Senators Urge Action on NASA Heavy Lift

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) called Aug. 19 for the immediate public release of an independent cost assessment of the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket Congress directed NASA to build for manned missions beyond low Earth orbit.

“Today NASA is scheduled to formally receive the independent cost assessment for the Space Launch System (SLS) that was requested by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB),” Hutchison said in a press release. “I expect this independent assessment will confirm what myself and the NASA technical staff have known for many months — that the SLS plan is financially and technically sound, and that NASA should move forward immediately.”

NASA spokesman Mike Braukus said Aug. 19 the agency received the cost assessment but had not decided whether to release it. “The type of information contained in the Independent Cost Assessment is acquisition sensitive and generally not releasable to the public,” he said. “If it is determined to be releasable, the assessment will be posted to NASA’s Space Launch Systems Web site.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has repeatedly said that the agency would make no move to begin work on SLS before the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton completed the outside cost estimate.

Separately, the White House ordered U.S. agencies to trim their 2013 spending requests the week of Aug. 15 even as U.S. lawmakers from space states continued to scrap for funds to build the SLS.

On Aug. 17, the head of OMB sent a letter to the heads of all U.S. executive departments and agencies notifying them that spending requests for 2013 must be at least 5 percent below 2011 appropriated levels. Moreover, agencies must identify additional cuts to bring their 2013 request 10 percent below 2011 appropriated levels, OMB Director Jack Lew said in the memo. Across-the-board cuts, the memorandum added, are not to be considered.

NASA ended up with $18.72 billion for 2011 because of congressional gridlock that resulted in a continuing resolution funding scenario, freezing spending limits for the agency at 2010 levels.

The missive from OMB was released after two groups of U.S. senators wrote to the White House and NASA to push their states’ SLS spending priorities.

In a letter to President Barack Obama dated Aug. 15, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and four other senators — representing Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — berated NASA for spending money on SLS to do work at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that is “only tangentially related to SLS.”

The Gulf State senators also implored OMB to release its hold on a report from NASA containing the agency’s chosen reference design for SLS. Until an SLS design is formally approved by OMB, the senators said, design and construction on SLS will be held up.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010, signed into law by Obama in October, ordered NASA to build a rocket capable of lifting 130 metric tons of payload to low Earth orbit. Congress also directed NASA to make use of existing space shuttle infrastructure and technology developed for the defunct Constellation program to build SLS.

The Obama administration has said it will not release the SLS reference design until independent cost estimates are complete. Bolden has said that could take until the end of the summer, or later.

Meanwhile, on Aug. 2, a bipartisan group of Western senators urged NASA not to conduct any industry competition to build the booster portion of the SLS propulsion system until flight testing of the rocket has been completed with solid-rocket motors.

The senators said in their letter that any competition prior to this point in development would create unacceptable delays.

The Aug. 2 letter was signed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as well as fellow Nevada Democrat Dean Heller, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and both of Idaho’s senators.

Alliant Techsystems, builder of the space shuttle’s four-segment solid-rocket booster and presumed provider of an advanced version of that technology for SLS, keeps headquarters for its aerospace business in Magna, Utah.

 

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