If two recent stories are any indication, the ongoing budget battle between supporters of NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System and the Commercial Crew program is about to enter a new and very unproductive phase. In an interview in the Huntsville Times, Alabama representative Robert Aderholt said in referring to a proposed $110 million decrease in the budget for SLS/Orion in NASA’s FY 2014 budget request, that the $821 million request for Commercial Crew “is not defensible.”
In a similar vein, Spacepolicyonline.com relayed comments by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, that cuts to Orion, “were not politically possible” due to the influence of Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, whom she went on to praise profusely.
Although Mikulski is the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the deference to Shelby seems to represent a very unfortunate Faustian pact between two powerful Senators each supporting their own respective projects regardless of the consequences. For Mikulski, the object of her affection is the massively over budget and long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, which compared to SLS, does at least have a defined mission, and also appears to be on a stable track.
Both comments are indicative of the ongoing insistence on linking a funding level for SLS/Orion, one which NASA says it does not need at the moment, and will not speed up the first launch in any event, to that for Commercial Crew. As reported last week, NASA states rather emphatically that by contrast, it does require the requested level for enabling a Commercial Crew first flight to ISS in 2017. In that same conference, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden went on to stress the point that after a three year plateau, Commercial Crew funding would drop off quickly, well in advance of a first crewed flight for SLS and Orion, now scheduled for 2021.
Despite the warnings, it appears that the same elements which have previously cut Commercial Crew, are preparing to dig in and fight hard to keep Russia in the business of launching American astronauts. What is different now, is the sense that at least among some supporters of Commercial Crew, there is an eagerness to take a live and let live approach, fund both, and see what the results are. Unfortunately, it does not look like the sentiment is catching on, suggesting a stormy summer until the budget is resolved one way or another.
One particularly ironic development is that Representative Aderholt is one of the co-signers of the REAL Space Act, a bill re-introduced introduced last week “directing NASA to develop a plan for returning to the moon and establishing a human presence there.” While the findings section of the act makes no bones about the fact that NASA should use the SLS and Orion to achieve its ultimate goals, the “mission” section is not perhaps not specific enough, saying only that the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall plan to return to the Moon by 2022 and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon.”
Given the fact that NASA is already performing more than a bit of verbal gymnastics with its plan to “go to an asteroid” by bringing the asteroid closer to Earth, how much harm could ensure from applying an equally creative approach to legislation which has no chance of passing, and least begin the “planning” called for by offering to purchase data obtained by Golden Spike should it succeed in conducting a crewed mission prior to the letter’s 2022 date. In addition to the data, that should provide a nice baseline for what it actually costs to go to the Moon with existing technology.