Heavy Lift Rocket Standoff on Capitol Hill

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There is a cottage industry these days – inside and outside of NASA – wherein people speculate what Heavy Launch Vehicle (HLV) design NASA is or is not pursuing. Everyone has Powerpoint charts, meeting notes, etc. but no one has all the facts. Nor are they likely to for months. The leaks have become a blur. NASA has not made its mind up yet and is not due to report back to Congress until June 2011 according to senior agency sources.

That lack of clarity was evident in a presentation made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a Space Transportation Association (STA) lunch briefing in Washington, DC on 25 March 2011.

Congress wants their HLV to be tested in 2016 and have an operational capability for the core elements not later than 31 December 2016. The language they use is rather unambiguous (see text below). At the STA event Bolden made it very clear that NASA cannot meet that deadline due to various fiscal realities and, moreover, that he does not feel that the agency should be building the rocket that Congress has specified in the first place – or at least not until a decade from now.

Bolden claims that he is trying to meet the provisions listed in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (now Public Law 111-267) yet Congress (House and Senate) say that the President’s FY 2012 budget (as proposed) violates certain aspects of that Act.

Neither side seems inclined to budge. Stalemate.

By the time the Obama Administration took up residence it was clear that the Constellation program had problems – technical and financial. After kicking the can down the road for more than a year the White House more or less cancelled the Constellation program outright. Then they back tracked – a bit – when the complaints erupted. The Orion crew transport vehicle became an ISS return vehicle – only. But in some people’s minds (i.e. Congress) it is still a means to get to as well as from space as the “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” (MPCV) and it will be launched on NASA’s new TBD rocket.

While the Ares 1 was halted, technology work associated with it and other aspects of Constellation continues. Thanks to Sen. Shelby, the Constellation program cannot be formally cancelled – yet. ATK is trying to sell a version of the taxpayer-funded first stage of Ares 1 (now called “Liberty”) with a new upper stage and a flashy paint scheme. The Ares V has disappeared – sort of – but parts of it reappear morphed on various Powerpoint slides that depict a myriad of approaches toward getting the HLV (i.e. Space Launch System or SLS) that NASA is trying to design to meet requirements that differ from what Congress has specified.

So, while NASA has been ordered to move on with a new approach by the White House backtracked on its plans and Congress won’t allow the old program that it also wants to replace to go away. Sound familiar? The biggest complain about the Bush Vision for Space Exploration was that it was big on plans but the budget was never provided when the time came to do so – while NASA was directed to operate as if the money would be there. We all know what happened. Flash forward. Congress is now looking to flatline or cut NASA budget (or not enact new ones) while also playing its own game of telling NASA to do things it simply does not have the budget to do. A new slow motion train wreck is in the making.

The one alternative to government-developed launch vehicles NASA has tried to follow (with White House support) is to procure commercial assets. Congress doesn’t want them to do so and seeks to undermine that effort at every turn. Yet, while NASA’s new launch vehicles sit inside of ever-changing Powerpoint presentations, SpaceX is launching their new hardware and Orbital is shipping their hardware for launch. Other launch vehicles that are fully operational such as Delta and Atlas can be ordered from a catalog. Viable alternatives sit in their hangars waiting to fly.

In January 2011 NASA sent a report “Preliminary Report Regarding NASA’s Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” to Congress (the Senate specifically) outlining its plans for an HLV. The report was more or less dead on arrival since it omitted significant amounts of information it was supposed to contain. And what it described was not want Congress had told NASA that it wants them to do. After some pointed press releases and some preliminary lawyering up by Congress, NASA said it would get back to them. That response is now due to be delivered in June 2011 according to NASA Headquarters. In the report NASA tells Congress repeatedly that it will get back to them by “Spring 2011”. Spring 2011 concludes on Capitol Hill and NASA Headquarters on 21 June 2011 at 1:16 pm EDT.

As stated in his report to Congress, Bolden said that he has to deal with dueling budgets simultaneously – the CR-driven FY 2010 budget that is in force due to the inability for Congress to enact a FY 2011 budget – with a proposed FY 2012 budget about to undergo consideration. So, if you are Bolden, which one do you attempt to implement or at least plan to implement? Answer: all of them. As such you can see why the man is frustrated.

When I asked Bolden at the STA event if he can say that he would build the launch system and space vehicles that Congress requires – along the time tables they have specified in law, Bolden said he would not say that he’d do so – and that he would not (or could not) – build them. For the record, Bolden was not altogether clear on this issue, even though I asked for a clarification. It was obvious, however, that he was not going to be building what Congress has specified for reasons beyond his control (budgets) but also for reasons he has control over (what NASA intends to launch – and when it will launch them.)

At the STA event Bolden went on to say that he wants to build a HLV capability that is not locked into one throw weight but rather one that is “evolvable” (his phrase). The idea is that you can start with capabilities that are lower than 130 MT (NASA uses metric tons, Congress does not get specific in this regard) and add capability to the vehicle(s) as money availability and programmatic need dictate. Congress does not really seem to be interested in that. This approach meshes well with the commercial options that the White House has directed NASA to pursue with various rockets capable of “evolving” to meet the 130 MT target. Bolden warned these private providers to not focus on fixed designs and that if they are not “evolvable” they may “loose out” on the opportunity to do business with NASA for such services.

Although Bolden often tosses out a laundry list of places NASA could go (asteroids, Moon, Mars etc.) none of these destinations is firmly anchored in a real plan that is being implemented. Add in funding uncertainties and NASA is not likely to make its mind up any time soon. As such, Bolden says that NASA will not need a 130MT-class HLV until the early 2020’s. This only serves to dampen his enthusiasm for trying to do something along the lines Congress put into law. Indeed, in his January report to Congress Bolden said “While the Authorization Act sets a goal of 2016, a first flight this early does not realistically appear to be possible based on our current cost estimates for the Reference Vehicles and given the levels proposed in the Authorization Act.”

So, to restate the current conundrum, Congress wants their big rocket flying in 2016. Bolden is not inclined to build it – at least not the way Congress wants it to be built. Congress will continue to hold hearings and beat Bolden up on this – all while he is asked to make plans that must simultaneously take a CR for FY 2010, the stalled FY 2011 budget, and the FY2012 into account.

The NASA update to its earlier report is due in June. I doubt it will say anything that has not already been said. Stay tuned.

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