House Sets Compromise NASA Language

Sep 23, 2010

By Frank Morring, Jr. 
The House Science Committee has moved toward the Senate on reauthorizing NASA spending for the next three years with compromise language that calls for an immediate start on a heavy lift launch vehicle able to orbit a capsule based on the Orion crew exploration vehicle by the end of 2016.With the House rushing toward recess as early as next week, the panel is only “hopeful” the compromise bill can be brought to a floor vote before the midterm elections, according to a spokesperson. But the substitute bill released by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the panel’s retiring chairman, on Sept. 23 further defines the shape of the future U.S. human spaceflight program.

“This is House compromise language, with bipartisan support,” Gordon stated. “It reflects months of discussions and input from many members. As a result, we believe we have a bill that both builds on and improves on H.R. 5781, the NASA Authorization Act that was marked up by the Science and Technology Committee earlier this year. Moreover, we believe this compromise helps move the discussion about the future of NASA closer to a final product.”

The bill calls for development of “a scalable capability of lifting payloads of at least 130 metric tons into low-Earth orbit on a single launch vehicle with an upper stage in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit.” That closely tracks language in the NASA reauthorization bill that already has passed the full Senate.

The House substitute also calls for continued development of a “multipurpose crew vehicle” based on the Orion crew exploration vehicle already in development under the ongoing Constellation Program that President Barack Obama’s administration wants killed. That vehicle would serve as a backup to the commercial crew vehicles Obama has called for as the primary U.S. human route to the International Space Station, and to the Russian Soyuz capsule that will be the only way for crews to reach the ISS for the foreseeable future after the shuttle fleet retires.

Like the Senate, the House calls for one final shuttle flight beyond the two already on the manifest, and authorizes $600 million in Fiscal 2011 to pay for it. The new House measure gives Administrator Charles Bolden 90 days from the date of the enactment of a NASA reauthorization to present a plan for developing the new launch system.

That plan is already underway at NASA, based on work done across the agency by a Human Exploration Framework Team (HEFT) set up to put some meat on the administration’s bare-bones exploration plans. The HEFT reported that the fastest way to build a heavy lifter of the type now likely to emerge from Congress would be to reconfigure space shuttle elements to launch an Orion capsule instead of a shuttle orbiter.

According to briefing charts dated Sept. 2 obtained by the NASA Watch website, the vehicle would start out as a shuttle stack using and discarding three RS-25D Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) positioned at the bottom of the propellant tankage. That would lift more than 70 tons of payload, according to the HEFT.

For a 100-ton capability, the four-segment solid-fuel shuttle boosters would be stretched to five segments – a configuration already tested three times – and two more of the RS-25D SSMEs would be added, for a total of five.

The 130-ton variant would add an advanced cryogenic upper stage, a different propellant for the five-segment solid motors, with lightweight composite booster casings instead of steel. In lieu of throwing away expensive reusable SSMEs, the 130-ton variant would employ five RS-25E single-use SSMEs already in the concept stage at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

The new House bill would increase funding to seed development of commercial cargo and crew vehicles from $464 million to a total of $1.2 billion, while trimming about $1 billion from its original figure for new exploration vehicles and related ground infrastructure. Gordon termed the substitute “fiscally responsible.”

“For too long, NASA has not been given the resources to complete the many missions the nation has asked of it,” he stated. “NASA is too important to the nation to continue on that path. This will provide a clear and sustainable direction for NASA, in light of the current fiscal environment.”

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