NASA Warns of Inadequate Funding, Unattainable Schedule for Space Launch System and Crew Vehicle

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Publication date: 
14 January 2011

“NASA  recognizes it has a responsibility to be clear with the Congress and the  American taxpayers about our true estimated costs and schedules for developing  the SLS [Space Launch System] and MPCV [Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle], and we  intend to do so, to the best of our ability in this preliminary report, as well  as in the follow-on report.” – January report to Congress

NASA  was unambiguous.  In its recent report to  Congress about the development of a heavy-lift Space Launch System and a Multi-Purpose  Crew Vehicle capsule, and the “Reference Vehicle Design” or basic technical plans  it is considering, NASA stated:

“However,  to be clear, neither Reference Vehicle Design currently fits the projected  budget profiles nor the schedule goals outlined in the [NASA] Authorization  Act.”


“As  stated earlier, another unknown for the Agency is schedule. While the  Authorization Act sets a goal of 2016, a first flight this early does not  realistically appear to be possible based on our current cost estimates for the  Reference Vehicles and given the levels proposed in the Authorization Act.”

In  uncharacteristically blunt language, NASA warned:

“Any  designs selected also must meet the test of being realistic – not relying on  assumptions of increased funding or other ‘miracles’ for attainment.”

These  findings, and many others, were contained in a 22-page report sent to Congress this  week entitled “Preliminary Report Regarding NASA’s Space Launch System and  Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.” Submission of this report was required by a  provision in the NASA Authorization Act that was signed into law on October 11,  2010.

Various  passages of NASA’s report repeatedly warn of inadequate funding and an unattainable  legislatively mandated schedule:

“Currently,  our SLS [Space Launch System] studies have shown that while cost is not a major  discriminator among the design options studied, none of the design options  studied thus far appeared to be affordable in our present fiscal conditions,  based upon existing cost models, historical data, and traditional acquisition  approaches.”

“To  date, trade studies performed by the Agency have yet to identify heavy-lift and  capsule architectures that would both meet all SLS requirements and these  goals. For example, a 2016 first flight of the SLS does not appear to be  possible within projected FY 2011 and out year funding levels.”

“However,  a 2016 first flight does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and  out year funding levels, although NASA is continuing to explore more innovative  procurement and development approaches to determine whether it can come closer  to this goal.”

“As  noted earlier, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to begin  development of the SLS vehicle ‘as soon as practicable after the date of the  enactment’ and with the goal of achieving operational capability for the core  elements not later than December 31, 2016. While NASA will work as  expeditiously as possible to meet the 2016 goal, NASA does not believe this  goal is achievable based on a combination of the current funding profile  estimate, traditional approaches to acquisition, and currently considered  vehicle architectures.”

“As  noted earlier, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to begin  development of the MPCV [capsule] with the goal of achieving full operational  capability not later than December 31, 2016. While NASA will work expeditiously  to meet the 2016 goal, NASA notes that, as with the SLS, a 2016 crewed first  flight does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and out year  funding levels.”

A  major factor working against NASA as it seeks to implement the provisions of  the new authorization act is the great uncertainty about its final FY 2011 appropriation.  The new fiscal year started on October 1, and  Congress and the Administration have only been unable to reach agreement on a  short term funding bill providing level funding through early March, a full  five months into the year.  Complicating  the agency’s actions is a prohibition on any “new starts” and the requirement  that it continue spending on elements of the now-cancelled Constellation Program.  It has been estimated that $575 million could  be spent on the cancelled program by the end of the fiscal year if Congress  does not act. 

Congressional  leaders in both the House and Senate have reacted to the report.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee  Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) released a lengthy statement   that criticized the Administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation  Program, saying “The report recently provided to Congress by NASA on its heavy  lift development is only the beginning of a long conversation Congress will  have with the Agency regarding the future of the human space flight program.”  Hall concluded: “The Science, Space, and  Technology Committee will be paying very close attention to NASA’s human  spaceflight program and holding several hearings to provide strong  Congressional oversight.”

In  the Senate, Bill Nelson (D-FL) Chairman of the Subcommittee on Science and  Space, and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Ranking  Member, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) sent a three-page letter  to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.   Regarding the report’s conclusions about the affordability of the new  designs, the senators stated “this conclusion suggests a misunderstanding of  the Congressional intent” about “building on current capabilities and previous  investments.”  The letter faults the  report for its lack of specific justification or analyses to validate its  findings, and refers to NASA and industry reports “that, by building on past  investments and available technologies, NASA can reach initial operating  capability of a scalable heavy-lift launch vehicle with the funds authorized,  especially if the agency refines its procurement, contract management, and  oversight processes.”  The senators also  told Bolden: “the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that we worked so hard to pass  last year is not an optional, advisory document: It is the law.”

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