One provision in the full-year fiscal year 2011 CR (which the House is scheduled to vote on later today) regarding NASA is language that the Space Launch System heavy-lift vehicle “shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons and which shall have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously.” That’s contrary to the language in the authorization act, which calls for initial development of an SLS that can place 70-100 tons into LEO that would later be upgraded to a 130-ton capacity. NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said on a number of occasions, including Monday’s Senate appropriations hearing, that the SLS would be an “evolving program” to ultimately reach that 130-ton goal.
So how did that 130-ton language get into the FY11 CR? According to the Huntsville Times, it was added by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA, at the request of another subcommittee member, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL). Aderholt’s north Alabama district is near, but does not include, the Marshall Space Flight Center, which would be the lead center for the SLS program. “Unfortunately, the signs I see are that NASA is more determined than ever to slow down the heavy-lift vehicle program,” Aderholt wrote in a letter to Wolf quoted in the article. Aderholt said in a later statement that the language reflected a joint effort with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and other members of the state’s congressional delegation to provide “a real future for our nation’s space program.”
Requiring NASA to move ahead with immediate development of a 130-ton HLV, with no initial, smaller vehicle first—if, in fact, that is how the provision is interpreted—will only add to NASA’s challenges. Early this year a preliminary NASA report concluded that the agency could not meet the authorization act’s 2016 deadline for putting the SLS into operation under the projected budget profile—and that was for the smaller 70-ton version, not the 130-ton vehicle now being pushed in the appropriations bill.