Still waiting on an SLS

Going into Friday afternoon's speech at the National Press Club, there was little expectation that NASA administrator Charles Bolden would make any major announcements, including on the agency's plans for the Space Launch System (SLS). And that's how it turned out: his speech was focused on the agency's general plans for life after the space shuttle, and for a more general audience. Bolden specifically sought to counter the belief in some quarters that the end of the shuttle program was tantamount to the end of human spaceflight or even the space program itself. "Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50-year dominance in human spaceflight," he said. "As a former astronaut, as the current NASA administrator, i'm here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least, at least the next half-century because we've laid the foundation for success, and for us at NASA, failure is not an option." A little later in the speech, he was even more to the point. "So, when I hear people say, or listen to the media reports, that the final shuttle flight marks the end of US human spaceflight, I have to tell you: you must all be living on another planet." (The only news that arguably came out of the address had nothing to do with Bolden or NASA: in brief comments at the end of the luncheon, retiring astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, knocked down rumors that he was eying a political career. "My main focus right now, and for the foreseeable future, is Gabby's recovery and also spending some more time with my kids," he said, referring to his wife's continuing recovery from a near-fatal shooting in January. Rumors about him potentially running for Giffords' House seat or the open Senate seat in Arizona in 2012 had been in the media in recent weeks, although based almost wholly in speculation and not on anything Kelly had said or done. At least one news outlet tried to keep the story alive, though: "Giffords' husband rules out run for public office – at least for now" was the headline in The Hill.) In his speech, Bolden said little about plans for the SLS, other than "we're nearing a decision" on it and "we'll announce that soon". While not surprising, the lack of a formal announcement about the agency's SLS plans-or even the specific timing of that announcement-has disappointed industry. "We had been hearing a few weeks ago that the plan was to get all this done and make some sort of formal announcement on or before July 8," when Atlantis is set to launch on the final shuttle mission, Jim Maser, president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR), said in an interview earlier Friday. Now, though, he said he's not certain an announcement will come by the scheduled launch. Maser, who made clear in March his desire for a decision on NASA's future programs, including the SLS, still has that same sense of urgency, if not greater. "Now that the shuttle is finally ending, there's a huge sense of urgency in industry" to know what those plans are, he said, adding he wasn't concerned about the specifics of the plan so much as having a firm direction for industry: "We need a plan, the direction where we're going." He said his company would be "fine" with some of the rumored SLS designs leaked in recent weeks that would use Space Shuttle Main Engines and the J-2X, both manufactured by PWR. Maser said in the interview that he's had to give layoff notices to about 300 PWR employees, but some of those notices could be rescinded if a decision on SLS comes soon. "I don't think we can wait any longer than the end of this fiscal year," or the end of September, he said. "We'd like to see something in July." He noted that the end of July will mark a year and a half since the administration's original announcement that it was canceling Constellation without a firm replacement plan in place. "The only word I have for that is pathetic."

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