House Science Committee Chairman and Subcommittee Chairman Express Alarm about Shift in Rocket Schedule

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Publication date: 
12 September 2014

“Will NASA be able to fly the SLS [Space Launch System] for Exploration Mission-1 in calendar year 2017?” asked House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Subcommittee on Space Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) in an August 27 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.   Their letter came on the day NASA officials announced that an important management review of the smallest version of the rocket system had set the initial flight “no later than November 2018.”

The question asked by Smith and Palazzo was but one of six they posed to Bolden in a three and one-half page letter about the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule’s schedule, management, and financing.  In a statement accompanying this letter, Smith said:

“I was alarmed to learn that the timeline for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle programs has shifted. This news is contrary to numerous assurances from the Administration that these programs are on schedule. The House Science, Space, & Technology Committee has repeatedly committed to supporting these programs at or above the Administration’s request for a 2017 launch date. Now we are being told that date has changed to November 2018. This also calls into question the commitment of the Administration that has consistently reduced the budgets for these vital programs.”

Smith’s comments reflect unease some in Congress have had about what they contend are Administration requests that are too low. Congress has responded by providing more funding than requested for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate which includes SLS, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, Commercial Crew and International Space Station programs.  For FY 2014, the Exploration Request was $3,915.5 million; Congress appropriated $4,113.2 million.  The FY 2015 request was $3,976.0 million, a decrease of $137.2 million or 3.3 percent.  House appropriators allocated $4,167.0 million; Senate appropriators provided $4,367.7 million.

There has been some ambiguity about the date of the first SLS launch.  When NASA Administrator Bolden appeared before Senate appropriators in May, he was pressed by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) about what he thought was a scheduled 2017 launch date.  “2018 is what we’re saying . . . its Fiscal Year 2018 right now” Bolden said.  (Note that a late calendar year 2017 launch would be in the first months of FY 2018.)  Bolden went on to tell Shelby that NASA would have a better idea about the launch date after it completed a Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review that involves both a technical and programmatic assessment. 

Smith and Palazzo’s letter followed an important NASA announcement on August 27.  NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot and William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate announced the completion of the KDP-C for the SLS.  “This is a big milestone” Gerstenmaier said, explaining that it was the conclusion of three years of intensive reviews.  Lightfoot declared that technically “there are absolutely no issues” with the rocket.  Utilizing a mathematical model to assess the rocket, it was found that there was a 70 percent Joint Confidence Level that the first launch will occur in 2018.  The 70 percent figure is significant; Bolden had told Shelby at the May appropriations hearing that “I'm comfortable with having SLS come in at less than a 70 percent joint confidence level because of the maturity of the of the system itself” that is using some legacy equipment.  Later Bolden declared “I cannot get -- you can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL. And I don't want you to do that; I'm not asking for that.  . . .  that would be unrealistic.”  Bolden spoke of the importance of the 70% figure for science and other missions, telling Shelby that achieving this level has “caused us to bring in projects on time and on cost.” 

During the August 27 briefing Gerstenmaier and Lightfoot continually stressed the importance of completing the KDP-C, with Gerstenmaier declaring “major elements of SLS are all on track.”  When asked about the schedule for the first launch they spoke of a 2018 time frame.  It is important to note that this prediction is contingent on similar reviews of the ground system later this year and the Orion capsule in early 2015. 

The successful completion of the KDP-C answers some of the questions raised by the General Accounting Office in a study completed earlier this summer.   While there are numerous technical challenges NASA faces in meeting its new schedule, this successful review reduces much uncertainty.  Unknown is whether NASA will receive the money it needs to achieve this schedule in coming years.

Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.