House Science Committee Hears Update on Orion and Space Launch System

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Publication date: 
11 December 2014

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space held a hearing yesterday to examine progress and challenges for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle.  The first test flight of Orion took place on December 4, 2014 and was intended to test Orion’s heat shield, avionics, and parachute systems.  Committee Members were interested in learning about the launches of SLS, currently slated for FY 2018 and 2021 and requested further information from witnesses about the realistic funding needs and schedule expectations for the development of these programs. 

Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) spoke about inspiring the next generation of astronauts and engineers stating that “SLS is a giant leap forward in making America the leader in space once again” while he also questioned the Administration’s support of the SLS and Orion programs stating that  “we cannot ramp up capability or prepare for these missions overnight.  Space exploration requires a dedication to advance preparation and research, and this committee and this Congress are dedicated to supporting that requirement.”  The Administration’s budget request in FY 2015 reduced funding for the Orion and SLS as compared to the FY 2014 enacted levels.  Palazzo stressed that “while these priority programs may not enjoy support within the Administration, they certainly do from Congress” and added that “space exploration requires the government’s support.”   

Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) spoke of the flight which “subjected Orion and its systems to the rigors of outer space beyond low Earth orbit to test key systems, verify the Orion design, reduce technical risks, and test recoverability operations.”  She noted the bipartisan House-passed NASA Authorization Act of 2014 as she praised the significant accomplishment of this launch.  She acknowledged the challenges that the SLS and Orion programs face due to flat funding levels and cited a report from the National Academies which discussed the benefits of increasing NASA’s budget by five percent per year.   

Two witnesses testified.  Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA discussed the status of the Orion and SLS programs as a part of a larger exploration architecture being developed at NASA.  He also discussed the technical challenges of traveling beyond Low Earth Orbit.  “NASA’s exploration strategy is designed to pioneer multiple destinations in the solar system.  Over time, we will move beyond conducting limited-duration forays and begin to lay the groundwork to establish outposts in cis-lunar space.  From there, we can expand human presence in the solar system and to the surface of Mars,” he stated.  

Cristina Chaplain, Director of Acquisitions and Sourcing Management of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) discussed GAO’s Assessment of Large Scale Projects at NASA.  The GAO found “NASA’s management of acquisitions as a high-risk area for more than two decades in view of persistent cost growth and schedule slippage in the majority of its major projects.”  The GAO regularly reviews SLS and Orion programs as a part of its review of all NASA programs and in 2014 the GAO recommended that NASA develop a baseline for SLS that would “match cost and schedule resources to requirements.”  Findings in 2014 included that “NASA had not matched cost and schedule resources to requirements for the SLS program and was pursuing an aggressive development schedule… [which] was compounded by the agency’s reluctance to request funding in line with the program’s need.”  The GAO also concluded that while SLS and Orion are making progress, the Orion Program faces technical challenges and that NASA’s Human Exploration programs’ long term mission faces uncertainty due to costs. 

Questions following the testimony included Palazzo asking what funding levels are necessary for a launch in 2017.  Gerstenmaier responded by describing “tremendous technical progress” as he discussed challenges associated with balancing the program’s budget while seeking to adhere to the launch schedule.  Chaplain spoke about the importance of planning for a specific date for a launch but also agreed with Gerstenmaier that a 2018 launch date was more likely than 2017 and even the later launch date would still be challenging to achieve.

Edwards was interested in hearing the impact on NASA’s Exploration Program if there was an inflationary increase in program funding.  Gerstenmaier responded by requesting budget certainty, emphasizing the difference between the Administration and congressional budgets.  He also disagreed with Chaplain regarding the schedule of development for each of the components of the program, Gerstenmaier noted that seeking to sync all the programs to be completed in the same timeframe may create an unnecessary constraint on the programs. 

Other discussions and questions addressed the termination liability and flight frequency necessary to maintain competence and safety for the space program.  Members also asked witnesses to reflect on appropriate long term goals for the US space program.  Gerstenmaier agreed to continue communicating with the Committee regarding realistic funding levels and timeframes for the upcoming flights and milestones for SLS and Orion.