NASA Says It Can’t Afford A Rocket It Didn’t Want

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In the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, Section 309, is a requirement that NASA report back to Congress on its efforts to build the Space Launch System (Sec. 302) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Sec. 303), really a continuation of the Orion program. The Section 309 report was in large part to ensure that NASA’s executive leadership did not, in an attempt to thwart Congressional will in favor of the President’s, “slow-roll” the human spaceflight programs in the Act that run counter to what the President proposed in February 2010. As noted by someone who has worked in Space legislation for many years,

    “Well, many of the same people who wrote the 2005 and 2008 Authorization Acts were involved in drafting S.3729 [2010 NASA Authorization Act], so they are VERY aware of the potential for “non-compliance.” They are also very much aware of continuing efforts on the part of certain parties to “slow-roll” or otherwise undermine the letter and intent of what will soon be signed into law.

    With regard to the bill itself, the very detailed report required in Section 309 is the first “early warning system” built into the bill to ensure steps are taken towards compliance, well before the two-year scenario you described. If it appears that the completion of that report is being delayed arbitrarily and without justification, there are a number of fairly aggressive “oversight” steps that can–and likely would–be taken that would ensure “transparency” of those activities–and accountability for those undertaking them–which appeared intended to dilute or subvert the law.”

The Orlando Sentinel, like Florida Today, and The Huntsville Times, is reporting in Space shuttle and NASA heavy-lift rocket: NASA Says It Can’t Build New Heavy-Lift Rocket On Budget, Timetable Set By Congress To Replace Space Shuttle that NASA has submitted its Sec. 309 report and, no surprise here, NASA states that the Space Launch System HLV and Orion Multi-purpose Crewed Vehicle cannot be built for $11.5 billion. You can, thanks to the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, read the report, which NASA would not release, for yourself.

Naturally, this did not sit well with Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and David Vitter (R-LA), all of whom worked together to fashion what became NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act. They fired-off a quick response that in essence said the HLV and Orion programs are not optional, but are the law of the land. No doubt, NASA Administrator Bolden and others from the Administration will be called to testify and explain their latest salvo in resisting Congress.

AmericaSpace Note: Aside from inadvertently promoting bi-partisanship–after all, preserving NASA’s role as the leader for the United States’ human space flight program in defiance of President Obama was one of the precious few acts that saw both parties work hard in a united manner in 2010–it is unclear why NASA’s leadership would seek to again tangle with Congress. The last round went to Congress and the robust and quick response by the Senate Science Committee’s leadership would seem to indicate that Congress has lost none of its appetite to fight the Administration to preserve our nation’s human space flight capabilities. Bluntly, what part of “No!” did the Administration not quite grasp last year in the NASA human space flight debate?

Perhaps the White House and its NASA appointees believe that if it can demonstrate that the government cannot build an HLV and human crewed spacecraft for $11.5 billion, then those in Congress who lean towards the No-Government Tea Party will help turn the job over to the commercial launchers? That would seem to be a political miscalculation, much as last year’s efforts were, since few of the Tea Party candidates made it to the Senate and those elected to the House arrive as freshmen and are therefore fairly powerless.

While recognizing that human space flight is about as high on the Administration’s priority list as mohair wool subsidies, with Bill Daley’s coming nomination as Obama’s Chief of Staff, we are left wondering whether the White House might like to use this opportunity to hit the reset button with Congress on space. But, then again, to paraphrase Carter official Hodding Carter III, who are we to tell master politicos how to suck eggs.

AmericaSpace Note: Some minor updates have been made to the original post such as a link to the Senate Science Committee’s statement, the NASA report released by the Committee, and revising the figure $11 billion to the correct amount authorized through 2017 of $11.5 billion.

3 comments to NASA Says It Can’t Afford A Rocket It Didn’t Want

  • Borecrawler

    I did not realize NASA was so entrenched in Obama’s political wishes. I see rhetoric all over the web suggesting that we stop allowing Congress to dictate the next rocket and allow the bright folks at NASA to make the decision. Unfortunately, it appears that nobody is asking the “bright folks” what they want to do. The NASA decision makers (as opposed to the real bright folks) are once again slowing their own progress and attempting to stop any momentum towards a viable human spaceflight program. In essence, they are “eating their own canoes”, and sinking into failure as the agency that used to be known for their can-do attitude. I have had enough of the endless merry-go-round. The infrastructure for manned space is already being built. Why can’t NASA politicians just shut up and get to work?!

    • That is an excellent question and one, whether asked directly or not, that I’m sure Congress will put before NASA’s leadership. Perhaps…well, it’s likely a stretch, but just perhaps someone will ask Daley why the Administration seems to keen on battling with Congress on this?

  • Philly Jim

    It cost the US tax payers about $500 million just to build the launch tower for the Ares I. SpaceX has built entire launch system and tested it for about $800 million. NASA’s cost plus model for Constellation cost the US tax payer $10 billion with not much to show for it.

    To me the established space contractors and congress are acting like union bosses that try to justify why their labor cost so much.

    I believe NASA is aware that it is a bloated fat pig that needs to go on a diet or it will die soon. I also believe most of the people working at NASA are there because they want to accomplish great things for their generation. It is what makes them different than an average government employee. They want to build on top of the Apollo generation rather than circle the earth forever in the ISS.

    While congress is only worried about campaign contributions and getting reelected. These union bosses’s (congress) only want NASA to use STS and Constellation parts and systems in order to keep things the way they are. Why are they in such a panic trying to push NASA to start building the new system immediately?

    I think they are extremely worried about a SpaceX offer to build a HLV that would be in the $3-5 billion range. The ulterior motives were easy to spot when SpaceX faced so much opposition from the space union bosses in congress.

    With the rest of congress and the public looking to cut costs and if SpaceX continues to have success it is going to be an impossible sell for the space union bosses to justify spending 10x’s the amount of money on old technology.