Bolden: Spaceflight Gap Will Widen by Years Under House Spending Plan

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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told a Congressional committee this morning that the gap in human spaceflight that will open once the space shuttle Atlantis land would increase by an “untold amount” should the House’s FY 2012 spending plan for the space agency become law.

The plan provides $3 billion for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) while holding spending for the Commercial Crew Development program flat at $312 million.  The problem is that despite the billions spent on them, SLS and MPCV won’t be ready to fly with humans for many years, Bolden told members of the House Committee on Science. Jeff Foust reports via Twitter:

Bolden tells Rep. Brooks if current House approps bill becomes law, the post-shuttle gap would wide by an “untold amount”.

Bolden: 2017 test flight for SLS will be uncrewed; late this decade, early 2020s before SLS is human-rated.

Bolden: only reason we would use Orion for LEO operations is if all the comm’l crew developers went bankrupt or there was an accident.

Bolden and other NASA officials have said that commercial crew vehicles could carry passengers by 2015. However, low funding levels are likely to delay that date. Meanwhile, the space agency will be paying the Russians an increasingly large sums of money (eventually up to $60 million per seat) to send astronauts to the International Space Station.

The hearing was one of the opening salvos in what promises to be a knock-down-drag-out fight over NASA’s spending plan. The House has proposed a $16.8 billion spending plan for NASA next year, which is $1.6 billion under the current budget and $1.9 billion below what President Barack Obama proposed. While SLS and MPCV get increases, the CCDev and Space Technology budgets remain flat.  The House would also cancel the problem plagued James Webb Space Telescope, which is running years late and far over budget.

In the House appropriations bill, legislators said that the President’s $850 million CCDev request (up from $312 million this year) was

premature given the still-undefined acquisition strategy for the Commercial Crew Development Round 3 (CCDev 3) awards and the uncertainty behind assumptions about pricing, schedule, market demand, flight opportunities and other economic factors that are essentially unknowable at this time. Given the likely decrease in the number of CCDev 3 awards that will be made at this funding level relative to the request, NASA is encouraged to make use of unfunded Space Act Agreements to maximize the number of commercial partners who stay engaged with the program and remain in contention for an eventual service contract.

Legislators took a similar view of NASA’s Space Technology budget, proposing to spend $375 million instead of the $649.2 million requested by the President.

The Committee believes that NASA’s proposal to more than triple the size of this program over the course of two fiscal years is premature. NASA has yet to complete a full year managing these activities as a consolidated portfolio, and the technology roadmaps that are intended to guide and prioritize its investments are still in draft form and under external review by the National Research Council (NRC). In addition, NASA does not yet appear to have a sustainable budgetary plan for absorbing a new program of such significant size without causing damage to other necessary activities. The Committee expects that NASA will use fiscal year 2012 to address these outstanding issues, which will put the program in a stronger position to seek additional resources in future requests.

Key excerpts from the House spending bill follow.

EXPLORATION

The Committee recommends $3,649,000,000 for Exploration, which is $151,683,000 below fiscal year 2011 and $299,700,000 below the request.

Human exploration capabilities.—The Committee recommends funding above the request for the MPCV and SLS programs to help ensure that NASA can meet the programmatic deadlines contained in the most recent NASA authorization bill. The Committee recommends $1,063,000,000 for the MPCV and $1,985,000,000 for the SLS. The Committee notes that Administration delays in providing key details on designs, contracts, budgets and schedules have hindered the development of funding recommendations. The Committee expects such information to be provided immediately.

These funds are intended for the actual design and development of the vehicles themselves, although the Committee acknowledges that NASA has legitimate needs for related expenses such as civil service oversight, program integration, ground operations and mission operations. NASA should take all possible steps to minimize the impact of these expenses on the MPCV and SLS programs by revalidating and streamlining each related expense and seeking acceptable funding sources for these expenses outside of the Human Exploration Capabilities line. In order to facilitate the Committee’s oversight of NASA’s ‘‘taxation’’ of the MPCV and SLS budgets for these related expenses, NASA’s spending plan should clearly itemize all costs under both the MPCV and SLS programs that are not directly tied to actual vehicle design and development and provide a justification for why those expenses cannot be addressed elsewhere or deferred.

SLS development.—The Committee understands NASA’s stated desire to initially field a 70–100 metric ton vehicle that would be evolved over time to the full 130 metric ton SLS. To the extent that flying a smaller vehicle can be achieved faster and will minimize the gap in our national human spaceflight capabilities, the Committee does not object to this proposal. However, the focus on initially flying a smaller vehicle cannot distract NASA from fulfilling its legal obligation to design the SLS from inception as a 130 metric ton vehicle and to proceed with simultaneous development of the core and upper stages. NASA is also directed to ensure that the work done on the 70–100 metric ton vehicle will be applicable to the 130 metric ton SLS. NASA should not expend funds on design or development of a smaller vehicle that does not add value to the overall SLS effort.

MPCV development.—A test flight is a major upcoming milestone in the MPCV development plan, but NASA has not yet articulated a proposal for how that test flight will occur. Ideally, the MPCV would be test flown on an early version of the SLS, which would allow NASA to validate concepts and gather important data on each vehicle simultaneously. Because MPCV is significantly further along in the development process, however, this may be difficult to achieve in a timely manner. The Committee does not want NASA to spend money on a launch vehicle for the MPCV test flight that will add no practical value to the SLS development effort, but, if such an occurrence is deemed necessary for the continuation of progress in the MPCV program, the costs of procuring that launch vehicle and executing the test flight should be borne by the MPCV budget.

Exploration destinations.—NASA’s stated intention is to pursue a capabilities-based approach to human exploration, which means that the direction of the program will be driven by what technologies are available at a particular time. While this approach may offer some advantages in terms of flexibility, it also lacks the clearly defined goals that have historically driven space exploration achievements. Specific, aggressive goals are necessary both to focus the program and to provide a common vision around which public and political support can be rallied. Consequently, the Committee urges NASA to adopt a destination-based approach to exploration that would designate a specific target location, such as the Moon, to drive development decisions and timelines going forward.

Robotic precursor missions.—Out of necessity, the Committee’s recommendation adopts NASA’s proposal to delay the start of the robotic precursor mission program for another fiscal year. The Committee is concerned, however, that continued delays will eventually impact NASA’s long-term readiness for exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit, which may require robotic scouting and validation of destinations and landing sites. In order to jumpstart even a minimal level of robotic precursor activity, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate is encouraged to work with the Science Mission Directorate to identify possible science missions that could serve as flights of opportunity for robotic precursor payloads. Flights of opportunity should only be pursued, however, if the addition of the robotic precursor activity does not negatively impact the overall program budget or launch schedule for the science mission in question.

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