|A small groundswell is rising in Congress for a faster start on the heavy-lift launch vehicle President Barack Obama says he wants, but it may be swamped by the backwash from growing irritation over NASA’s sluggish production of justification for its “game-changing” new approach.
A bipartisan gang of 62 House members wants Obama to initiate “the immediate development and production of a heavy-lift launch vehicle that, in conjunction with the Orion crew exploration vehicle, may be used for either lunar or deep-space exploration.”
Their June 22 letter to Obama, circulated by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), follows word from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that a new NASA authorization with at least some bipartisan support would include both a heavy-lifter and a crew exploration vehicle leveraging “the workforce, contracts, assets and capabilities of the shuttle, Ares I and Orion efforts.”
But, while some lawmakers appear ready to compromise with the White House on ending the Constellation program that has been funding Orion, the Ares I crew exploration vehicle and other follow-ons to the retiring space shuttle fleet, other space leaders are moving in completely different directions.
Retired Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), the first American in orbit, says he will lobby this week to keep the space shuttle flying beyond its planned retirement date early next year. And a key group of NASA watchers in the House has lost patience with the agency’s search for numbers to support the proposed policy.
Glenn posted a 12-page white paper urging continuation of the shuttle program on the website of Ohio State University, where he is an adjunct professor at the public policy school bearing his name. Glenn argues that then-President George W. Bush failed to heed an important point in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s recommendations: that any shuttle replacement be adequately funded.
As a result, he says, the U.S. is giving up the heavy-lift capability embodied in the space shuttle and opting for $50-million rides to orbit on Russia’s Soyuz capsule. That will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to take advantage of its $100-billion investment in the International Space Station, he says.
“Here we have the most unique laboratory ever designed, ever conceived, built to do research and we’ve spent $100 billion on it, getting it to where it is just now usable, and then we cut off our access to that $100-billion investment,” Glenn says. “That just doesn’t make sense, and at a time when we need all the new research that we can get to be economically competitive around the world.”
Glenn’s widely circulated paper suggests NASA could fly the shuttle twice a year at an annual cost of about $1.5 billion. He agrees with Obama’s proposal to drop efforts to return to the Moon as a stepping-stone deeper into the Solar System, and instead calls for use of the ISS to prepare for a mission to Mars.
At the same time, NASA should develop “a fully tested replacement heavy-lift capability,” writes Glenn. “I don’t specify that it has to be Constellation,” Glenn tells Aviation Week. “The parts of the Constellation, if we’re going to do heavy lift, maybe they can adapt that to it.”
Obama’s belated call for a heavy-lift decision by 2015 added to the consternation in the House Science Committee, which traditionally has kept a close eye on NASA under the leadership of both political parties. In a June 17 letter to Administrator Charles Bolden, the chairmen and ranking Republicans of the full science panel and its space and aeronautics subcommittee gave the agency until June 25 to produce “all records” generated during development of the new human spaceflight proposals, including Obama’s April 15 revision. Records, in the committee demand, are to be “construed in the broadest sense.”
“The failure of NASA to supply Congress with this information hampers our ability to address the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program in a timely manner,” the lawmakers write, complaining that they have asked for the information four different times. “Simultaneously, the agency is implementing dramatic changes to the Constellation program that are resulting in the loss of thousands of skilled jobs and which will cause unavoidable delays in the development of Ares I and Orion, should Congress decide not to terminate those programs. Since NASA has failed to provide the committee with any detailed supporting materials with which Congress can judge the proposed human spaceflight plan, Congress must insist upon the production of all materials NASA relied upon in formulating its proposal.”
While the imbroglio over supporting documentation for NASA’s proposed change in direction makes it less likely the Obama plan will succeed on Capitol Hill, Congress itself has tightened the purse strings on spending overall. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) says the House will not adopt a budget resolution until after the midterm elections this fall, and will try to tighten spending below Obama’s budget requests as a general principle.
And the White House, which already has asked all federal agencies, including NASA, to identify additional 5% spending cuts for its Fiscal 2012 budget planning (AW&ST June 14/21, p. 25), has now amended its Fiscal 2011 NASA request to shift $100 million from exploration to the Commerce and Labor Departments to help aerospace workers affected by the budget find new work.
The Obama proposal, unveiled June 18, requests $40 million for Florida’s “Space Coast,” and $60 million for other unspecified states affected by the shutdown of the space shuttle program and the proposed termination of Constellation. The money would come from Obama’s $1.9-billion budget request for Constellation transition.
That leaves the planned technology push under the Fiscal 2011 request even more exposed to cuts than before, as NASA managers look for the funds to keep ongoing programs running. And there are plenty of technology needs to enable space exploration of all kinds, human and robotic. A panel of space science experts convened by the Space Enterprise Council listed nuclear in-space propulsion and highly advanced information technologies as true “game-changers” for exploration, using the terms NASA officials have claimed for their new approach.
But while astronaut/astronomer John Grunsfeld and others extolled the virtues of nuclear fusion, it is not listed as part of the technology development effort. Neither is a search for new ways of getting to space.
“Access to space isn’t on the charts, and that is to me one of the biggest game-changers out there,” says Walt Faulconer, former chief scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “If you go back to the rocket equation, the biggest part of the Delta V is getting off the planet.”
Faulconer also criticized NASA for placing great reliance on controlling cryogenic boiloff in its strategy for reducing the mass that would be needed to get to Mars from about 12 times that of the International Space Station to roughly twice the ISS mass. Cryocoolers work pretty well to keep infrared sensors cool in space, he says, and there are more productive technologies like nuclear propulsion for pushing the envelope.
“We need to focus on what’s really enabling and what’s game-changing, and what’s going to lower the cost,” Faulconer says.