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Bolden at KSC
NASA administrator Charles Bolden talks about the agency’s exploration plans at a press event at the Kennedy Space Center onb July 7, the day before the final shuttle launch. (credit: J. Foust)

Heavy-lift limbo


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The situation involving the Space Launch System (SLS)—the heavy-lift launch vehicle Congress directed NASA to develop in last year’s NASA authorization act—is curious, to say the least. In the eyes of supporters of the SLS, particularly on Capitol Hill, NASA has been dragging its heels on making a formal decision for months, raising the ire of some members, who have even threatened subpoenas and investigations for the delay. And yet, there’s little doubt about exactly what that design, a not-so-distant relative of the now-cancelled Ares 5, will be—the only question is when exactly that design will become official.

Meanwhile, funding for the SLS is one issue that has been subject to little debate. While House appropriators recently made major cuts in the administration’s budget proposal for NASA, including a controversial decision to provide no money for the James Webb Space Telescope, an appropriations bill would give NASA all that it asked for, and even a little more, for SLS. But as the debate swirls about the utility of the SLS in an ever more conservative fiscal environment, some wonder if that’s money well spent.

How soon is “soon”?

For the last several weeks, NASA had indicated that an announcement about the SLS design would come “soon”, without being more specific. For example, at a speech at the National Press Club on July 1, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that “we’re nearing a decision” on the SLS and “we’ll announce that soon.” In an online chat four days later, Bolden reiterated that “we’ll be making an announcement soon”, adding that since “this is one of the most important and most expensive decisions we will make for the next decade… I want to make sure we get it right.”

“We are very close to selecting a design for the rocket,” Garver said of the SLS. “We still hope to be able to announce, I think, by the end of the summer.”

During those previous several weeks, the educated guesses of those in the space community following the SLS saga was that NASA would announce a decision around the time of the final shuttle launch, scheduled for July 8. That timing made some sense from a public relations standpoint: it would be an opportunity to grab the public’s attention, which had been focused on the end of the Space Shuttle program, and inform them about the agency’s future plans for exploration. But as the days counted down to the final shuttle launch, it looked increasingly unlikely that NASA would time such an announcement to the shuttle launch.

In a couple of press briefings at the Kennedy Space Center on July 7, the day before the launch, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver offered a revised timeline. “We are very close to selecting a design for the rocket,” she said at one briefing about NASA’s work on the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), the crewed spacecraft that will be launched by the SLS. However, she said that the decision was pending some final cost evaluations, including an independent cost review. “We still hope to be able to announce, I think, by the end of the summer,” she said.

That timeline did not sit well with members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Last month they had scheduled a hearing on the SLS for July 12, with Bolden as the sole witness, on the assumption that NASA would have made their decision public by then. Instead, the hearing went forward without a formal decision—and no shortage of disappointment and frustration from committee members.

“Indications that we had received from NASA throughout the spring clearly suggested that a decision would have been rendered prior to today. Sadly, such is not the case,” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), the committee chairman, said in his opening statement. “General Bolden, the fact that we do not have a final decision on the SLS, and the supporting documents that the invitation letter requests, represents almost an insult to this committee and the Congress.” Hall made it clear he assumed the problem was not with Bolden himself but officials at the White House, in particular the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but Bolden would bear the brunt of the criticism. “We’ve run out of patience,” Hall said.

Bolden, in his testimony, did provide some new details about the decision-making process for the SLS. He said on June 20th he signed off on a specific design “that our experts believe is the best technical path forward for SLS.” That decision, though, is not the final step. “That was an important step but not a final decision,” he said. That design is now undergoing both an internal cost review and an independent one, the latter being performed by Booz Allen Hamilton, to determine if that design is cost effective.

“It would be irresponsible to proceed further until at least we have good estimates,” he said. “This will likely be the most important decision I make as NASA administrator, and I want to get it right.” While hoping to make that decision by the end of the summer, “the absolute need to make sure our SLS program fits within our overall budget constraints suggests it may take longer.”

“General Bolden, the fact that we do not have a final decision on the SLS, and the supporting documents that the invitation letter requests, represents almost an insult to this committee and the Congress,” said Rep. Hall.

While Bolden declined to describe the elements of that design, various reports, such as by Aviation Week last month, have indicated that it will be largely a shuttle-derived design, using solid rocket motors attached to a core stage derived from the shuttle’s external tank and fitted with as many as five Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs); the upper stage would use the J-2X engine that had been under development for Constellation. That would be similar to the baseline concept NASA submitted to Congress in a preliminary report in January.

Bolden, in his testimony, also confirmed earlier reports that some elements of the SLS will eventually be open to competition. The solid rocket motors will be used for SLS initially, he said, “until we can hold a competition, which I’ve directed we try to do as soon as possible, where all comers can compete,” including, specifically, liquid oxygen (LOX)/RP-1 systems. “It’s going to be full and open competition, if I can do what I would like to do.”

After the hearing, some members of Congress continued to press NASA for more details about the SLS design even as the cost studies are ongoing. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), one of the key authors of last year’s authorization bill, asked the White House a press conference Thursday to allow NASA to release those technical details. “Senator [Bill] Nelson and I are urging that the OMB let the decision be made public so the contractors at NASA will stay in place—that will be the most efficient way for the taxpayers of our country,” she said in a prepared statement.

Hutchison added that she and Nelson had apparently already seen the SLS design Bolden had approved, and liked it. “They have done a very good job,” she said. “Senator Nelson and I have seen the design and we know that it is a great design. It is exactly what we asked for last year in Congress and we now have the capsule that is going to take the astronauts and the launch vehicle we have to get going.”

Schedule and cost

While one House committee was debating the status of the SLS in one hearing Tuesday, House appropriators Wednesday had little difficulty funding the program when they took up a spending bill that includes NASA. That bill would provide NASA with $16.8 billion in fiscal year 2012, down from the nearly $18.5 billion it received this fiscal year and the more than $18.7 billion in the agency’s 2012 budget request. Despite the cuts, though, SLS came though unscathed: appropriators gave the program $1.985 billion for 2012, slightly more than the administration’s request of $1.8 billion. (Both, though, were below the authorized level of $2.65 billion from last year’s authorization act.)

“We are providing NASA funding above the request for America’s next generation exploration system,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement at a markup of the spending bill by the full committee July 13, in about the only discussion in the several-hour-long session about SLS funding.

“Senator Nelson and I have seen the design and we know that it is a great design,” said Sen. Hutchison of the SLS. “It is exactly what we asked for last year in Congress and we now have the capsule that is going to take the astronauts and the launch vehicle we have to get going.”

Other NASA programs did not fare as well, with most of the attention going to the committee’s decision to defund JWST. The report accompanying the appropriations bill explained that the JWST’s growing cost—Wolf said at Wednesday’s markup that the GAO has now estimated the cost of the telescope to be as high as $7.8 to $8 billion—and schedule delays led appropriators to use it to send a message to NASA. “The Committee believes that this step will ultimately benefit NASA by setting a cost discipline example for other projects and by relieving the enormous pressure that JWST was placing on NASA’s ability to pursue other science missions.”

An effort to restore at least partial funding for the telescope by transferring $200 million from NASA’s Cross Agency Support account was quickly defeated by the committee Wednesday, which rejected it on a voice vote. It’s unlikely, though, that supporters of JWST will give up, with indications that they will seek to restore funding on the House floor as well as in the Senate. In either case, the SLS’s relatively healthy budget could make it a tempting target.

The SLS’s sluggish schedule could also open the program up to future cuts. While the 2010 authorization act mandates that the vehicle be ready to fly by the end 2016 (at least in an interim version that can place 70–100 tons into orbit, rather than the final version that can loft at least 130 tons) Bolden said at Tuesday’s hearing NASA was planning an initial 2017 test flight of SLS, which would launch an uncrewed Orion MPCV beyond Earth orbit—perhaps out to the Moon—and back to test the capsule’s reentry systems.

“If I don’t build a heavy-lift launch vehicle, we don’t have an exploration program,” Bolden said. “No, you don’t have a human exploration program,” countered Rohrabacher.

It would be several years after this test, though, before the SLS could launch a crewed Orion, though. “We’re still talking late this decade, early ’20s before we have a human-rated vehicle,” Bolden said. That, as one committee member noted, puts into jeopardy one proposed mission of the SLS and MPCV: to serve as a backup for commercial crew providers for accessing the International Space Station, as ISS operations could end as soon as 2020 (but could be extended well into the decade depending on interest and the technical condition of the station.)

One member of the House Science Committee went so far as to question whether money intended for SLS might be better spent on other, more pressing issues. “If we spend all of our money on a huge vehicle that may or may not be absolutely necessary, the money won’t be there for what is the modern version of the Hubble telescope,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

This led to a back and forth with Bolden. “If I don’t build a heavy-lift launch vehicle, we don’t have an exploration program,” the NASA administrator said.

“No, you don’t have a human exploration program,” countered Rohrabacher.

“I’m a big fan of human exploration,” Bolden replied.

Rohrabacher was unswayed by Bolden’s argument about the critical nature of the SLS. He argued that he would rather see money spent on space telescopes or even cleanup of space debris in Earth orbit. By instead funding long-term exploration programs like SLS, he said, “we are then chasing after goals that are so far in the distance that we are cutting out the things that we can do today.”

Rohrabacher, at least publically, appeared to be in the minority about the focus on SLS over alternative missions. The SLS may yet end up with most or all of the proposed funding when the 2012 budget cycle is wrapped up (which may be many months from now, if 2011 is any guide), and later this summer, or shortly thereafter, we may know what exactly the SLS will look like. However, the future of a heavy-lift rocket proposed by Congress and accepted by NASA last year is still far from certain.


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