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updated 4/5/2011 9:45:12 AM ET 2011-04-05T13:45:12

GREENBELT, Md. — Obama administration officials continue to push back against a congressionally directed heavy-lift launch vehicle development that would salvage elements of the Constellation program the president seeks to dismantle.

White House science adviser John Holdren said March 30 that while the president’s proposed $18.7 billion budget for NASA in 2012 would fund key themes contained in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010, Congress’ inability to pass a 2011 spending bill is preventing the agency from beginning work on the new Space Launch System (SLS) and Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) the law states should be operational by 2016.

In a March 30 interview, Holdren said NASA is further hindered by restrictive language in last year’s appropriation that prevents the agency from scrapping the Moon-bound Constellation program and funding development of the new space launch system and crew exploration vehicle called for in the law. [ What Obama and Congress Should Do for Spaceflight ]

“As a result of those constraints it’s been impossible, I think, to be on the trajectory for the new program that we’d be on if we’d had real budgets,” Holdren said following remarks at the Goddard Memorial Symposium here. “And being not on that trajectory, the idea that we could spend as much money in 2012 as they authorized I think is just a little out of date.”

NASA's big rocket

Congress recommended spending a total of $4 billion on the heavy-lift launch vehicle, or SLS, and multipurpose crew vehicle in 2012; The president, however, requested just $2.8 billion for the efforts. Authorization bills frequently recommend higher funding levels than Congress ultimately approves through annual appropriations legislation. The NASA Authorization Act, for example, recommended a total budget of $19 billion for the agency in 2011 and $19.45 billion in 2012. Congress so far has failed to enact appropriations for 2011, leaving NASA funded at $18.7 billion, the same amount the White House is seeking for 2012.

With the White House under pressure to curb spending, Holdren said the president’s proposal represents “the most aggressive program” for a heavy-lift launch vehicle development given the constrained budget NASA will face in the coming years.

“There is, I think, a real question as to whether it can be done in the time that the Congress would like, but in the end it’s difficult to legislate scientific and engineering reality,” he said, adding, “NASA is determined and the administration is determined to do the best we can to get a heavy-lift vehicle as fast as we can and I think that’s the best one can say.”

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which Obama signed into law last October, directs the agency to leverage existing space shuttle and Constellation investments in building a new heavy-lift rocket and multipurpose crew vehicle for deep-space missions. Specifically, it calls for a vehicle initially capable of lifting 70-100 metric tons to orbit by the end of 2016, and which could be evolved to loft at least 130 metric tons for missions to Mars.

Although the act gave NASA 90 days to settle on a design for the new architecture and report back to Congress with plans for building it, the agency instead delivered a preliminary report to Capitol Hill in January, promising more details in the spring.

Rocket report due

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency is on track to deliver a final report to lawmakers “in the spring or summer” of this year. But in a keynote address at the conference here March 30, he said NASA is unlikely to need a vehicle capable of lifting 130 metric tons before the late-2020s.

“When we do our first flight some time toward the end of this decade, when we go to an asteroid in 2025 as the president has asked us to do, it will be on a vehicle that is not as capable as the one that will be required when we go to Mars because we don’t want to seal ourselves, lock ourselves in to a technology today that will be antiquated when we need it,” Bolden said. “So that’s the reason I use the term evolvable, developed in incremental steps. And when we get there it will be something that is as close to the state of the art as we can possibly be at that time.”

The NASA Authorization Act recommended a $2.6 billion budget for the heavy-lift vehicle next year; Obama’s 2012 budget request proposes just $1.8 billion for the effort. If Congress approves the request, NASA plans to spend that money finalizing the vehicle’s design requirements next year, though Bolden said he does not expect the agency to be ready to start work on the rocket for some time.

“We are not ready to start building in 2012,” he told Space News in an interview following his remarks, adding that NASA plans to spend the money “to begin robust planning of a specific system, not to do studies and the like.”

Todd May, an associate director at  NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the lead planner for SLS, said some of the $1.8 billion could be used to jump-start work on the new rocket if NASA opts for an architecture that leverages space shuttle or Constellation technologies, including work done to date on the Ares family of rockets.

“There are components of shuttle and Ares that could be used along the lines of getting a quick start on a heavy-lift vehicle, but that hasn’t been decided yet,” he said in an interview following remarks at the conference March 30. May said the money could also be used to fund continued work on Constellation’s J-2X upper-stage engine.

“In a number of architectures, even if you were to go away from shuttle-derived you could still use J-2X,” he said. “You’d have a lot of work on an upper stage if you were to exercise options on those contracts. You could use some pretty good money to move quickly on that.”

Heavy-lift rocket designs

However, Bolden said NASA does not expect to solicit industry proposals for the heavy-lift launch vehicle development for “at least a year.” He said the rocket and crew capsule programs must be “affordable, sustainable and realistic” and that NASA would seek outside cost estimates for the new architecture.

“We’re going to get independent entities to look at our work and if they say, ‘You can’t do what you said you’re going to do, it’s going to cost you much more than that,’ it may require us to go back and do some more homework,” he said.

Bolden said it will also be important to understand the degree to which NASA’s work force and infrastructure are involved in ground operations that will provide support to space exploration missions.

“We’re going to give [Congress] something to look at that is an integrated system of an SLS, MPCV and the ground operations portion that will work,” he said. “How we’re involved in the day-to-day operations of an exploration system will help determine the ground-ops side of it.”

The authorization act allows NASA to spend up to $500 million in 2012 to upgrade launch support and other ground infrastructure, including an effort to prepare NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., to support Space Launch System missions; Obama proposed  $128 million for the effort next year. Laurie Leshin, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s exploration systems, said while some of the launch upgrade funds would be used to pay for SLS ground support, the bulk of the money would come from the SLS and MPCV budgets, which could reduce the amount of money NASA has to spend on vehicle development.

“Part of it will be to support the SLS needs,” she said of the $128 million infrastructure funding line.

“We’ve got to work on what fraction of that is for SLS and then if there are additional needs, obviously those will need to be supported by SLS,” she said.

This article was provided bySpace News, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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