The Reasons for H.R. 3625

Space Launch System In Flight, Image NASA
Space Launch System in flight. Image Credit: NASA


To understand why the House of Representatives Science Committee has recently passed an unprecedented bill to formally prohibit NASA from terminating a program within that agency, it is useful to know the history behind the ill-will that exists on a bi-partisan basis between Congress and NASA.

The dawn of 2010 began like any other year for the U.S. space program. Constellation was making progress, though certainly not at as rapid a pace as originally hoped by many. In October 2009, the Ares I-X test launch[1] had been a success, returning data that put to rest concerns by some that the rocket might shake itself and its crew apart on later launches. And Orion preparing for what would be a successful pad abort test[2] in May.

On Feb. 5, 2010, NASA announced the Constellation project, including the Orion and Ares I programs, would be immediately terminated. Congress, which had not been consulted, was more than a little shocked. To help slow down the Orion and Ares programs, NASA invoked the Antideficiency Act and withheld $993 million in funding from those programs for termination liability, very nearly stopping them in their tracks. This action was taken by NASA despite the fact that the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, Title I, Section 101 authorized the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, making those programs the “law of the land”[3]. A program is authorizedmeaning it’s a legal program of recordthrough the period of authorization (usually 2–5 years depending on the authorization act) and even after the authorization period has lapsed, until superseded by next authorization or explicitly changed in the Appropriations Act.

Many thought the end of Constellation meant the end of the Moon program. But Congress was not persuaded by the Obama Administration’s reasoning behind Constellation’s termination. By September 2010, it was clear that legislators wanted to see Orion continue and to begin work on a “super-booster,” the Space Launch System. On Sept. 29, 2010, the Democratic controlled House, after a debate on the House floor that was broadcast live by TV and cable networks, passed by a vote of 304–118 the Senate’s version[4] of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, S. 3729. On Oct. 11, 2010, President Obama quietly signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act into law[5]. The 2010 Great Space Debate was over, or so many hoped.

Within the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was Section 309[6] that required NASA to report on the overall design of the Orion Multi-Purpose Vehicle and Space Launch System within 90 days of enactment of the NASA Authorization Act. NASA did produce a preliminary Section 309 Report on Jan. 11, 2011[7]. But the preliminary report revealed that the Agency didn’t seem to agree with Congress that the Orion and Space Launch Systems were mandated by law. Instead, the preliminary report stated that a decision by NASA’s Administrator on whether to proceed with those programs would be based on cost or other factors. Needless to say, the reception of the preliminary report by Congress was far from warm[8]. Additionally, during this period, Senators and Representatives continually warned NASA that they were hearing from their NASA center constituents that funds for the Space Launch System were being used for other purposes[9]. By June 2011, it was clear to many in Congress that NASA was not on a path to finalize the reference design of Orion or the Space Launch System, leading the Democratic-controlled full Commerce Committee to threaten to subpoena NASA[10]. On Aug. 2, in another first for America’s space agency, the Senate Commerce Committee subpoenaed NASA’s Administrator, Deputy Administrator, and their staff, seeking in particular for their emails and other communications[11]. On Sept. 14, NASA announced its reference design for the Space Launch System[12].

Even after the dust-up over the NASA Authorization Act, the Sec. 309 Report, and the decision to finalize the reference designs of the Orion and Space Launch System “super-booster,” the struggle between NASA and Congress was not over. As far back as August 2011, members of Congress, including leadership on both sides of the aisle, asked that the White House work with, not against, the course set by Congress for NASA[13]. But subsequent NASA budgets proposed by the White House continued to show an unwillingness to meet authorized funding of those programs. By its actions, it is apparent to many in Congress that the Administration seems to still harbour the dream of terminating both Orion and the Space Launch System programs at the first chance it gets, never mind that, as some like to point out, those programs are legally mandated. This has led to a few Congressional reactions.

One reaction is the rising Congressional impatience with continued White House efforts to deny funding the Space Launch System, as exampled in the very tough language in the budget report from Congressional appropriators that accompanied the recent fiscal year 2014 budget. On page 112 of the report, appropriators made clear their frustration with the Administration’s efforts to short-change the Space Launch System program[14].

The Committee believes that the amounts specified in the independent cost assessment [ICA] for the SLS are necessary and appropriate in order to maintain the programs estimated cost and schedule. Despite numerous directives to provide an updated cost assessment for the SLS, which supports the lower funding levels proposed, NASA has never provided the Committee any verifiable documentation supporting the amount reflected in the agency’s budget request. Such blatant disregard for the direction provided by the Committee and for NASA’s own independent cost assessment for the SLS is inappropriate and calls into question NASA’s ability to appropriately manage and oversee its ongoing projects. The Committee cannot support NASA’s position to undermine its own, independently verified, funding plans and has instead provided the full amount assumed in the independent cost assessment for fiscal year 2014 for SLS in order to maintain a launch date of 2017. In furtherance of that goal, NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate shall not tax SLS for engineering or other activities not directly related to SLS vehicle development. The Committee cautions NASA against relying on anything other than an actual independent cost assessment in its recommendation for fiscal year 2015.

Another reaction is H.R. 3625[15]. Introduced on Dec. 5, 2013, by Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the House Space Subcommittee, along with 11 Republican and five Democratic co-sponsors, H.R. 3625 would prevent the space agency from terminating, among other programs, Orion and the Space Launch System unless authorized by a future law, terminating a prime contractor of those programs, releasing all funds for those programs currently held for termination liability for use in their development, and having the federal government assume the termination liability for those programs.

Unknown to most, under the auspices of the Antideficiency Act[16], NASA has continued to withhold program funding for both Orion and SLS for termination costs, in the event that they are canceled, never mind that, as noted above, those programs are Congressionally mandated and the law of the land. It bears mentioning again that a program is authorized, and therefore a legal program of record, through the period of authorization and even after the authorization period has lapsed, until superseded by next authorization or explicitly changed in the Appropriations Act. In the current fiscal year, the funds denied for Orion are $226 million, or 18 percent of current appropriations. It’s a little better for the Space Launch System program: $192 million, or 12 percent of current appropriations, are being withheld. The total sum being denied these programs totals $418 million. NASA’s Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot stated before the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee that H.R. 3625 has some merit and would allow the Orion, SLS, and other covered programs to do more than they are currently able.

On Dec. 11, 2013, H.R. 3625 was passed[17] by the House Science Committee on a voice vote and is now headed to the House floor.

How H.R. 3625 will fare in the Senate is an open question. What is not an open question is that Congress appears to be looking for ways to put an end to the machinations of the White House, its Office of Management and Budget, and NASA to slow-roll in particular the Orion and Space Launch System programs. H.R. 3625 is the House’s solution in stopping the Administration. Time will tell whether the Senate is of the same mind. Certainly, there have been recent changes at NASA that offer the possibility of lowering tensions with Congress. Unfortunately, there have not been any such changes at the White House. As such, given the past history between Congressional desire to build the infrastructure to send humans to explore space beyond low-Earth orbit and the White House’s opposition to those efforts, it is doubtful Congressional efforts to manage NASA will diminish anytime soon.

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  1. Ares I-X History  ↩
  2. Orion Pad Abort 1 Launch  ↩
  3. NASA Authorization Act of 2008  ↩

    (3) For Exploration, $4,886,000,000, of which—
    (A) $3,886,000,000 shall be for baseline exploration activities, of which $100,000,000 shall be for the activities under sections 902(a)(4) and 902(d), such funds to remain available until expended; no less than $1,101,400,000 shall be for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle; no less than $1,018,500,000 shall be for Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle; and $737,800,000 shall be for Advanced Capabilities, including $106,300,000 for the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program (of which $30,000,000 shall be for the lunar lander mission), $276,500,000 shall be for International Space Station-related research and development activities, and $355,000,000 shall be for research and development activities not related to the International Space Station; and (B) $1,000,000,000 shall be available to be used to accelerate the initial operating capability of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, to remain available until expended.

  4. House Passes S. 3729  ↩
  5. President Signs 2010 NASA Authorization Act  ↩
  6. Section 309 Required Report  ↩

    Within 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, or upon completion of reference designs for the Space Launch System and Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle authorized by this Act, whichever occurs first, the Administrator shall provide a detailed report to the appropriate committees of Congress that provides an overall description of the reference vehicle design, the assumptions, descrip- tion, 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 established by this Act, the explanation and justification of any deviations from those requirements, the plan for utilization of existing con- tracts, civil service and contract workforce, supporting infrastruc- ture utilization and modifications, and procurement strategy to expedite development activities through modification of existing contract vehicles, and the schedule of design and development mile- stones and related schedules leading to the accomplishment of operational goals established by this Act. The Administrator shall provide an update of this report as part of the President’s annual Budget Request.

  7. Preliminary Report Regarding NASA’s Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle  ↩
  8. Congressional Reaction to NASA’s “Section 309” Report on HLV and Crew Vehicle  ↩
  9. Senators Warn White House On SLS Funding Misuse  ↩
  10. Senate Threatens to Subpoena NASA For Documents  ↩
  11. Senators Subpoena NASA For SLS Documents  ↩
  12. Space Launch System Announced  ↩
  13. Senators Urge Quick Action on SLS Decision  ↩
  14. Departments Of Commerce And Justice, And Science, And Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2014  ↩
  15. To Provide For Termination Liability Costs For Certain National Aeronautics And Space Administration Projects, And For Other Purposes  ↩
  16. Antidificiency Act Background  ↩
  17. House Committee Approves Bill To Shield Big NASA Programs from Cancellation  ↩


  1. Jim, It’s great to read one of your exceptional articles again. This one is definitely a “keeper”. You’ve given us the gift of an absolutely EXCELLENT overview of the political battlefield, SUPERLATIVE in every way!! Thank God for someone who isn’t afraid to speak the truth in the face of shrill, cult-like opposition determined to shout you down. Your clear, factual, dispassionate, accurate analysis will most certainly set the anti-NASA anti-SLS howler monkeys to shrieking, but to paraphrase “Apocalypse Now”, “I love the sound of shrieking howler monkeys in the morning. It sounds like victory.”

  2. Im a little confused by this article. Does NASA administration want to end SLS and Orion? or does the white house want to? Can somone clarify?

    • The answer to that is necessarily time-dependent.

      When the NASA Deputy Administrator left, who was a vigorous opponent of Orion and SLS, the answer was both. Additionally, the former Deputy Administrator was better connected to the White House than was the NASA Administrator, so let’s say that her views held more away when it came to the White House view on these programs.

      Today, it’s a little different. The constant battle emitting from within NASA HQ against both Orion and SLS is gone. The current NASA Associate Administrator Lightfoot, who is effectively filling-in as the Deputy Administrator, previously ran Marshall and helped “birth” SLS.

      Still, the White House is NASA’s ultimate “boss”. And in particular, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Chair John Holdren and The Office of Management and Budget’s Paul Shawcross have been opponents to both Orion and SLS.

      The fiscal year 2015 budget proposal for NASA, which should be out within the next couple of months, will be an interesting window through which to see where the White House wants to take these programs.

  3. A trully great analysis and overview of the events of recent years concerning US space policy, Jim! Articles such as this, are trully a breath of fresh air in space journalism these days!

    • I wonder a lot what would have happened if all of the energy that went into fighting Congress to end Constellation and then resisting Orion and SLS had instead been put to use in fighting Congress for more money.

      • What would have happened is that we would have launch vehicles capable of carrying cargo and crew to the ISS now, instead of eventually having the chance to pay a “commercial for-profit entity” whatever it decides to charge to have cargo and crew carried to the ISS aboard launch vehicles that the taxpayer substantially paid for.

  4. Jim, we need a continous, full-court press to fund SLS and Orion and your article keeps this issue in the forefront for your readers. Your cogent and well-thought reasoning underscores the necessity to keep America in a leadership role in manned spaceflight. We can cooperate with but not surrender to foreign nations in such an important human endeavor.

  5. For quite some time, I felt like I was the only one who supported shuttle-derived heavy lift on the web, as publiusr.

    It is so good to see SLS actually treated fairly.

    I still fear for the future, especially if the two candidates left are Hillary and Rand Paul. I trust neither to be pro-NASA, and each will likely try to out-Proxmire the other.

  6. Is it possible to debate the merits of SLS vs the alternatives on this forum now without it becoming an insult exchange? I oppose SLS, but have no desire to engage in flamewars here or anywhere else.

  7. Golly gee whiz, I wonder if Lori Garver would be opposed to HR 3625. Alas, hope springs eternal in the commercial space breast that SLS/Orion will be cancelled and all those juicy taxpayer dollars will be funneled to their favorite corporation.

    • “Golly gee whiz, I wonder if Lori Garver would be opposed to HR 3625.”

      I don’t know about Lori, but *I* oppose such pork-defending garbage as HR3625. The money to build crew-sized landers, to develop ISRU, and all the other needs of an economically sustainable presence on the Moon, is being eaten by the Senate Launch System. The money to develop craft like the Nautilus-X, for crewed travel between planets and other bodies, is being eaten by Orion.

      What is the only answer to that consumptive pattern visible in the above comments? Why, “just lobby for more money for NASA” is the refrain to obscure the fact that there is already *plenty* of money in NASA’s budget to develop the technology needed to settle the Solar System. Just as NACA developed so much that led to the aviation industry of today, NASA can make great strides in Spacecraft Technology. What is *not* there is money to keep congressional and managerial careers on track to fulsome retirement while doing what NASA can and should do, open the Solar System for human settlement.

      BTW, *which* favorite commercial corporation do you mean? Sierra Nevada, perhaps? Boeing, perhaps? Or is it just SpaceX to be focused on? The *only* reason to downselect to *any* single corporation is the continual drain of money into SLS/Orion designs with no more potential for sustaining the settlement of the Solar System than Apollo had.

      Mr.Hillhouse has produced a pean to keeping the NASA/Congressional/Contractor Complex intact. At present that Complex is a boulder-sized iron rice bowl obstructing the road to human settlement of the Solar System. I see no sane reason in this article, or its cheering claque in the comments to believe any of them desire that iron rice bowl to shrink, much less vanish.

      Please understand those of us in the Space Activist movement. You are in the process of convincing more and more of us that you and your friends have been engaged in a 40 years-long betrayal of *our* efforts at gaining backing for human spaceflight technology. The buildup of the pork-based Constellation Program from its beginnings as, in Mike Griffin’s words, a “backup” to the commercial launchers, to its apotheosis of consuming all the money in human spaceflight development on just launchers and Orion, finally forced a large fraction of us to that realization. Of course, the question so many are asking now is “What do we have to do take make them care whether they betray us or not?”

      • Tom,

        Your comment seems to boil down to, “NASA sucks and commercial doesn’t!” Please excuse me if I’m misrepresenting your views as “anti-NASA”, it’s simply that they came across as very strongly so.

        First, let’s be honest with each other. When gov’t, NASA in this case, is providing the vast majority (over 90%) of funds for the DDTE, and all operations for the foreseeable future, of commercial cargo and crew, this isn’t “commercial” but is instead a new gov’t procurement process. Call it cost-plus contracting on steroids.

        Given NASA’s role in funding commercial cargo/crew, I have to say that I’m unsure as to the reasoning behind your point that NASA does have enough money. Adjusted for both inflation and GDP, NASA’s budget is less than half of what it was during Apollo, coming out to just shy of 1/2 a cent of the US budget.

        Perhaps your point is that, subsequent to terminating NASA’s national HSF efforts (Orion and SLS), those funds would be redirected to commercial space? Given the recent history of zeroing that portion of NASA’s HSF funding tied to a canceled or terminated program rather than directing those funds towards other HSF efforts (Shuttle money did not make its way back into NASA’s budget with that program’s end), how do you propose to continue gov’t funding of commercial crew? And I hope the irony of that sentence—gov’t funding necessary to sustain a “commercial” endeavor, isn’t lost on you or anyone.

        I’m a huge supporter of Dream Chaser. It’s basically how NASA would have built the Shuttle absent the DOD’s many requirements. Low-cost, reusable crewed access to space while still keeping us in the lifting-body, hypersonic flight business. What’s not to love? But for a long time to come, Dream Chaser’s only customer will be NASA.

        Lastly, the opinions that “Space Activists” have about me are none of my business. They paddle their canoe, I paddle mine.

  8. I was thinking more in terms of engaging on the numbers and alternative possibilities with their numbers. Example being Delta Heavies running one vehicle payload and two fuel launches to get the same vehicle to the moon this year instead of 2021 or so. While I agree with you on the issues, Tom, I was more interested in a serious dialog with the people on this site.

    • This is an interesting question.

      In the cases I’ve read or seen presented since the early 1990’s, breaking down a mission into multiple launches raises risk and cost. Experienced mission planners made mincemeat of these proposal’s promises of lower cost and risk.

      For example, I once saw former NASA Deputy Administrator and Ames Director Hans Mark in mere minutes rip-apart a mission plan months in the works by JSC’s Mars team to go to Mars using multiple Delta II launches. As much as I rooted for them, I had to agree that in the end he was right—they had bupkis.

      Regarding the use of Delta-IV H’s to launch to Mars, I haven’t seen anything. But given the cost and lead-time of that rocket, it will be expensive, and in the case of a launch failure, take over a year to relaunch.

      One could propose the Falcon Heavy, but with no cryo stage and a C3=0 over a metric ton less than that of the Delta-IV H (even worse with the RS-68A), you’ll have to break your mission into smaller units than otherwise needed on the D-IV H. Is whatever cost advantage the FH has over the D-IV H sufficient to cover the increased FH launches? Maybe. But with the Falcon Heavy’s launch cost currently undetermined, I don’t see how you cost that mission scenario.

      As SLS has moved forward, we are starting to see more robotic and crewed mission scenarios that take advantage of a launcher that starts out with a 70 mt, but can grow to over 150 mt, mean LEO cargo capability. I’ve been told that in SLS’s highest cargo mass configuration, over 40 mt could be delivered to escape velocity. To a mission planner, robotic or crewed, that’s just…sexy!

      Want a lunar orbiting space station with the same usable pressurized volume as the ISS but at a launch cost a fraction of that needed to deliver ISS? And not over a decade but within months? With SLS, done!

      • It mostly depends on the assumptions as I have seen the results go both ways. If the propellant is pre-positioned with whatever vehicles are available to the user, then there is little to no increased mission risk with multiple launches, as a failed propellant launch is simply made up at the providers cost. If, as you suggest, that all launches are critical to mission success, then mission risk increases dramatically. The second case is assumed by proponents of heavy lift, and the first by proponents of using the existing launch fleet.

        I used the Delta-IV H in my example to avoid the Space X fixation currently in vogue by most newspace advocates. With my last attempt to comment on this site being in the middle of last years’ flamewars, I am looking to avoid provocative statements as much as possible while still getting my point across.

        With good mission planning, I don’t see why it would be difficult to use the most efficient cryo stage available, with the other companies bidding on propellant deliveries. If the deep space propulsion and stage is a 25 ton Boeing product delivered by Delta-iv H, then Lockheed and Space X could bid on the pre-position the cryo propellants for a 25 ton to escape. This could have seriously heavy missions flying next year at the latest.

        I would like to see mission fly sooner to avoid the start-stop nature of current funding uncertainties from the political process.

  9. It is exacerbating to watch our space program start, stop, sputter, restart, and spin its wheels because it is run by people in congress who only care about their districts. Congress controls the purse, which is the ultimate control factor.

    Oh yeah, great article!

    • First, thanks for the compliment.

      I feel your pain at seeing the herky-jerky meanderings a of our space program over the last 10 years. And the bad news is that we can likely expect more of it after January 20, 2017.

      • A bill was introduced in the House last year for the purpose of removing NASA from the to and fro push-pull herky-jerky political battering it takes. The current NASA Chief Administrator appointment and tenure would have been modified to make it similar to that of the Directorship of the FBI. A panel of experts composed of former astronauts, engineers, physicists, planetary scientists, and aerospace industry professionals would be established to provide long term achievable goals and set forth rational plans and timetables. Means for providing sufficient, stable, dependable funding regardless of election results would have been put in place. Of course, given that such a bill makes an amazing amount of sense assuming that one favors a viable NASA space program, and given the “take no prisoners” mentality that we often see in Congress, it’s no great shock that this bill was DOA. As long as there are “pork screamers” who believe that the 0.48 of a penny of each federal budget dollar that NASA receives could be better spent on their favorite “non-pork” program, as did the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy at the gate of the launch complex of Apollo 11 (“Rocket Men”, Nelson p 74-75), there will be members of Congress eager to curry their favor, votes, and donations by de-funding NASA. Yesterday on the Bill Moyers program astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in an exceptionally well-stated call for America to renew it’s drive for scientific preeminence said that America was “slipping”, and that he could “feel” it doing so. I fear that he may be correct, and if so, may God help us.

        • One solution that could work for NASA is to focus more on results that can be achieved between election cycles. One problem I see with SLS is that there are four elections between now and the 2021 exploration mission, two of them presidential.

          As an example of the possibilities. Back when Aries One was under development, I did a blog post about an Aries Two. Two unmodified Shuttle boosters paired up, could have launched a seriously heavy load several years ago. That would have been eight segments in a well known configuration giving far more power than the five segment Aries One. Development cost would have been to not shut the production line down for the six million pound thrust first stage.
          Development of the second stage would have been much easier also with less weight restraints.

          This is just an example, not to be interpreted as a recommendation for action. The reality of the present is that we just don’t know for sure what will happen over the next several years. Missions that are flown in 2015 and 2016 cannot be canceled by a new president in 2017.

          • The Ares Two idea sounds quite logical, intelligent, reasonable, and achievable, which is probably why it never stood a chance. I understand only considering what could be accomplished between election cycles, although it seems that virtually every mission that resulted in outstanding planetary science breakthroughs i.e. Hubble, Cassini, Curiosity were many years in development. It may be an embarrassing admission that the “communist” government of China can readily make long-term decades-long plans to establish an orbital space station, followed by a permanent presence on the Moon, and then on to Mars while we, the bastion of capitalism, cannot make plans for space exploration that involve more than four years at a time. Yes, we are currently quite a bit ahead of China, as the hare was quite a bit ahead of the tortoise.

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