After President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center last week, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said that while he supported the president’s plan in general, “we’ll change some things” in Congress, suggesting that accelerating development of a heavy-lift vehicle would be one of them. “I think we can make the decision much sooner” than 2015, he said. Wednesday, he took a step to do just that.
Nelson announced that he had won an extra $726 million for NASA in the FY2011 budget resolution that was marked up Wednesday by the Senate Budget Committee, on which Nelson serves. The additional money, he said, would be used for continued work on a heavy-lift vehicle. “If we’re going to Mars, as the president has said, then let’s get going,” he said in a statement. “We shouldn’t wait five years.”
In comments during the markup (which can be viewed in this video clip), Nelson elaborated on this, suggesting that such a heavy-lift vehicle would be derived from the Ares family of vehicles that would be canceled under the president’s plan. The additional funding, he said, would be used because “as we are confronting a program of testing a large-diameter solid rocket motor, which is critical to the Department of Defense, and of which is a good example of one hand of the federal government not knowing what the other hand was doing – Defense Department and NASA – and NASA goes in and cancels this test.”
Nelson, in comments directed to committee chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), played up the connection between this NASA development and national security. “You have allowed in this the flexibility of continuing the testing for that big solid rocket motor called the Ares 1-X, which will not only be important to the future of us getting out of low Earth orbit by building a heavy-lift vehicle for NASA, but is going to be critical to the solid rocket motors that protect this country’s national security.”
Nelson’s comments are somewhat puzzling since the Ares 1-X was a specific test that took place last year, and is not itself a “big solid rocket motor”. The statement from his office makes no mention of Ares or solid rocket motors, but does mention that “The Pentagon is worried about delaying this decision and the effect it might have on the rocket industry”, an apparent reference to previous concerns about the solid rocket motor industrial base.
Conrad, who could be seen in the video nodding as Nelson spoke, concurred in his own comments. “There are classified discussions that we can’t go into here with respect to this initiative, but I would say to my colleagues, this is absolutely essential for the national security that this go forward,” Conrad said. “And I think every member of this committee understands what I’m talking about. So I hope very much that this will be retained and we’re going to have to fight for this.”
Conrad is referring to the fact that the budget resolution is just that—a non-binding resolution that plays a role in the later appropriations process, but does not constrain appropriators to fund a specific program.