NASA has sent Congress a report stating that it cannot meet the requirements that it produce a heavy-lift rocket by the current 2016 deadline -- or under the current allocated budget.
In the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, NASA was directed to develop a heavy-lift rocket in preparation to flights to an asteroid and possibly Mars.
NASA said it cannot produce this new rocket despite the fact that the agency would be using so-called "legacy" hardware -- components that have been employed in the shuttle program for the past 30 years. NASA would also utilize modern versions of engines used on the massive Saturn V rocket.
Now, approximately three months after the act was signed into law, NASA is telling Congress that they can't build the vehicles that will succeed the shuttle. At least, NASA said, not in the time allotted or for the amount allocated to them.
The agency expressed these inadequacies in a 22-page report that was submitted to Congress.
In the report, NASA said it "recognizes it has a responsibility to be clear with the Congress and the American taxpayers about our true estimated costs and schedules for developing the SLS and MPCV, and we intend to do so."
"Currently, our SLS (Space Launch System) 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 condition."
Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) who helped to draft and pass the NASA Authorization Act said that none of the rationale posted within the report provided justification for NASA not to meet its requirements.
Congress has been hoping to shore up any potential failings of the emerging commercial space market by having NASA design, in parallel, a heavy-lift rocket. That way, if these firms don't produce, the nation has a 'backup' in place.
NASA has essentially admitted that it cannot accomplish the task set in front of it. Congress might decide to take funds from other areas of the space agency's budget to fill in the projected shortfall. There have been some suggestions that these funds may come from those intended for Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
KSC has already been sent reeling from massive layoffs which are set to continue until the end of the shuttle program. There is no established program set to follow the space shuttle program.
Many have tried to compare the gap between shuttle and whatever is to follow to the gap between Apollo and shuttle, but this is a false analogy. At the end of Apollo the next program was established (the space shuttle was approved during the Apollo 16 mission).
As the twilight of the shuttle era nears there is no longer any established program. Under President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, the succeeding program was called Constellation and consisted of an Apollo-like capsule, man-rated rocket the Ares-I (based on a single shuttle solid rocket booster) and a unmanned heavy-lift booster, the Ares-V.
In Feb. 2010, President Obama essentially scrapped the Constellation Program, opting instead for a commercial lead in human spaceflight.
While Congress may have signed the directive to produce the new heavy-lift booster into law they haven't done as much to pay for it. NASA was supposed to receive $11 billion over the course of the next three years to build both the rocket as well as the Orion spacecraft.
Congress is now working to find ways to cut federal spending and NASA could find itself receiving far less than promised.