Today, in a hearing of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, witnesses expressed serious concern about the lack of clear focus by the Administration on NASA's transition from the Space Shuttle program toward development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). These vital components of NASA's human space flight program were outlined as top priorities in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which was signed into law.
Discussing the Administration's lack of compliance with the intent of Congress, Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS)said, "While a government-owned capability to extend deeper in space is a "nice-to-have,' the Administration seems to reason there is no rush to develop such a system, arguing that we aren't prepared -- nor can we afford -- to undertake a deep space mission in this decade."
"I disagree, and I think the law is clear," Palazzo said. "Congress expects NASA to develop a Space Launch System and Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle in time to serve as a back-up to the commercial companies, who will likely encounter delays. And just as importantly, by building a follow-on system now, NASA will provide continuity for the skilled engineers and technicians who underpin our nation's space capabilities."
The Administration's FY2012 budget request does not adhere to the funding guidance in last year's authorization bill, and seeks to redirect funding away from Exploration systems that would replace the capabilities NASA will lose with the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Proposed Exploration systems funding is $1.24 billion below the amount specified in law, and is $2.5 billion below when comparing the two years FY2012 and FY2013.
Also at issue is NASA's compliance with Congressional direction on extending and modifying the Constellation contracts, and the implications of NASA's actions for the continued, uninterrupted progress on the MPCV and SLS. Congressional intent, as reflected in authorization and appropriation language, seek to utilize the existing workforce and assets in order to limit the damage to the nation's industrial base and workforce.
Attending today's Subcommittee hearing, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX)bluntly told Mr. Douglas Cooke, Associate Administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA, that "Congress is committed to ensuring that NASA follows the law," and that "NASA should make the most expeditious choices possible to minimize the adverse impact on the aerospace workforce and industrial base."
Representing companies that contract work for NASA's space exploration program, Mr. Jim Maser, Chairman of the Corporate Membership Committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, discussed the pressures of uncertainty these companies face. Maser noted that there does not appear to be consensus between Congress and the Administration on priorities, or consensus even within the Administration. "This uncertainty has our industry partners and suppliers very concerned about how we can position our businesses to meet NASA's needs, while retaining our critical engineering and manufacturing talent. It is creating a gap which our industry will not be able to fill." Drawing attention to the urgency of the situation Maser said, "the fact is that the space industrial base is not facing a crisis; we are in a crisis."
"Designing, developing, testing, and manufacturing the hardware and software to explore space requires highly skilled people with unique knowledge and technical expertise which takes decades to develop," Maser said. "These technical experts cannot be grown overnight, and once they leave the industry, they rarely return."
The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed the agency to develop SLS and MPCV by building upon the technologies and extensive capabilities of the Space Shuttle and Constellation systems. In order to limit termination liability costs and avoid disruptions to the workforce and industrial base, the Act directs NASA to, "to the extent practicable, extend or modify existing vehicle development and associated contracts."
Addressing these ongoing contracts, Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said that this provision was a "prudent measure," and that "the disruption that would have resulted from the wholesale cancellation of the Constellation contracts would have been harmful to the U.S. space industrial base." Pace highlighted the importance of the lessons learned from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, formed in the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia accident. He noted that the Administration does not seem to have learned the important lessons. "With regard to the CAIB's recommendations, NASA's effort to transition from Constellation program designs to the Space Launch System can be seen as incomplete and arguably inadequate."