House Appropriators Praise NASA, But Worry About Overruns and Delays

House Appropriators Praise NASA, But Worry About Overruns and Delays

House appropriators who oversee NASA’s budget offered effusive praise yesterday for NASA’s space science, technology and exploration programs and aeronautics research, but pressed hard on the need to control cost overruns and schedule delays. As was true at the companion Senate hearing two weeks ago, Bechtel’s performance building Mobile Launcher 2 for the Artemis program was a particular target of concern.

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA).

Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee chair Matt Cartwright (D-PA) began by complimenting NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on the “strong” FY2023 budget request for $26 billion, an 8 percent increase over FY2022 appropriations, but he quickly shifted to voicing concern that “cumulative overruns” now exceed $12.6 billion.

Even though we all support inspiration, the scientific benefits of both uncrewed and crewed space exploration must come at a reasonable and fair cost to the taxpayer. — Rep. Matt Cartwright

Given today’s budget realities, NASA must “manage contractors and programs efficiently and in ways that protect the taxpayer,” and if that means frank discussions with contractors, he’s there to help.

“Participation in America’s space program is not an entitlement. It is a privilege. Most people understand that. … Administrator, I would ask you to let me know if there are company leaders out there who need a reminder of this principle. It is a principle on which I know we both agree.”

Cartwright specifically brought up the “problematic” Mobile Launcher 2, a platform needed to launch the more capable version of the Space Launch System (SLS) under development for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.

The first three SLS launches, Block 1, are using an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) derived from the upper stage for the Delta IV rocket. Future SLS launches, Block 1B, will use an Exploration Upper Stage that will enable SLS to launch much heavier payloads to the Moon and beyond. It is taller and heavier than Block 1 and needs a sturdier Mobile Launcher than Block 1’s.

Nelson is speaking bluntly about his exasperation with ML2’s contractor, Bechtel National. He told the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee on May 3 that the company underbid to get the contract and now can’t perform, but since it is a cost-plus contract, NASA is stuck and has to pay the additional costs. He reiterated that at this hearing. “I don’t like it,” he exclaimed, adding he is looking forward to a report from NASA’s Inspector General that will provide “insight into mistakes that were made.” But the bottom line is NASA needs ML2.

Nelson’s comment at the Senate hearing that NASA now would focus on fixed price instead of cost-plus contracts caught a lot of attention. Several House subcommittee members asked for clarification. Nelson replied that NASA is looking at better ways of contracting generally including different versions of cost-plus contracts. One change will be combining all 16-18 contracts for SLS into one after the fourth launch. He put Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy in charge, making her the agency’s Chief Acquisition Officer.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL)

Ranking Member Robert Aderholt (R-AL) more broadly criticized “runaway spending” by Democrats in Congress and the White House, but insisted NASA funding must be a priority, especially to stay ahead of China.

He laid out four principles: maintain U.S. dominance and leadership in space including full support of the Artemis program and its international partnerships; establish a strong U.S. permanent presence in space including partnering with the commercial sector to ensure there are destinations like commercial space stations in low Earth orbit and the Gateway in lunar orbit; “foster harmony” between NASA and the private sector including regulatory certainty; and “ensure security by aggressively countering Russian and Chinese ambitions.”

Aderholt’s district is near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, home to much of NASA’s nuclear propulsion research, and he leads efforts every year to ensure funding for nuclear thermal propulsion in particular. Last year the Biden Administration requested zero. Congress added $110 million in line with what they’d appropriated in earlier years.

At the hearing, Aderholt wanted to know where the money has gone because there’s little to show for it. Nelson didn’t answer that directly, but thanked Congress for keeping the program alive even though the White House didn’t support it last year. He said the Office of Management and Budget had a change of heart and at least put $15 million for nuclear propulsion (nuclear thermal and nuclear electric) into the request. Nelson champions nuclear propulsion for human Mars missions as well as nuclear fission for surface power.

Aderholt pressed Nelson on when U.S. astronauts would next have their “boots on the Moon.” The goal during the Trump Administration and most of the Biden Admnistration’s first year was 2024, but in November Nelson conceded it would be 2025. He said again at this hearing that 2025 is the plan “and this is not lightly said.”

At a hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in March, non-NASA witnesses were highly skeptical that was likely.

NASA is getting ready for Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight for SLS and the Orion spacecraft that eventually will carry astronauts. The Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) test required before the launch encountered problems last month and the “stack” was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for fixes.

Nelson told the subcommittee they expect to launch Artemis I in August.

At an unrelated news conference today, NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana said NASA plans to roll Artemis I back to the launch pad in early June and resume the WDR later that month.

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