Senators Lay Down the Law to NASA about HLV, Literally

Senators Lay Down the Law to NASA about HLV, Literally

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on Thursday in response to the report NASA submitted to Congress this week on its reference designs for a new Space Launch System — or “heavy lift vehicle” (HLV) — and multipurpose crew capsule. NASA is required to develop the launch system and crew vehicle as part of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act; the two Senators played a critical role in writing that law. The NASA report includes a cautionary statement that none of the designs it has looked at to date can be executed within the budget and schedule goals enunciated in that Act.

Congress has not reacted positively to NASA’s report. In the January 13 letter, Senators Nelson and Hutchison spell out the legal requirements that NASA must follow. For example, it says that one of the criteria NASA is using is whether the system would be affordable. The letter says “If the law directed NASA to start with an entirely new development without the use of existing contracts, technologies, and infrastructure, we can see where affordability may come into question, but this conclusion suggests a misunderstanding of the Congressional intent.”

The letter also clarifies Congress’ intent when it used the phrase “to the extent practicable” when directing NASA to use space shuttle and Constellation capabilities in that manner. The Senators quote a federal legal precedent that the phrase “does not permit an agency unbridled discretion,” and a Government Accountability Office (GAO) determination that an agency must “either provide the preference or articulate a reasoned explanation of why it is impractible to do so.”

Jeff Foust at has an interesting analysis of what the argument is all about. Keith Cowing at NASAWatch and Paul Spudis also are weighing in.

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