NASA On The Hot Seat for SLS & Orion Slow-Roll Show

Today, the full House Science and Space Committee that oversees NASA will hold a hearing. The hearing charter makes clear that while the hearing was initially to…well, we’ll let the full Committee’s Hearing Charter speak for itself.

    The original intent of the hearing was to examine NASA’s selection of a heavy-lift launch system (“Space Launch System”) that will be used to launch future crew and cargo flights beyond low Earth orbit. Members would have had an opportunity to ask questions regarding cost, schedule, capabilities, and justification for the selected design. However, on July 7, a senior NASA official publicly stated that a final decision on SLS won’t be announced until “late this summer.” In light of NASA’s continuing delays (the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 required a decision and report by mid-January 2011), the hearing will instead provide an opportunity for NASA to explain why it has failed to reach a decision, what analyses still need to be completed, and when the Space Launch System decisions will be forthcoming.

It is doubtful that this will be a pleasant experience for the NASA Administrator as he explains why NASA can’t seem to follow the law as directed by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and continually tries to re-interpret both the 2010 Act and the 2011 Appropriations law.


  1. WOW!!I just read the opening statements from Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX). If I had any doubts that Congress is tired of Bolden, Obama & Co, they are now laid to rest. If this statement is any indication of Congress’ feeling on the matter, they are mad! If they wield any power at all, I hope they can force NASA to disclose and announce their SLS plans to date immediately. I continue to ask, what are they waiting for? Why is NASA holding out? Are they waiting for a company that supports their agenda to produce more favorable cost numbers? Every day, talented engineers and experienced workers are leaving NASA and their contractors (either by choice or layoff-in either case, America loses critical skills). We need to know what is happening with the SLS infrastructure.

  2. Interesting summaries. My recollection is that in times past, even when was Congress was narrowly divided over space policy topics — the Senate debate before authorizing the space shuttle back in 1971 for example — it ultimately affirmed Presidential decisions. We’re in new territory now, IOW, with the House, the Senate, and the White House pointing out different paths to NASA, so I can understand that a great deal of irritation and uncertainty is flowing in all directions.

    The underlying issue of course is money. The House and Senate may have their ideas about proper direction for the space program, but as long as they aren’t providing any more funding than the White House recommends, a prudent NASA Administrator wouldn’t seem to have much choice but to do as the President and OMB decree — and feed Congress lots of soft soap and lies. Hopefully, people will tire of this eventually, maybe after the 2012 elections.

    • You’re right–NASA was once the President’s playground. I’m sure past NASA Administrators acted under the assumption that whatever the President proposed would be passed. Now Congress owns space. I’m not sure Bolden gets that given the almost surreal disconnect between his testimony versus authorizations and appropriations language.

      It will be interesting, to be sure, to see how the House and Senate appropriators reconcile their differences for funding NASA.

      If I had to bet, I think Hall and Rockefeller will be investigating NASA’s three leaders (Administrator, Deputy Administrator, and CFO) before the year is out.

  3. I think Bolden and Lori Garver are in nearly impossible positions. They seem to have less control over NASA operations, whether day-to-day or long term, than any of their previous counterparts, with the White House (more specifically, Holdren and crew) making major and minor decisions for NASA. So they’ve little to do but be “the public face” for NASA, wandering about the world doing public relations, taking the blame for everything that increases employee unhappiness, and eventually serving as scapegoats should the public become disillusioned with NASA.

    I think this pretty well eliminates any chance of Congressional investigation. They’re the sacrifices to be offered up in case of disaster and the protocols for that sort of thing mandate virginal offerings, not people who featured in previous inquiries.

    Possibly I’m cynical.

    • The people on the Hill with whom I talk would agree that Bolden is in an impossible position of putting the best face on things. Quite the opposite for the Deputy Administrator and the CFO.

      The sense I get is that the level of trust members of the Senate and House committees overseeing NASA have in anything the Agency says is at or near zero. So one purpose of an investigation would be to find out who did what when to delay both SLS and Orion MPCV. But there will be other areas of interest. There does seem to be, according to engineers who have gone through the gauntlet of the Administrator’s and Deputy Administrator’s staffs for SLS and Orion MPCV, a deliberate effort to forestall progress on those two programs for as long as possible.

      The real question is whether the Senate Commerce Committee leadership believes it has enough to take the extraordinary step and actually open an investigation.

  4. Interesting interesting interesting …

    I have to admit though, that were I the NASA administrator I’d be stalling those two programs as long as I could myself. I don’t see any prospect of them flying for another fifteen years or more, and they’re going to be better products if the R&D starts in say 2019 rather than in 2011.

    Am I missing something? I concede, it’d be tantamount to sabotage to stall those projects if SLS and Orion were needed for some purpose in this decade, but all I really see is that Congress wants NASA to hurry up building spacecraft for missions no one is eager to authorize.

    • The 2010 NASA Authorization Act became law on Oct. 11, 2010. In the Act was Sec. 309 that required a decision on the SLS by Jan. 9, 2011. The Executive Branch, like anyone else, cannot pick and choose which laws it wants to obey. So NASA deliberately dragging its feet on SLS and Orion MPCV would be a violation of law. Willful violation of law by the Executive Branch should bother all of us.

      And one can get into pretty serious trouble if one misappropriates funds that were specifically appropriated.

  5. I see your point. I just sort of wish that at this point Congress had moral authority to match its legal authority. Oh well.

    Nice talking to you.


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