Thursday, March 29, 2012

Back to the drawing board for NASA

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to go back to the drawing board so the agency will meet its goal of developing a new spacecraft that will go to the space station within a couple of years.

Hutchison made the remarks on Wednesday during a Congressional hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2013 budget request. She is the Ranking Member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I am concerned about the budget that the Administrator is putting forward today,” Hutchison said. “NASA's priorities as we all agreed to in a meeting in my office just a few months ago were, number one, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).”

James Webb Space Telescope

NASA's successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and the agency’s largest science project—JWST—however, has experienced development cost growth of $3.6 billion—or 140 percent—and a schedule delay of over four years, according to a report released this month from the Government Accountability Office.

“It has been thoroughly reviewed and appropriately funded,” Hutchison said. “It is a priority which is funded as anticipated.”

The second priority is the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule.

Space Launch System and Orion

These two systems would send astronauts on deep space missions beyond low Earth orbit. SLS and Orion were studied inside and outside of NASA, and again, independently, before finally being allowed to move forward, Hutchinson said.

“The resulting independent analysis said the budget assumed in that analysis for the first three to five years, which was what we had agreed would be the amount, was accurate and provided what was needed to maintain schedule,” she said. “So of course I was surprised when I got the call that NASA was going to cut this part of the budget by $174 million (Orion). This is a case where NASA has chosen to say it's a priority but has deliberately cut the funding that was assumed to assure that it could maintain its schedule. This is of course a great concern to me and to the members of congress who agreed with these priorities and thought we had the agreement from NASA.”

Hutchinson said, “NASA claims its priorities but what is said and what is being proposed don't really match.”

Number three, the final priority is the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Commercial Crew Program

The goal of CCP is to develop a new commercial crew space transportation capability that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit.

CCP received a proposed increase of 104 percent over last year in the budget request. This is being asked for without any type of independent cost verification for the program, and at $830 million, exceeds the authorized amount for CCP by $330 million.

“I do support commercial crew,” Hutchinson said. “However, I think NASA is continuing to throw money at too many companies with a hope of flying astronauts and not doing what it has done, which is to undertake a study for the commercial crew similar to what you've done with Orion and SLS, including an independent analysis of options and then funding the programs that NASA believes have the most hope of gaining what we all want, which is the quickest American provided commercial crew vehicle to the space station as possible.”

“So I hope NASA will go back to the drawing board and support commercial crew in a fiscally responsible way so that we can all, once again, be on the same page for our goals, which is a commercial crew vehicle that will go to the space station within a couple of years,” Hutchinson said.

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