To hear members of Utah’s congressional delegation, the soundtrack on the ninth floor of NASA Headquarters these days is a certain Judas Priest song. “NASA has signaled an interest recently in possibly circumventing the law,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said in a statement after a meeting Thursday with NASA administrator Charles Bolden and deputy administrator Lori Garver. The law in question is the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, in particular the provision in Section 302 about the development of a “Space Launch System”, a heavy-lift launch vehicle. Hatch and other members of the state’s congressional delegation (most of whom also met with Bolden and Garver) are concerned that NASA might move in a direction that would cut out ATK, which manufactures solid rocket motors in the state.
What triggered this meeting isn’t clear, but one possibility is the award earlier this month of a number of heavy-lift studies “for evaluating heavy-lift launch vehicle system concepts, propulsion technologies, and affordability,” according to the NASA announcement of the awards. ATK received one of those contracts, but so did 12 other companies, including United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. “The studies will include heritage systems from shuttle and Ares, as well as alternative architectures and identify propulsion technology gaps including main propulsion elements, propellant tanks and rocket health management systems,” the release noted.
The idea of alternatives to shuttle- and Ares-derived concepts, both of which used solid rocket motors, is anathema to the Utah senators and congressmen. “I join my colleagues in admonishing NASA to strictly adhere to the law and use solid rocket motors in the development of the new Space Launch System,” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) said in the statement. “Today’s meeting confirms that we are in a long-term fight over the future of NASA’s manned space flight program,” added Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). “I remain very concerned that NASA continues to delay the transition from Constellation systems toward the new heavy-lift program while they needlessly explore private start-up technologies that remain unproven, require more money and are unfit for human-rated space travel.”
Just how NASA is “circumventing the law”, though, either with these studies or other work, isn’t clear. While report language that accompanies the bill specifically described their idea of an HLV, the law itself is vague and gives NASA some leeway. The law states that NASA “shall, to the extent practicable, extend or modify existing vehicle development and associated contracts… including contracts for ground testing of solid rocket motors, if necessary, to ensure their availability for development of the Space Launch System.” [emphasis added] Later in the same section: “The Administrator shall ensure critical skills and capabilities are retained, modified, and developed, as appropriate, in areas related to solid and liquid engines, large diameter fuel tanks, rocket propulsion, and other ground test capabilities for an effective transition to the follow-on Space Launch System.” [emphasis added] Phrases like “to the extent practicable”, “if necessary”, and “as appropriate” give NASA leeway to go in different directions if they determine something as specific as outlined in the legislation’s report language is not practicable, necessary, and/or appropriate.
Hatch acknowledges in Thursday’s statement that the act “does not require the new heavy-lift rocket to use solid rocket motors.” However, it adds, “delegation members say the Utah experts they consulted say the legislation’s requirements for the heavy-lift rocket can only be realistically met by using solid rocket motors.” Hatch did not sound like he was assured by what Bolden and Garver told him at Thursday’s meeting: “Though they assured us that NASA would comply with the law, some of their answers reaffirmed my suspicions that we need to keep a very close watch on the agency. I will continue with other delegation members to ensure the agency abides by the law and protects this industry that is so vitally important to our national security and northern Utah’s economy.”