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Stable Funding Crucial to NASA’s Human, Robotic Exploration Plans

The Andromeda Galaxy. Image Credit/NASA

NASA and the agency’s prime contractors for the Space Launch System and Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the primary elements of  the first U. S. human deep space exploration capability since the Apollo program and potential major new science initiatives, stressed the need for stable budgets before a House oversight panel on Wednesday.

However, that may be difficult as the 2012 fiscal year draws to a close on Sept. 30. With little prospect for passage of a 2013 budget by the House and Senate before a close November presidential election, the White House and Congress appear headed for agreement on a Continuing Resolution that would keep overall federal spending at 2012 levels through March.

And NASA spending on the SLS and Orion/MPCV would be limited to just 50 percent of 2012 appropriations during the CR period, Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development,  told the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.  The 2012 NASA budget for the two projects is $3 billion, $237 million more than the proposed 2013 budget.

NASA's first Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle arrives at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to undergo preparations for a 2014 flight test. Photo Credit/NASA

Current White House projections show NASA’s current overall budget of $17.7 billion unchanged annually through 2017, at best.

“Funding stability for any endeavor of this magnitude is critical to the program planning and success,” Dumbacher told the panel. “Instability in the funding forces re-planning, re-work. All of that effort takes away from our ability to execute and get the hardware developed.”

The SLS is a planned heavy lift rocket to propel U. S. astronauts to Mars, with intermediate missions, including the first human expedition to a near Earth asteroid by 2025.  NASA’s Apollo era, which included half-dozen human expeditions to the lunar surface, ended in the mid-1970s and was followed by the shuttle and International Space Station programs.

The shuttle was retired in 2011, leaving  the U. S. with no means of placing its own astronauts in space. ISS operations are currently scheduled to conclude in 2020.

Critical milestones for SLS and development of the four person Orion/MPCV include:

*The 2014 Exploration Flight Test-1 that would launch an unpiloted Orion/MPCV capsule into two elliptical orbits of the Earth to test the re-entry characteristics, including the heat shield and parachute landing systems. The test would use a Delta IV heavy launch vehicle.

*The 2017 Exploration Mission-1 would combine the SLS first stage with an unmanned Orion/MPCV for a test flight around the moon.

*The 2021 first operational mission of the SLS and Orion/MPCV with astronauts aboard. A destination has not been established.

“Simultaneous development of all the elements needed to get to the final configuration of the SLS won’t be possible under the flat budget profile,” cautioned Jim Chilton, Boeing’s vice president and program manger for exploration launch systems. Boeing is the SLS prime contractor.

NASA's Curiosity rover looks for evidence of habitable environments on Mars. Photo Credit/NASA

Lockheed Martin, NASA’s prime contractor for the Orion/MPCV, expressed similar concerns and a few more when it comes to recruiting and sustaining a skilled work force for the development efforts.

“We have had great luck attracting fresh young talent out of college. A lot of young people have joined these programs. They see it as a very attractive place to go,” testified Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager. “I’ve had experience with other programs where we started and didn’t finish. We don’t get those young people back. They begin to see this industry as unattractive. They have strong desire to start something and finish it.”

As envisioned, the SLS would start out with a capability to launch payloads of 70 metric tons to orbit. Upgrades in the propulsion system already under study would almost double the payload, making the new super rocket attractive for future astrophysics and planetary science missions.

Some of those candidate missions would launch large new space telescopes capable of looking for signs of life on planets circling other stars; retrieving samples of Martian soil and returning the material to Earth for analysis; or landing on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, to drill through the ice and search for life in the waters below, said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, home to Hubble and James Webb space observatory teams.

“Imagine being able to answer the question that stirs endless wonder across the millennia — are we alone?” said Mountain. “That answer is now within reach. Our imagination can become reality if NASA and the science community can find cost effective way to use the SLS.”




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