Senate pushes back on NASA HLV report

The full report NASA submitted to Congress this week on development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle spacecraft is now available online. The introduction of the report had this to say about the schedule and cost of developing the heavy-lifter included in the authorization act (emphasis added): Guidance from the Administrator has established three principles for development of any future systems for exploration. These systems must be affordable, sustainable, and realistic. 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. Based on the guidance in the Authorization Act to take advantage of existing designs and hardware, the Agency has selected Reference Vehicle Designs for both of these vehicles as bases from which to work and which we believe most closely align to the requirements and goals of the Authorization Act. However, to be clear, neither Reference Vehicle Design currently fits the projected budget profiles nor the schedule goals outlined in the Authorization Act. Additionally, it remains to be determined what level of appropriations NASA will receive in FY 2011 or beyond – a factor that will impact schedule as well. A few paragraphs later (again, emphasis added): Currently, our SLS 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. Operational costs will have to be scrutinized and reductions from current projections will be needed in order to ensure affordable operations and so that funds are available for other necessary Exploration developments such as long-duration habitats and landers. A feature of the Shuttle/Ares-derived reference vehicle is that it enables leveraging of current systems, current knowledge base, existing hardware and potentially current contracts, thereby providing schedule and early-year cost advantages. 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. If the agency was expecting some sympathy from Congress, they didn't get it, at least from key leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee, who issued a brief but stern statement Wednesday in response to the report: We appreciate NASA's report and look forward to the additional material that was required but not submitted. In the meantime, the production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It's the law. NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently – and, it must be a priority. In other words, go back and try again.

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