Smith House hearing
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, warned of "ebbing" confidence in NASA and its contractors given the latest delays in the first flight of the Space Launch System. Credit: C-SPAN

WASHINGTON — A day after NASA announced a new launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System, the chairman of the House Science Committee said he found the development delays “disappointing” and warned further problems could undermine congressional support.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), in an opening statement at a Nov. 9 hearing by the space subcommittee on NASA’s exploration systems, said that additional delays for the SLS and the Orion crew vehicle could build support for unspecified alternatives, jeopardizing the overall program.

“Congress needs to have confidence in NASA and the exploration systems contractors, which I don’t believe we have now. That confidence is ebbing,” he said. “If it slips much further, NASA and its contractors will have a hard time regaining their credibility.”

Smith’s remarks showed a clear frustration with delays, largely due to technical issues with SLS and Orion, that have pushed back the Exploration Mission (EM) 1 launch from 2017 to no earlier than December 2019. NASA announced the 2019 date a day before the hearing, while acknowledging that technical reviews concluded that June 2020 was a more likely launch date.

“After all these years, after billions of dollars spent, we are facing more delays and cost overruns,” Smith said. While he noted that some delays were caused by factors out of NASA’s control, like a tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, “many of the problems are self-inflicted.”

“It is very disappointing to hear about delays caused by poor execution, when the U.S. taxpayer has invested so much in these programs,” he added.

Smith, who announced Nov. 2 he would not run for reelection next year after more than three decades in the House, including serving as chairman of the science committee since 2013, warned about eroding support for the programs should there be additional delays.

“NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” he said. “If delays continue, if costs rise, and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this forever.”

“The more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options,” he said, not elaborating on what those options would be.

Smith’s comments represent one of the strongest rebukes to date by a leading member of Congress regarding progress on SLS and Orion. Other members of the committee expressed few, if any, reservations about the programs at the hearing despite the latest delay.

“We must launch the Space Launch System in order to push beyond low Earth orbit,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, in his opening remarks. “We must finish developing the Orion capsule in order to operate in deep space.”

Babin noted the delays but also highlighted the “significant progress” the overall exploration program has made. He offered his own warning, though, to the agency and companies working on the program. “NASA and the contractors have to execute. Failure to do so could have dire consequences for the program, and there will be no one else to blame,” he said.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that NASA had overcome the issues with welding on the SLS core stage that delayed its progress. The agency is helping the European Space Agency on the Orion service module, another source of delays, such as providing NASA support for an American-built helium valve for the module that has been experiencing manufacturing problems.

One lesson from these problems, he said, was that program schedules didn’t provide adequate time to deal with issues that arose as NASA and companies went through the construction of SLS and Orion for the first time.

“I think we just need to be prepared, as we build schedules going forward, to know that these first-time things that we have never done before, or at a magnitude that has never been done before, may need a little bit of extra time that first time through, and not be overly optimistic in our schedules,” he said.

In an interview after the hearing, Gerstenmaier said there was no specific confidence level associated with the December 2019 launch date that NASA said Nov. 8 it was managing to for the EM-1 launch. Instead, he said the date provided focus for those working on SLS, Orion and their ground systems.

“It’s the right date for us to work to,” he said. “It’s the right pressure on the teams. If we move all the way to June [2020], that relaxes us to where I don’t think it’s healthy.”

He said NASA had the flexibility to adjust development and testing schedules as needed, depending on the progress of components like the Orion service module. “It’s a good target,” he said. “We’ll move as we need to.”

Gerstenmaier, in his testimony, emphasized the progress the agency had achieved, including hardware built for the various components. “The amount of work completed to date for the deep space exploration systems is large,” he said. “We need to be careful not to focus on a single launch date projection, but rather take time to examine the quality, quantity and future benefit of the work completed.”

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...