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Science Committee Presses NASA Administrator Bolden for Rocket Plan

Richard M. Jones
Number 99 - August 3, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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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.    

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics