|By Frank Morring, Jr.
Senators who have been pressuring NASA all summer to produce a design and procurement strategy for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) that Congress ordered last year cannot agree on just exactly what that design should be.
As is usual with big-bucks space programs, constituent jobs play a big role in lawmakers’ positions. Given the current tight-money environment, senators with a jobs-stake in the final design are pushing harder than usual on its specifics, adding weight to SLS opponents who have dubbed the whole idea the “Senate Launch System.”
The issue centers on what kind of power will be used in the strap-on boosters needed to get the SLS off the pad, pitting powerful senators from both sides of the aisle against members of their own political parties in a letter-writing campaign to the Executive Branch.
A preliminary “reference vehicle design” selected in January outlined a heavy-lift rocket using space shuttle main engines (SSMEs), the J-2X upper-stage engine developed for the defunct Ares class of launch vehicles, and a structure based on the space shuttle external tank. For extra power at liftoff, that original design needed five-segment strap-on versions—already tested on the ground—of the four-segment solid-fuel boosters built by ATK in Utah.
On June 14, Administrator Charles Bolden selected and sent to the White House for confirmation his final choice for the SLS reference design. He essentially kept the January plan, but with a new wrinkle—a competition for a liquid-fueled strap-on that would make the SLS “evolvable” to meet the congressional requirement of an at least 130-metric-ton (286,600-lb.) lifting capability.
One likely competitor for the five-segment solid would be a booster powered by a kerosene-fueled engine to be developed by Aerojet in Sacramento, Calif., and manufactured by Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville, Ala. Plans already call for SLS development to be managed at Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville, which has experienced deep contractor layoffs with the end of the shuttle and follow-on Constellation programs. Aerojet and Teledyne Brown said in announcing their new kerosene-engine joint venture on June 3 that it could create as many as 1,400 new jobs in Alabama and California.
Bolden’s decision came after he received public letters from Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) urging him to compete SLS propulsion. But it still has not been confirmed by the White House—which dropped the idea of a government-owned heavy lifter altogether in its original space policy—pending more analysis of its cost and development of a procurement strategy. An outside cost analysis by Booz Allen Hamilton was expected last week, and Bolden has suggested NASA’s internal analyses will be finished soon as well.
But with the layoffs already felt in Alabama, Shelby and other members of the state’s congressional delegation worry that NASA and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have no intention of actually spending the $1.786 billion available for SLS in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30.
“There is an immediate need to begin design and construction efforts related to SLS, including those associated with rocket propulsion testing,” Shelby wrote to President Barack Obama on Aug. 15, in a letter cosigned by Republican Senators Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and David Vitter (La.). “But it has become apparent that the lack of an approved reference design is leading NASA to drive SLS funds away from important efforts such as these.”
Frustration with delays in settling on a reference design for SLS is not limited to those with a direct constituent interest in getting the money flowing—including propulsion testing at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and potential structural work at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans. Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the chair and ranking Republican on the NASA-authorizing Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, have made good on a threat to subpoena NASA for data on the design decision, and have launched an investigation into just what is going on.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) joined a group of Republican senators, notably Orrin Hatch of Utah, in an Aug. 2 letter to Bolden and OMB Director Jacob Lew urging quick action on SLS. But that letter, also signed by Republican Senators Mike Crapo and James Risch (Idaho) and Dean Heller (Nev.), objects to the call for a propulsion competition endorsed by Shelby and the California senators until after initial flight testing with the solid-fuel boosters built by ATK in Utah.
“We strongly believe conducting a competition earlier in the development of the SLS will only create further delays and cost overruns,” Reid and his Western Senate colleagues wrote. “[D]uring this period of fiscal austerity, it is irresponsible to spend funds on the development of a new system, such as an enhanced liquid engine, to accomplish what is already possible through existing technology, specifically solid rocket motors.”
NASA has already taken advantage of the $5 billion it spent on the Orion crew exploration vehicle under the old Constellation program by continuing development of the capsule as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which Congress ordered last year, along with the SLS in the agency’s three-year compromise reauthorization that Obama signed. In its operating plan for spending fiscal 2011 funds, NASA also continues work on the A-3 test stand at Stennis, which was begun in 2007 to test the J-2X engine-startup capability at simulated high altitude.
Both of those moves were endorsed in the reauthorization legislation. But NASA already has felt the pinch of congressional impatience in its effort to shift funds from SLS to ground-infrastructure work at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), another site hard-hit by job losses from the shuttle retirement.
In its original operating plan NASA proposed using $340.2 million in SLS allotments for “SLS ground operations,” which included $125 million that was originally to have been funded at KSC through its new 21st-century Launch Complex effort. Congressional appropriators trimmed the $340.2 million to $250 million in their approval of the operating plan, according to NASA figures.
That apparently wasn’t enough for Shelby, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In his letter to Obama, he complained about the use of SLS money for infrastructure and “general support capabilities” at KSC, and warned that “efforts to spend SLS funds on priorities other than SLS violate the authorization act, the [continuing resolution funding NASA this year] and suggest disregard for Congress’ constitutional authority.”
“The misallocation of SLS funds and the lack of synchronization between rocket and spacecraft development at NASA seem to suggest that this administration has no intention of properly using appropriated funds,” Shelby and his GOP colleagues told Obama.
Also included in the congressional response to NASA’s fiscal 2011 operating plan was a ban on using any appropriated funds at agency headquarters to oversee development of the final reference design. That slap could complicate a headquarters reorganization announced Aug. 12 merging the Space Operations and Exploration Systems mission directorates.
To be called the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEO), the new organization will manage U.S. operations on the International Space Station and development of capabilities for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. It is to be headed by William Gerstenmaier, formerly the associate administrator for Space Operations.
Doug Cooke, associate administrator for Exploration Systems, will retire on Oct. 3, after 38 years with the agency. Cooke, who had said he wanted to retire after NASA chooses the SLS reference design and procurement strategy, will serve as Gerstenmaier’s deputy until his departure, according to NASA.
“We’ve worked through key technical and programmatic decisions on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System,” Cooke says.
For his part, Bolden has said a final decision on the SLS design is possible this month. During the countdown to the last space shuttle mission in July, the Administrator stressed the long-term impact of the decision.
“We’re going through a very difficult period of time as a nation,” he said. “The decision on the heavy lift is going to be a very expensive and very critical decision for the nation. It’s got to carry us into this next era that we hope will extend longer than the 30 years of the shuttle. So we’re close to making a decision on the configuration, but we’re not quite there” (AW&ST July 11, p. 21).