Science Committee Presses NASA Administrator Bolden for Rocket Plan

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Publication date: 
3 August 2011

The  essence of last month’s hearing by the House Science, Space, and Technology  Committee on the status of NASA’s future Space Launch System [SLS] can be  summarized in a few words.  Said  Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX): “General Bolden, the fact that we do not  have a final decision on the SLS and the supporting documents that the  [hearing] invitation letter requested represents an insult to Congress.”   Replied NASA Administrator Charles Bolden:  “We cannot rush a critical decision that will drive NASA’s activities for  several decades,” later adding: “I want to get it right.”

Bolden  is being pressed by Senate and House committees to release the details about  the new rocket system that will take astronauts beyond low earth orbit.  During the House hearing, committee members  repeatedly cited a section in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, signed into  law on October 11, 2010, that required the agency to provide Congress with a  report less than three months later on the Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose  Crew Vehicle that would include:

“…the  assumptions, description, data, and analysis of the systems trades and  resolution process, justification of trade decisions, the design factors which  implement the essential system and vehicle capability requirements…the  explanation and justification of any deviations from those requirements, the  plan for utilization of existing contracts, civil service and contract  workforce, supporting infrastructure utilization and modifications, and  procurement strategy to expedite development activities through modification of  existing contract vehicles, and the schedule of design and development  milestones and related schedules leading to the accomplishment of operational  goals established by this Act.”

Regarding  the mandated January 9 due date for the report, Hall contended “that date was  considered attainable given the previous investment and substantial progress  made by NASA in vehicle engineering, design, and demonstrations that had  already been achieved by the Constellation program.”

Bolden  would not allow himself to be pinned down on when the report would be  completed, telling the committee that a decision might not be reached this  summer.  He reminded the committee that  he has accepted a reference vehicle design for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle  that is based on the Orion capsule developed in the Constellation program.   Regarding the new rocket, Bolden testified  “we are working hard to finalize the analysis on the best option for venturing  beyond LEO [Low Earth Orbit] as quickly as possible and at the lowest near-term  development cost,” but cautioned the committee, “to be clear . . . much work  remains ahead for the SLS team.”  NASA  has contracted with Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. to perform an Independent Cost  Assessment.  “I want to have a sanity  check on our cost and schedule estimates before we make a final commitment to  what will be a critical, but expensive venture for our nation” he stated,  telling the committee that he expects the price tag for the agency’s future  exploration program to cost tens of billions of dollars in future years. 

Bolden  has another set of figures to worry about.   The bill signed into law last fall authorized $4.050 billion for the  Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.  The FY 2012 bill approved by the House  Appropriations Committee provides $3.048 billion.