Funding uncertainty trumps engineering in NASA's human exploration planning
Congress took time out from its last-minute hustle away from the â€śfiscal cliffâ€ť to declare its continued support for 's plans to send human explorers beyond low Earth orbit. The White House position is a little less clear. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) still hasn't responded to the space agency's internal budget proposal, known as a â€śpass-back,â€ť leaving program planners guessing on the critical question of future funding even as they march ahead on the technical work.
Top exploration-systems managers will meet for three days in Houston this week to review how well the separate human-exploration systems will work as an integrated whole, and identify the issues that must be resolved before humans fly into space on the vehicles they are developing. They don't expect any major technical issues, but their funding expires in March, and that is a problem.
â€śRight now, for [fiscal 2013], I'm working on a [continuing resolution] that ends March 27,â€ť says Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems. â€śI don't know what my funding level is after March 27, so the best thing you can do is to keep going.â€ť
Lawmakers reaffirmed their support for's current spending priorities in a housekeeping measure adopted in the final hours of the 112th Congress Jan. 2. The legislation, needed to extend government indemnification of third-party damages from commercial space launches and allow NASA to continue buying human-spaceflight services from Russia, also included â€śsense-of-Congressâ€ť language reaffirming support for a mix of government and commercial human space vehicles. The law specifically lists the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, and commercial crew and cargo space vehicles under development with NASA backing as â€śinherently complementary and interrelated,â€ť and it forbids the use of SLS or Orion funding to pay for commercial-vehicle development.
The sense-of-Congress approach isn't binding on the White House, which has made no secret of its preference for commercial human spaceflight over the government-backed SLS, sometimes dubbed the â€śSenate Launch System.â€ť But it sends a signal that Congress still supports the compromise embodied in NASA's 2010 authorization act. To be fair, uncertainty over the outcome of fiscal cliff negotiations may have delayed the OMB passback. But things are pretty far along for senior managers to be in the dark about their funding. The systems definition review atthis week will build on design work already done on the SLS, Orion and modifications at to make sure all of the requirements and interfaces match.
A highlight will come on Wednesday with formal announcement of the European Space Agency's participation in developing the Orion service module, using propulsion-system hardware from ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle (AW&ST Nov. 26, 2012, p. 13).
From an engineering standpoint, things are lining up well for the human-exploration program. The engineering test flight of an Orion capsule remains scheduled for September 2014. Designed to bring an instrumented test article back into the atmosphere at 80% of the speed it would see in a return from the Moon, the test flight will help engineers better determine mass margins on the capsule structure and heat shield. Right now, Orion is about 4,000 lb. too heavy for its recovery parachutes, and the flight-test results may help trim that (although Dumbacher stresses that the margins may also prove too light).
The first combined flight of an unmanned Orion on an SLS is scheduled in 2017 and the first flight with a crew for 2021. With a flat budget at the current $3 billion-a-year rate, and the relatively low level of development needed on the high-heritage systems, Dumbacher sees time to finish the work.
Deliberations at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the historic route President Barack Obama will follow to the White House from his second inauguration at the Capitol, may be another story.