The Senate subcommittee charged with NASA oversight will present a $19 billion bill this week that kills President Barack Obama’s proposed shakeup of the agency’s human-spaceflight program, in the process cutting billions from commercial rocket and technology projects that supporters say would have benefited Kennedy Space Center.
Though the bill effectively cancels the delayed and over-budget Constellation moon-rocket program — as Obama requested in his NASA budget — it would repurpose that money to build a new heavy-lift rocket while largely ignoring the president’s call to fund new space-faring technology and commercial rockets that would send humans into space.
A draft of the bill, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, was presented to NASA last week by the committee, chaired by Florida Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. So far the White House has not commented on the bill, but several Florida Space Coast leaders have expressed concern about its impact here.
Of particular concern is the fact that Nelson — Florida’s main space supporter — would take away billions of dollars from commercial rocket and technology development that over the next decade would have diversified the aerospace industry in Florida and provided KSC with new jobs and prestige.
KSC stands to lose 9,000 jobs when the space shuttle is retired next year. And though the Senate bill encourages NASA to “retain the skills” of the shuttle work force, and funds a shuttle flight next June in addition to the two now remaining, it’s unclear if it would create any new jobs at KSC in the next several years.
“We are afraid the compromise bill compromises Florida’s long-term interests,” said Dale Ketcham, director of the University of Central Florida‘s Space Research and Technology Institute.
NASA’s human-spaceflight program has been in limbo since Feb. 1, when Obama unveiled his budget request, which called for cancelling Constellation and shifting focus to develop new technologies that would send humans to an asteroid by 2025. Commercial space taxis, not NASA rockets, would ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.
But his dramatic overhaul of the human-spaceflight program has faced fierce resistance on Capitol Hill, especially from lawmakers in states with other NASA centers or with big NASA contracts like Utah, where the solid-rocket motor that would have powered Constellation’s Ares rockets is manufactured.
The Senate bill, which if passed would lay out the direction of the space program for the next three years, would revive the fortunes of Utah’s solid-rocket maker, ATK, by requiring NASA to keep using its solid-rocket motors for a new heavy-lift rocket.
It proposes spending $11.3 billion through 2013 to develop the rocket and a fully-loaded Orion crew capsule capable of flying humans to the moon and beyond. It authorizes spending $1.3 billion on Orion and $1.9 billion on the new rocket next year. The aim of the bill is to have the new rocket and capsule ready to fly by 2016.
It also orders NASA to “utilize existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the space shuttle and former Orion and Ares I projects.” This could save billions in termination costs but force NASA to continue using ATK’s solid-rocket motors that the White House had hoped to scrap in favor of a liquid-fueled rocket, like the Saturn V that launched astronauts to the moon in 1969.
At the same time, the bill would provide three-year appropriations totaling $250 million for robotic missions intended to pave the way for human deep-space exploration, $1.7 billion for technology research and development and $890 million to help commercial rocket companies develop space taxis for astronauts.
By comparison, the administration had proposed $1.3 billion for robotic missions, $5.5 billion for technology development and $3.3 billion on commercial rocket companies between 2011 and 2013. Obama also wanted to develop only a scaled-down Orion to act as a lifeboat on the space station.
The bill would forbid NASA from spending any money on service contracts with commercial-rocket companies in 2011 and allow it in 2012 only if NASA can satisfy six requirements. Those include coming up with standards that commercial rocket firms would use to make their rockets safe for humans, along with devising a congressionally approved system to buy private rocket services for astronauts.
Commercial-space supporters say that while these requirements are reasonable, they are concerned they could be used as roadblocks.
“The effect of this bill will delay commercial spaceflight efforts … and all the jobs the industry could have brought to Florida,” said John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry association representing 17 commercial-aerospace companies and development bodies.
In general comments last week, Nelson described the bill as a “compromise” that preserves some White House priorities — like more funding for Earth sciences — and retains some money for commercial rocket and technology development.
Nelson expects passage
He told reporters that although there would likely be “potholes along the way,” he expects the bill to pass the Senate.
Nelson could not be reached by the Sentinel for comment about the text of the bill.
Frank DiBello, the president of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace development body, is not pleased. “We don’t want to sacrifice Florida seed corn for an increased R&D role to be politically expedient and save jobs for Utah and other states,” DiBello told a Brevard County jobs-development meeting Saturday.
“The Senate bill kills outright the promise of a real R&D opportunity for KSC. It’s not good for Florida. I don’t know who Bill Nelson is listening to, but it’s not his constituents,” DiBello said.
Ketcham said that Brevard today is like Detroit in the 1960s: home to a labor-intensive, single-product industry. The president’s plan held out the possibility of turning the region into an aerospace “Silicon Valley” where many companies provide a broad range of products and services for the government and other customers, he said.
“It appears the compromise that Senator Nelson has come up with moves us back to being Detroit,” he said.
DiBello and Ketcham also worry that in the upcoming push to lower the deficit expected in Congress, these projects — especially reviving an Orion capsule and developing a new big rocket — are likely to end up like the Constellation program they will replace — underfunded and unsustainable.
Robert Block can be reached at 321-639-0522 or email@example.com.