Bolden Wants to Build Evolvable HLLV, Not the One Congress Wants

Bolden Wants to Build Evolvable HLLV, Not the One Congress Wants

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told a Space Transportation Association luncheon on Capitol Hill today that he does not want to build the heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) specified in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267).

In response to a question from NASAWatch editor Keith Cowing, Mr. Bolden explained that he does not think that the 130 metric ton lift capability prescribed in the law is necessary today and is not sure the agency can do it. He wants to build an “evolvable” launch vehicle, working in “small incremental steps [to] demonstrate that we can keep to cost and schedule and then people will begin to have confidence that we know what we’re talking about…. There are things I do not know. … I don’t know what my 2011 budget is … and that plays a critical role in what I can do.”

The law reflects a compromise reached last year between Congress and the Administration on the future of the human spaceflight program. The President wants NASA to provide funding to companies to build a “commercial crew” capability to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA. NASA would purchase crew launch services from those companies. In the President’s plan, NASA meanwhile would focus on developing technologies to enable astronauts to someday go beyond LEO, to asteroids or Mars, for example.

Congress, however, is skeptical that the commercial sector is ready to take on that responsibility, and wants the United States to have a bold program of human exploration that includes missions beyond LEO sooner, not later. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act took a middle ground, approving some funding for NASA to facilitate commercial crew, but also directing NASA to build its own Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). They would serve as a backup to the commercial companies for LEO access and also provide the beyond LEO capabilities Congress wants.

Although it is unusual for Congress to dictate detailed technical parameters in law, in this case it did, telling NASA that the new SLS (also known as a heavy lift launch vehicle – HLLV) must have an initial launch capability of 70-100 metric tons, increasing to at least 130 metric tons with the addition of an integrated upper stage. The law authorized funding levels for the SLS, MPCV, and commercial crew.

President Obama’s FY2012 budget request for NASA has been sharply criticized by House and Senate authorizers because they feel it contravenes the law, however. It requests more money than authorized for commercial crew, and less money than authorized for SLS and MPCV. NASA’s official position is that it is doing the best it can under current budget constraints and complying with the major elements of the law.

Mr. Bolden’s frank comment therefore could be considered controversial. Mr. Cowing gave the Administrator an opportunity to clarify his remark, but Mr. Bolden stated again that he does not want to build the launch vehicle directed in the Act. Conflicts between Congress and the President over how to spend taxpayer dollars are not unusual, but the Constitution gives Congress the “power of the purse” to decide how to spend government funds. That is done through authorization and appropriations acts. The former give permission for a program to begin and recommends funding levels; appropriations bills actually provide the money. Congress, however, so far has been unable to reach agreement on FY2011 funding for NASA or any other government department or agency making the situation extremely complex.

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