Policy Instability Biggest Obstacle to NASA's Exploration Program

Policy Instability Biggest Obstacle to NASA's Exploration Program

Witnesses at today’s hearing by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics argued that the biggest obstacle to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) human space exploration program is policy instability. The relative priority given to either commercial- or government-developed and operated options to transition from the Space Shuttle to the next generation human space transportation system was the biggest issue of contention.

Committee members reiterated that through the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress had explicitly laid out its preference for NASA to develop a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to explore beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and to serve as backup for commercial crew transportation services to the International Space Station if those commercial services fail to materialize. “The debate is over,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the full committee.

Nevertheless, the Administration’s FY2012 budget request released in February, as well as subsequent statements from NASA officials, suggest a continuing lack of consensus on this issue. Providing an industry perspective, Mr. James Maser said that “this perilous unknown” renders the transition even riskier than the 1970’s transition from Apollo to the space shuttle. “We need that vision, that commitment, that certainty right now,” he urged, saying that industry is “ready to help any way we can but the clock is ticking.” Mr. Maser is President of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, builder of the J-2X engine that was to be used for the Constellation program, but testified today in his capacity as chairman of the Corporate Membership committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Mr. Doug Cooke, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), said that NASA is “aggressively addressing the specifics required in the Authorization Act,” having already selected reference designs for both the HLLV and MPCV. He said that NASA hopes to provide Congress with specific timelines and decisions on the development of these vehicles in the next couple of months, potentially by late June.

Even with such assurances, some remained unconvinced that NASA was moving in a clear direction forward, particularly with respect to the requirements of the HLLV. While the Act requires the HLLV to provide a 130 ton lift capability, Mr. Maser pointed to recent statements by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about how that capability may be unnecessary in the near term. As a result, said Mr. Maser, there is widespread “industry confusion” because what industry hears from NASA is only what it “does not want or cannot do.”

Dr. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former NASA official, argued that this transition is “the most immediate and critical task” of the human spaceflight program, and also elaborated on the widespread effects of the confusion and uncertainty. To a question about how Congress can make the agency adhere to the law, Dr. Pace and others suggested that this direction ought to be reflected in the appropriations legislation. Acting-ranking member of the subcommittee Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) said he agreed that the way to ensure the agency follows through with congressional direction “is through the appropriations process,” and he urged the other members of the subcommittee to make certain that appropriators “understand that.”

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