Unclear Long Term NASA Goals Complicate Infrastructure Decisions

Unclear Long Term NASA Goals Complicate Infrastructure Decisions

A House hearing today connected the dots between uncertainty about NASA’s long term exploration goals and decisions about maintaining NASA’s infrastructure.  With repeated changes in plans, knowing what facilities to keep and which to demolish, abandon, or turn over to other users is a complex task.

The chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Space Subcommittee, Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), used the hearing to criticize the Obama Administration’s newest proposal for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program — the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   Palazzo, whose state is home to NASA’s Stennis Space Center, said that “Until the Administration allows NASA to develop a coherent exploration strategy, rather than pushing NASA toward costly, complex and controversial distractions such as [ARM], NASA will never know what infrastructure and facilities it actually needs.”

Many members expressed concern about facilities in their districts, but one topic raised by a cross section of members, both Democratic and Republican, is the forthcoming decision on the fate of pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC).   It is one of the two iconic KSC launch pads, 39A and 39B, but the agency concluded it needs only one for the Space Launch System (SLS), which is expected to launch so infrequently that only a single pad, 39B, is needed.  Even then, NASA is refurbishing 39B as a multi-user facility so it can accommodate other users as well.  Current plans are for SLS launches to occur only once every two years or so.

NASA released an Announcement for Proposals this spring soliciting interest from potential commercial companies to lease pad 39A and SpaceX appeared to be the only company interested.  It wants the pad for launching its Falcon rocket.    Blue Origin, however, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on September 3 over how NASA was conducting the solicitation.  GAO has 100 days to rule on the protest, meaning that NASA cannot make a final decision until then.  It had hoped to transfer the pad to a new user on October 1, but taxpayers will have to pay the bill for the pad until a decision is ultimately made.   NASA pays $1.2 million a year to maintain the pad.

At today’s hearing, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) expressed concern that NASA may lease pad 39A to SpaceX as its exclusive user, rather than allowing the pad to be a multi-user facility.    Brooks’s interest is ensuring 39A can be a backup launch pad for SLS, which is being built in his home state of Alabama.  The fight over who will get to lease pad 39A pits Internet entrepreneurs Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) against each other.  According to press reports, Musk wants exclusive use of the pad while Bezos wants a multi-user facility for his own reusable spacecraft, which has not flown yet, and other commercial companies. 

Other committee members, including former full committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX), endorsed the multi-user facility goal.  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), whose district includes SpaceX, offered his advice that the focus be on the pad being put to use “as soon as possible, for as long as possible.”

Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) agreed with Brooks’s position that 39A be a multi-user facility, but his main point was the lack of certainty on a destination for human spaceflight and its impact on infrastructure decisions.  He stressed the need for a clear roadmap for the future of human spaceflight in order to have a better decision-making process.  “I hope this body, this committee, the Administration, and NASA’s leadership can come to an agreement on what our mission is, what our timeframe is and then just agree and let’s start moving forward …. [to] accomplish that mission.”   NASA Associate Administrator for Mission Support, Richard Keegan, one of two witnesses at the hearing, agreed that a definitive technical roadmap that details mission requirements would help make infrastructure decisions.  The other witness, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, stressed that was true not only for human exploration, but across the agency.

During a discussion about how NASA makes decisions about what infrastructure to keep, Martin noted that until recently NASA had a philosophy of “ten healthy centers,” referring to NASA’s network of nine field centers around the country plus the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.  “I’m not sure from an infrastructure standpoint NASA has a single healthy center,” Martin said.    Palazzo replied that underscores the need for a definitive exploration roadmap for the future.

Opening statements of the members, prepared statements of the witnesses, and a webcast of the hearing are available on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.

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