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NASA Warns of Inadequate Funding, Unattainable Schedule for Space Launch System and Crew Vehicle

Richard M. Jones
Number 5 - January 14, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“NASA recognizes it has a responsibility to be clear with the Congress and the American taxpayers about our true estimated costs and schedules for developing the SLS [Space Launch System] and MPCV [Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle], and we intend to do so, to the best of our ability in this preliminary report, as well as in the follow-on report.” – January report to Congress

NASA was unambiguous.  In its recent report to Congress about the development of a heavy-lift Space Launch System and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle capsule, and the “Reference Vehicle Design” or basic technical plans it is considering, NASA stated:

“However, to be clear, neither Reference Vehicle Design currently fits the projected budget profiles nor the schedule goals outlined in the [NASA] Authorization Act.”


“As stated earlier, another unknown for the Agency is schedule. 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.”

In uncharacteristically blunt language, NASA warned:

“Any designs selected also must meet the test of being realistic – not relying on assumptions of increased funding or other ‘miracles’ for attainment.”

These findings, and many others, were contained in a 22-page report sent to Congress this week entitled “Preliminary Report Regarding NASA’s Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.” Submission of this report was required by a provision in the NASA Authorization Act that was signed into law on October 11, 2010.

Various passages of NASA’s report repeatedly warn of inadequate funding and an unattainable legislatively mandated schedule:

“Currently, our SLS [Space Launch System] studies have shown that while cost is not a major discriminator among the design options studied, none of the design options studied thus far appeared to be affordable in our present fiscal conditions, based upon existing cost models, historical data, and traditional acquisition approaches.”

“To date, trade studies performed by the Agency have yet to identify heavy-lift and capsule architectures that would both meet all SLS requirements and these goals. For example, a 2016 first flight of the SLS does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and out year funding levels.”

“However, a 2016 first flight does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and out year funding levels, although NASA is continuing to explore more innovative procurement and development approaches to determine whether it can come closer to this goal.”

“As noted earlier, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to begin development of the SLS vehicle ‘as soon as practicable after the date of the enactment’ and with the goal of achieving operational capability for the core elements not later than December 31, 2016. While NASA will work as expeditiously as possible to meet the 2016 goal, NASA does not believe this goal is achievable based on a combination of the current funding profile estimate, traditional approaches to acquisition, and currently considered vehicle architectures.”

“As noted earlier, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to begin development of the MPCV [capsule] with the goal of achieving full operational capability not later than December 31, 2016. While NASA will work expeditiously to meet the 2016 goal, NASA notes that, as with the SLS, a 2016 crewed first flight does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and out year funding levels.”

A major factor working against NASA as it seeks to implement the provisions of the new authorization act is the great uncertainty about its final FY 2011 appropriation.  The new fiscal year started on October 1, and Congress and the Administration have only been unable to reach agreement on a short term funding bill providing level funding through early March, a full five months into the year.  Complicating the agency’s actions is a prohibition on any “new starts” and the requirement that it continue spending on elements of the now-cancelled Constellation Program.  It has been estimated that $575 million could be spent on the cancelled program by the end of the fiscal year if Congress does not act. 

Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have reacted to the report.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) released a lengthy statement that criticized the Administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation Program, saying “The report recently provided to Congress by NASA on its heavy lift development is only the beginning of a long conversation Congress will have with the Agency regarding the future of the human space flight program.”  Hall concluded: “The Science, Space, and Technology Committee will be paying very close attention to NASA’s human spaceflight program and holding several hearings to provide strong Congressional oversight.”

In the Senate, Bill Nelson (D-FL) Chairman of the Subcommittee on Science and Space, and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Ranking Member, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) sent a three-page letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.  Regarding the report’s conclusions about the affordability of the new designs, the senators stated “this conclusion suggests a misunderstanding of the Congressional intent” about “building on current capabilities and previous investments.”  The letter faults the report for its lack of specific justification or analyses to validate its findings, and refers to NASA and industry reports “that, by building on past investments and available technologies, NASA can reach initial operating capability of a scalable heavy-lift launch vehicle with the funds authorized, especially if the agency refines its procurement, contract management, and oversight processes.”  The senators also told Bolden: “the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that we worked so hard to pass last year is not an optional, advisory document: It is the law.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics