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No Immediate Solution on Heavy-Lift Program

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
January 3, 2011
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The Huntsville Times has an editorial titled, “It’s time to end NASA’s limbo,” in which it urges a quick action on finalizing the space agency’s budget and a rapid start of work on its heavy-lift program:

Congress and the White House then spent most of 2010 trying to agree on a direction for NASA. The end result, which should put the creation of a new heavy-lift vehicle in the hands of Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center, now appears to be stuck: There’s a direction, but a continuing resolution by Congress doesn’t specifically point money to the new heavy-lift program, which means work might not get off the ground.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby’s staff, however, says there’s no reason NASA can’t use 2010 Constellation funding to start on the new heavy-lift program.

So, NASA says it can’t spend on the new program, and Shelby says it can.

The disconnect illustrates how critical it is that a long-term vision for NASA isn’t just agreed on, but that it is funded adequately.

Essentially, the problem is this: Congress wants NASA to build the HLV from shuttle-derived technologies that would have been used in the Ares 5 under the Constellation program. The space agency has cast a wider net for concepts by funding studies by a range of aerospace firms. NASA doesn’t want to move forward until there is clear direction from Congress in the form of an appropriations bill. In the meantime, it can order and evaluate the studies. The basic questions this raises are how much leeway has in building the HLV, and how much Congress should be involved in dictating how one should be built.

It’s a tough spot for NASA and employees and contractors dealing with the uncertainty and layoffs associated with this period of limbo. I definitely feel for them. None of that is much fun.

But, ultimately, the problem lies with Congress being unable to pass a budget anywhere near the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. Passing the budget five months later in March is no way to run a railroad.