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Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Examines NASA's Development of the Space Launch System and Orion Crew Capsule

Aline D. McNaull
Number 122 - September 24, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on September 12 to examine “on-going development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion capsule and related systems, as well as [to] discuss how these technologies can be used for future scientific missions.”  

A hearing charter prepared by the Republican committee staff outlined over-arching questions of interest to the committee including “what achievements have been accomplished to date with SLS and Orion development, and what are next steps and near-term goals for the program; what design assumptions is NASA using for propulsion systems for both first and upper stages; what are the biggest technical, programmatic, and risk reduction challenges now confronting the SLS and Orion programs, and what steps are being taken to address them; [and] how do we ensure the long-term success of the SLS and Orion programs.”

Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) stated that for the next several decades, the SLS and Orion multipurpose crew vehicle will give our country the capability to launch new spaceflight and robotic missions.  Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) expressed concern, in his opening statement, regarding NASA’s commitment to the space program because of delays in design selection for the SLS program and due to a lack of defined mission destination for the first mission of SLS and Orion. 

Subcommittee Ranking Member Hansen Clarke (D-MI) indicated that Members of Congress need to “ensure that the program is making wise decisions and prudent use of the funds provided to it, and we also need to ensure that NASA is given the resources and stability that will allow SLS and Orion to succeed.”  He stated that he would like to see Americans return to deep space exploration “by renewing our commitment to achieving the inspiring goals that Congress has set forth in law through successive NASA Authorization Acts.”

Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) echoed the need for sustained investment in her opening statement.  She advocated for the need to provide the programmatic stability and cautioned that “if we fail to do so, the consequences of our failure will be long lasting.” 

Daniel Dumbacher, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, assured Members of Congress that “NASA is working to keep all these efforts integrated and coordinated” as he described how NASA is progressing towards integrated systems definitions review early next year and how the agency successfully completed an integrated systems review in February 2012.  He highlighted that NASA is working with an affordable model and that it is streamlining decisions and integration processes to assure timely decisions processes. 

Dumbacher provided an update on the design and manufacture of Orion and the Space Launch System which included his noting that NASA used an open competitive research announcement and selected six proposals from that competition to improve booster affordability, reliability and performance.  He noted that there will be another competition for full-scale design and development work leading to an advanced booster for the evolved Space Launch System. 

Cleon Lacefield, Vice President and Orion Program Manager at Lockheed Martin, stated that “Orion is complementary to – and, indeed, has contributed to the development of – NASA’s commercial space transportation initiative for operational support to the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit.”  He highlighted major program technical progress including that NASA successfully tested a new Launch Abort System, developed an innovative navigation and docking system, and successfully completed space flight acoustic and vibration testing on the Orion Ground Test Article spacecraft.

Lacefield assured Members of Congress that the NASA-Lockheed team also initiated affordability measures and streamlined Orion program management to ensure the ability to move the program forward within constrained budgets.  He stressed that “it remains critically important that Congress maintain FY2013 funding at the current level to ensure timely and successful implementation of EFT-1 in 2013, as well as outyear budgets to support a robust crew safety-risk mitigation demonstration test (Exploration Mission-1) leading to first crewed mission with Exploration Mission-2.”

Jim Chilton, Exploration Vice President at the Boeing Company, described the challenges and goals for SLS and provided an assessment of current progress as well as an overview of future human exploration and scientific missions enabled by SLS.  Regarding SLS challenges, he stated that “many potential challenges on SLS have already been avoided” because “NASA selected an architecture that allows reuse of designs and elements that have been very successful in other programs.  This separation of product development and technology development increases [the agency’s] overall confidence in schedule, cost, and mission success.”

Matt Mountain, Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, stated that “the SLS would allow us to efficiently bring greatly simplified building blocks of such a telescope to low Earth orbit where it could be assembled and then moved to a more distant orbit where it would conduct these amazing observations.  SLS is a key tool needed to answer the question ‘are we alone?’ by both being the transport capability for bringing telescope complements into space and by providing the human and/or robotic infrastructure to assemble such a system in space.”  He emphasized his point by citing that the recent National Academies Planetary Decadal Survey listed a Mars sample return mission as the top priority. 

During the question period, Chairman Palazzo was interested to learn how NASA will address any developmental challenges that cannot be managed within the constraints of the current budget, given that the SLS and Orion programs are operating under flat funding through the first un-crewed flight in December of 2017.  Dumbacher responded by describing how NASA purposely chose a system with minimal developmental risks since many of the system components were designed for use in the shuttle and Constellation programs. 

Palazzo asked about a destination for these missions since NASA is being flexible regarding the missions and destinations for Orion and SLS.  He was interested in the impact of designing a vehicle with multiple capabilities that may not be used in every mission.  Dumbacher assured the Subcommittee that the ultimate destination is Mars but that intermediate destinations are being sorted out through mission analysis. 

Rep. Clarke was also concerned about adequate funding for both programs.  He questioned what funding and spend-rate SLS and Orion will get under the continuing resolution (CR) for FY 2013.  Dumbacher responded that under a 6 month CR, the program is operating at 50 percent of FY 2012 appropriations levels and that will be the spend rate for the first six months.  The uncertainty in budgets for the remaining six months of the year also need to be included in NASA’s planning and the agency is working to address that. 

Clarke then asked each witness about their thoughts on the importance of stability in funding.  Dumbacher replied that stable funding is critical to the program’s success.  Chilton pointed out that recent college graduates are interested in working on this program but this talent pipeline will shift elsewhere if there is insecure funding because the industry will become viewed as unstable.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics