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Congress to NASA: Thou Shalt Build Our Rocket

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 30, 2011
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Two prominent Republican Congressmen slammed NASA for delays and violating the law in its approach to the 2012 budget by reducing funding for a heavy-lift vehicle and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) at the expense of spending more money on commercial space options.

“The debate is over,” said Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. “This act is the law. NASA has its direction. The administration needs to acknowledge this, and act accordingly….

“But as we have seen from the FY2012 budget request, the administration is trying to ignore the thrust of this act. We expect NASA to proceed with the uninterrupted development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) that builds upon – and takes maximum advantage of – the significant work and capabilities that already exist,” Hall added.

Hall’s remarks came during a hearing on Wednesday by the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Those testifying included:

  • Douglas Cooke, Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Dr. Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University
  • Mr. James Maser, Chairman, Corporate Membership Committee, The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and President, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne

At issue are the pacing and funding levels associated with NASA’s human spaceflight programs. NASA wants to spend more money on the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program and less on the HLV and MPCV programs as a way of quickly closing the gap in human spaceflight that will open once the space shuttle program ends later this year. Congress has the opposite priorities.

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Steven M. Palazzo (R-MS) echoed Hall’s sentiments:

During the previous three reauthorization cycles – including last year’s bill – Congress has been clear about its desire to develop a government-owned launch system capable of taking astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond. This Administration, on the other hand, has advocated an approach where NASA would rely exclusively on commercial companies to provide transportation to low Earth orbit. And while a government-owned capability to extend deeper in space is a ‘nice-to-have’, the Administration seems to reason there is no rush to develop such a system, arguing that we aren’t prepared – nor can we afford – to undertake a deep space mission in this decade. I disagree, and I think the law is clear; Congress expects NASA to develop a Space Launch System and Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle in time to serve as a back-up to the commercial companies, who will likely encounter delays. And just as importantly, by building a follow-on system now, NASA will provide continuity for the skilled engineers and technicians who underpin our nation’s space capabilities. To not engage them would ensure a quick withering-away of this skill base, and it would take years, and billions of dollars to revive that capability. As Mr. Maser makes clear in his testimony; the nation’s aerospace workforce and industrial base is a Perishable National Asset that can disappear.

Both Palazzo and Hall represent districts that have a strong interest in both the HLV and MPCV projects. Palazzo pointed to one of these projects in his remarks.

Many of my constituents have been working on the Constellation program at the Stennis Space Center for a number of years. The J-2X upper stage rocket engine should be completed in May, and is scheduled for testing at Stennis in June or July. The J-2X is one of many advanced capabilities developed over the past few years that could be applied directly toward a heavy-lift Space Launch System. In the very tight fiscal environment we are in, NASA must make maximum use of every hard won capability at its disposal. The decisions that NASA has made, and will make over the next few months could have profound effects on the future of the aerospace workforce and industrial base. These are important decisions affecting thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in national capabilities, and it is vital that NASA proceed with care, but not delay.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said he is not sure the space agency can build the HLV within the budget and time frame stipulated by Congress. He does not believe that NASA will need the large rocket and Orion capsule, which are required for sending crews beyond Earth orbit, for another decade; thus, he prefers to accelerate development on commercial crew systems for transport to the International Space Station.

In his testimony, AIAA Corporate Membership Chairman and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne President Maser said the space industry is in crisis because NASA’s lack of clear goal and direction make it difficult for companies to deploy resources and do long-range planning.

This reality reflects the fact that the space industrial base is not FACING a crisis; we are IN a crisis right now. And we are losing a national PERISHABLE product…our unique workforce.

The entire space industrial base is currently being downsized with no net gain of jobs. At the same time, however, we are totally unclear as to what might be the correct levels needed to support the government.

Designing, developing, testing, and manufacturing the hardware and software to access and explore space requires highly skilled people with unique knowledge and technical expertise developed over decades.

These technical experts cannot be grown overnight, and once they leave the industry, they rarely return. If the U.S. develops a tremendous vision for space exploration five years from now, but the people with these critical skills have not been preserved and developed, that vision could not be brought to life.

We need that vision, that commitment, that certainty right now, not five or ten years from now, if we are going to have a credible chance of bringing it to fruition.

The testimony of Cooke and Pace have not been posted publicly yet. I will add excerpts when they become available.

2 responses to “Congress to NASA: Thou Shalt Build Our Rocket”

  1. James Bull says:

    I felt sick reading that tripe…

    • Doug Messier says:

      The hearing was not really big on bringing in a broader view of our space future. There are other approaches to building space hardware that would not only preserve our industrial base but could strengthen in over the long term. And allow us to do more in space. The House space leadership isn’t interested in hearing it.

      Hall did say back in December that he wanted to call Elon Musk to testify. Wonder what he’s waiting for.

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