U.S. Lawmakers Press NASA on Heavy-lift Rocket, Crew Capsule

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SAN FRANCISCO — As the congressional hearing season on U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget gets under way in earnest, lawmakers continue to hammer NASA for what they say is its noncompliance with the law that directs the space agency to field a government-owned crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket by 2016.

“Congress has given clear direction” via the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said during a March 30 hearing of the panel’s space and aeronautics subcommittee. “The administration needs to acknowledge this and act accordingly.”

Douglas Cooke, associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, said agency officials are complying with the law by continuing work under contracts related to the scuttled Constellation exploration program and giving the highest priority to work that is likely to support development of the congressionally mandated Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and Space Launch System (SLS). By early summer, NASA will provide Congress with its strategy and schedule for building the hardware, Cooke said.

Since the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was signed into law in October, NASA has studied options for the MPCV and SLS and selected reference designs, said Cooke. The new crew capsule will be based on the Orion crew vehicle designed as part of the Constellation program, which was intended to field space shuttle replacement and lunar exploration hardware. NASA’s legal and procurement officials have determined that the MPCV effort can proceed within the scope of current Orion contracts, Cooke said.

Although the new SLS heavy-lift rocket design also is derived from an element of the Constellation program, there is less similarity between that and Constellation’s Ares 1 crew launch vehicle. NASA officials continue to review both projects to find overlap, which includes work on the shuttle-derived solid-rocket boosters, the J-2X upper-stage engine and avionics, Cooke said.

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act directs the space agency to develop a rocket powerful enough to loft 130 metric tons into orbit. NASA officials plan to develop a scaled-back version of the vehicle that would offer an initial capability of launching “70 to 100 metric tons to achieve the earliest possible deployment that fits within budget constraints,” Cooke said.

 

NASA’s 2011 budget is $18.7 billion and the White House requested the same amount for 2012. The authorization act recommends $19 billion and $19.45 billion for 2011 and 2012, respectively.

The discrepancy could make it extremely difficult for the space agency to comply with congressional direction to begin operating the heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule by 2016. Cooke declined to comment on that timeline, saying he would know more this summer when space agency officials finish crafting an integrated exploration program plan.

Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute in Washington, said NASA “cannot meet the schedule with sufficient confidence” at current funding levels. If funding is not increased, the overall cost of developing exploration systems will rise, Pace added.

One frequent theme of the hearing was the detrimental impact the period of transition between the space shuttle program and future human exploration projects is having on the aerospace industrial base. The space shuttle fleet is slated for retirement this year.

Jim Maser, president of rocket engine maker Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., said companies need clear goals and direction in order to plan for the future.

“There does not appear to be a consensus within the administration regarding the need for the Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle,” said Maser, who also serves as corporate membership committee chairman for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Washington-based professional association. “Clearly there is not consensus between Congress and the administration on NASA priorities.”

Maser said that lack of direction makes it impossible for aerospace firms to plan for the future or to retain talented workers. “The space industrial base is in a crisis,” he said. “We are losing a national, perishable asset, our unique work force.”

International cooperation also is suffering because the United States has failed to articulate a clear strategy for U.S. space exploration, Pace said. While Obama administration officials discuss plans to develop vehicles capable of reaching a variety of destinations including Mars and near-Earth objects, international space agencies that previously collaborated with NASA are forced to make independent decisions on their own space exploration programs and budgets, he said.

“There was a very coherent international lunar architecture that had been created through consultations over the last several years,” said Pace, who served as NASA associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation from 2005 to 2008. One benefit of that plan was that it allowed international space agencies to participate in a variety of manners. Major space powers could take leading roles but there was also room for countries with smaller space programs to contribute experiments or participate in other ways, he said.

The current Obama administration plan unintentionally excludes small countries from participating in U.S. space exploration programs, Pace said. “I would urge a return to an international lunar architecture and focus from beyond low Earth orbit, not only because I think that it’s great for the United States but because I think it produces more opportunities than other alternatives do for involving countries and continuing to … build upon the amazing partnership that has occurred over the last decade,” he added.

Cooke said NASA is continuing to coordinate its exploration programs with 14 international partners. NASA is working with representatives from space agencies in those countries to develop roadmaps for future cooperation in addition to discussing opportunities to fly instruments on one another’s spacecraft.

 

 

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