Deep-space mission on target, NASA chief Charles Bolden says

7:46 AM, Apr 26, 2013   |    comments
NASA artist concept of a super-sized Space Launch System rocket blasting off from Kennedy Space Center.
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WASHINGTON (Florida Today) -- NASA's administrator tried to reassure wary lawmakers Thursday that his agency isn't foot-dragging on a rocket to take astronauts into deep space by the next decade.

"We need a 70 metric-ton vehicle, and we are on schedule, on target and on cost to provide that 70 metric-ton vehicle," Charles F. Bolden Jr. told members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA funding.

NASA is asking for $17.7 billion for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1. That includes $2.73 billion to develop the Space Launch System (SLS) consisting of an Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle and the deep-space, "heavy-lift" rocket that will carry it first to an asteroid as early as 2021 and then to Mars by the 2030s.

The top Republican on the panel, Richard Shelby of Alabama, raised concerns that the amount NASA wants for SLS is some $200 million less than the agency received in fiscal 2012.

He questioned whether the proposed reduction is linked to the $300 million increase NASA is seeking for the Commercial Crew Program to help private companies develop a spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

"This budget focuses too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately funded commercial cargo and crew vehicles, which diverts critical resources from NASA's goal of developing human space flight capabilities with the SLS," Shelby told Bolden.

But Bolden said SLS remains one of the agency's top three priorities, along with development of the James Webb Space Telescope and the Commercial Crew Program.

The NASA administrator told senators that work on the deep-space mission is well underway.

He said the launch complex at Kennedy Space Center in Florida has been significantly upgraded, J-2X engines have been successfully tested at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and a major engine component has been tested at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

NASA simply doesn't need more than the $2.73 billion it's asking for SLS this year, Bolden said.

"We are confident that we can carry out his program with the budget that we had requested," he said.

Thursday's exchange reflected the tension between Congress and the administration over the direction of the space program in recent years, especially when budgets have grown tighter.

The concerns Shelby aired Thursday are similar to those lawmakers raised Wednesday at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing. Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said at that hearing he's "disheartened" by what he sees as NASA's "ever-changing goals."

Many lawmakers, especially Republicans, remain unhappy with President Barack Obama's decision in 2009 to scrap the Constellation program to return to the moon.

They now support NASA's planned missions to asteroids and Mars, but are far less enthusiastic about the Commercial Crew Program.

NASA says that's because the program has never been fully funded. The $525 million initially approved for the program in fiscal 2013 was well short of the $801 million the administration had requested.

The White House is seeking $821 million for the program in fiscal 2014, which Bolden said would keep it from falling further behind schedule.

Otherwise, NASA will have to keep paying Russia $63 million every time it sends an American astronaut to the space station.

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