NASA vs. Congress Coverage by CNN

Orion Orbits Moon
An interesting article by CNN’s John Zarrella on the struggle between Congress and NASA management about NASA’s lack of enthusiasm for fulfilling the requirements within the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

Congress mandated in the Act, which passed and was signed by the President last Fall, that NASA develop a heavy-lift launcher, termed the Space Launch System (SLS) that bears a striking resemblance to the Ares V, and a Multi-Purpose Crewed Vehicle (MPCV), really a continuation of the Orion spacecraft program. Within the Act was a series of reports that NASA must submit to update Congress on the progress of the SLS and MPCV. In its first report, NASA stated what NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Doug Cooke tells Zarella, “We have done calculations with current models and approaches to doing this type of development and it doesn’t work with funding constraints combined with schedules that were laid out in the Authorization Act”.

Given that SLS work is in-part based on hardware that inherits from the Shuttle program, that both the SLS and MPCV were previously funded to the amount of $9 billion under Project Constellation, and that Congress has authorized an additional $11.5 billion bringing the total to $28.5 billion, such a statement is a bit difficult for some to believe. And that is likely why Cooke in particular, and NASA in general, are finding a very unsympathetic audience in Congress. As Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) put it, “NASA must stop making excuses and follow this law. I believe the best and brightest at the space agency can build upon the $9 billion we’ve already invested in advanced technology to design a new heavy-lift rocket, while taking a stepping-stone, pay-as-you-go approach.” The Senator has, along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, put NASA on notice that any attempt to slow-roll the SLS and MPCV would be viewed as a violation of law–their letter even cited case law.

Zarrella’s article comes at the same time as a letter from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the President that makes clear that the coming fiscal year 2012 budget for NASA should reflect the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The Majority Leader’s letter is itself unusual as it focuses solely on NASA funding. And it makes clear that the Executive Branch needs to follow the will of Congress as embodied in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

As covered previously here, there are questions from NASA Center engineers as to why there are large on-going lay-off’s even as NASA is funded through a continuing resolution, which means NASA’s current funding should mirror last year’s. Since last year NASA was still working on Constellation, of which the heavy-lift rocket and crewed spacecraft are a part, what has people scratching their heads is why NASA is not using the CR funding to continue the Ares V and Orion work? Also of interest has been whether Congress was aware of the funding questions at the Centers; the Senate Majority Leader’s letter lays that to rest–Congress is aware. The question now is what will happen? How much longer will NASA leadership continue to try to maneuver around the law? And of most interest, why is NASA’s leadership playing this game with Congress?

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