WASHINGTON — Regional fault lines have appeared in the U.S. Senate coalition of support for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) over the use of 2012 funds appropriated for development of the heavy-lift rocket for infrastructure upgrades at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

In an Aug. 26 letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) defended the use of $340.2 million in SLS funding for demolition, construction and other upgrades at the main U.S. civil spaceport.

Their letter was a response to an Aug. 15 letter to Obama from five senators from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana who said the funds should be allocated to work on the vehicle itself. The Southern space bloc’s message was delivered on the letterhead of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.

Congress ordered NASA to build SLS in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

Florida’s Senate delegation acknowledged in its letter that the money in question was indeed intended for SLS development. However, Nelson and Rubio rejected the Southern senators’ assertion that the funds had been mishandled, or that construction at Kennedy can be funded only from the account reserved for NASA’s 21st Century Space Launch Complex program — a budgetary line item that is distinct from SLS.

“Ground systems for rockets are as necessary to their design, development and operation as the propulsion engine testing conducted on the engine test stands at Stennis Space Center — both of which are funded out of the SLS appropriation,” Nelson and Rubio wrote. NASA’s Stennis Space Center is in Mississippi.

In addition, Nelson and Rubio said, “there is a distinct difference between 21st Century Ground Systems that are part of SLS, and the general construction upgrades at KSC for the 21st Century Launch Complex.”

Shelby and his Southern allies said “efforts to spend SLS funds on priorities other than SLS violate the Authorization Act, the CR, and suggest disregard for Congress’ constitutional authority.” NASA, like the rest of the U.S. federal government, was funded in 2011 by a continuing resolution, or CR, that essentially froze appropriations at 2010 levels.

Nelson and Rubio countered that modernization efforts at KSC — including demolition of shuttle launch-support infrastructure and upgrades to the massive crawler vehicle that transported the shuttle to the launch pad — will speed and not slow SLS development.

The SLS is intended — in tandem with the congressionally mandated Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, also known as Orion — to support astronaut missions to deep-space destinations and serve as a backup to commercial crew transportation services to and from the international space station. Some lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of attempting to stymie the program.

Congress appropriated $1.8 billion for the SLS in the 2011 CR, whose NASA portion specified funding levels for both SLS and Orion. The 21st Century Space Launch Complex program, on the other hand, was not mentioned by name. The infrastructure modernization effort is located within NASA’s Space Operations account; appropriators did not specify how money given to Space Operations should be spent.

In its 2011 budget request, NASA asked for $428.6 million for the 21st Century Space Launch Complex program. But in its 2011 operating plan, NASA said it would spend only $142.8 million on that line item this year.

The agency said in the operating plan that it was transferring money it originally sought for the 21st Century Launch Complex into other programs, such as Space Technology and Commercial Cargo.

NASA is requesting $168 million in 2012 for the 21st Century Space Launch Complex. The House version of the 2012 NASA spending bill said it would provide $60 million for construction related to the program, according to a report accompanying the bill. Neither the bill nor the report said whether the balance of the money sought by NASA would be provided in 2012. The Senate has yet to draft a 2012 appropriations bill that funds NASA.

House appropriators said the $60 million in construction money belongs in the agency’s Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration account — not the Space Operations account, as proposed by the agency. The appropriators made that change in their version of NASA’s 2012 spending bill.

SLS and the 21st Century Launch Complex program both were created by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The legislation, which was signed into law in October, said SLS must fly by 2016. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said an initial, unmanned SLS launch is unlikely before 2017.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.