House Committee Republicans Question SLS/Orion Schedule Changes

House Committee Republicans Question SLS/Orion Schedule Changes

The top two Republicans who oversee NASA activities on the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee sent NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden a letter yesterday with a list of questions about the status of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.  The questions stem from a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and prior congressional testimony by Bolden.  The letter does not reference NASA’s announcement yesterday that it is committing to a launch readiness date for SLS that is almost one year later than previously projected. 

House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) sent the four page letter yesterday, August 27, the same day that NASA announced it is committing to a November 2018 launch readiness date for SLS at a development cost of $7 billion.  NASA officials have been saying publicly for years that the first SLS launch would take place by December 2017, although in recent months hints that it would slip into 2018 emerged. 

In their letter, Smith and Palazzo challenged Bolden on prior testimony he gave to the committee on the schedule for SLS and Orion and criticized the Obama Administration for not requesting sufficient funding to keep the programs on track.  The letter cites a July 2014 GAO study that concluded NASA needs $400 million more in order to meet the December 2017 date, a conclusion based on analysis by the SLS program itself.  Smith and Palazzo also say that the committee “recently learned” that the first SLS launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), might slip 6 months “due to insufficient funding and unresolved technical challenges that are facing the Orion.” Orion is the spacecraft being built to carry crews launched by SLS, although EM-1 is a test flight and no crew will be aboard.  (The first flight with a crew is expected about 4 years later.)

In its announcement yesterday, NASA officials did not provide a date for the first SLS launch.  Instead, they stressed that the agency is making a commitment to have SLS ready to launch by November 2018 — a “launch readiness” date, not a “launch” date.   Yesterday’s announcement followed completion of the Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) process for SLS. The agency is still working on the KDP-C processes for Orion and the ground infrastructure needed at Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Only when all three are completed will the agency commit to a launch date.

The Smith-Palazzo letter hones in schedule and funding issues, asking Bolden to respond by September 10, 2014.  The overall theme is that the Obama Administration is “starving these programs” resulting in schedule delays.  

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have had a testy relationship with the Obama White House over NASA’s future since February 2010 when President Obama proposed cancellation of the Constellation program, initiated by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to take astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars.  Under Constellation, NASA was building two versions of a new rocket, Ares, and a spacecraft, Orion, to replace the space shuttle for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit (LEO) and for taking astronauts beyond LEO to the Moon and Mars.  Obama proposed terminating all of that, but still adopting President Bush’s decision to terminate the space shuttle program as soon as construction of ISS was completed.  Under the Bush plan, a four-year gap (2010-2014) would have existed between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of his new Ares/Orion system.  The Obama proposal was to kill Ares/Orion and instead rely on the private sector, with help from the government, to develop “commercial crew” transportation systems to take astronauts back and forth to ISS.  The Obama plan also envisioned a four-year gap (2011-2015) in America’s ability to launch people into LEO.  Initially Obama offered no plan for the future of human spaceflight beyond LEO, but in April 2010 made a speech rejecting the Moon as a destination and directing NASA to send astronauts to as asteroid as the next step in human exploration, with Mars as a longer term goal.

After a contentious debate, a compromise was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act where Congress agreed to the commercial crew program, but also directed NASA to build a big new “heavy lift” rocket and a spacecraft to take crews beyond LEO — essentially a replacement for Constellation.   The new rocket is SLS; NASA kept Orion as the spacecraft. 

The 2010 law did not end the controversy, however.  As the Smith-Palazzo letter illustrates, some in Congress continue to accuse the Obama Administration of favoring commercial crew over SLS/Orion in its budget requests.   Congress routinely appropriates less money than requested for commercial crew and more than requested for SLS/Orion.  Because it has appropriated less money than NASA says it needs for commercial crew, the gap during which the United States is unable to launch people into space has grown from 4 years to at least 6 years.  NASA currently expects a commercial crew system to be available by 2017.  NASA had has to rely on Russia to take crews to and from ISS since the final space shuttle mission in 2011.

Congressional advocacy for SLS/Orion is largely based on a desire for U.S. preeminence in space exploration, skepticism over the commercial crew concept, as well as constituent interests.  Smith is from Texas, home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center where NASA’s astronaut corps is based, though Smith’s district is not near JSC.  Palazzo represents the district in Mississippi that includes NASA’s Stennis Space Center, where NASA tests rocket engines like those that will be used for SLS (which were originally built for the space shuttle program).

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