direction we have received from NASA over the past year, we respectfully disagree with this characterization of the NASA/Boeing work. All SLS options under consideration use cryogenic propulsive stages guided by avionics and software. Consequently, the work that NASA has directed Boeing to perform since early 2010 is directly applicable to SLS and represents a significant investment that would be wasted were we not to continue.
Through the 2010 Authorization Act, Congress mandated that “to the extent practicable” NASA “extend or modify existing vehicle development and associated contracts” in furtherance of the new SLS. Therefore, in the absence of applicable 2011 appropriations language, the continued prohibition of termination of these contracts not only reflects legislative consistency, but also provides NASA with legal authority to use the Boeing Ares contracts as a “starting point” for transition of the significant national investments previously made into NASA’s new initiatives for human spaceflight. Congress wisely recognizes that termination of Boeing’s contracts would reflect a very poor NASA business plan: NASA would be forced not only to wastefully expend funds for termination liabilities, but also to duplicate costs for re-procurement of virtually the same work Boeing is currently doing under these competitively awarded Ares contracts. Nevertheless, like the NASA inspector general, we urge Congress and the president to provide NASA with funding that is consistent with the 2010 Authorization Act.
From a practical viewpoint, NASA is at a critical juncture in its strategy for acquisition of the SLS. Should NASA choose an SLS construct that obviates the use of Ares progress, it will voluntarily surrender a $2 billion head start, including some $500 million in avionics and cryogenic stage development, which is directly relevant and applicable to the SLS mission. From a schedule perspective, up to six years will be lost — four years of existing development work plus two years for a NASA acquisition cycle. An SLS acquisition plan that fails to capture the contractual and technical progress of the existing Ares contracts will not meet the congressional mandate for the earliest possible development represented by an operational capability by 2016, and will require significant funding increases beyond those specified in the 2010 Authorization Act.
We believe that timing is essential and the nation must commence developing a U.S. Space Launch System that will enable NASA to meet its vision for deep space exploration. Failure to act now will risk the loss of our skilled work force, increased system costs and unnecessary delays in fielding the critical capability represented by Orion and SLS. With consistent appropriations language, NASA will have the funding, existing contractual vehicles and an industrial base poised and ready to implement the exploration mission. To the benefit of America, the time to act is now.
Brewster Shaw is vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration.