On Friday the president signed into law the final fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill, ending an appropriations process that started over a year ago. Passage of the bill last week was greeted relatively quietly, with a rather generic statement of appreciation from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who noted the bill gives NASA the funds to implement the programs in the authorization act despite “these tough fiscal times”. Lockheed Martin offered their thanks as well since the legislation provides a minimum of $1.2 billion for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the continuation of the Orion spacecraft the company was working on under Constellation.
But then there is the language in the appropriations bill about a “130-ton” heavy-lift launch vehicle. In a statement issued Monday, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) took credit for that, saying he “added language to the final Continuing Resolution for 2011 that requires NASA to fully develop its heavy lift capability.” Last week Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) said he had worked with Shelby and others to get that provision into the final bill. Shelby added the provision “saves over 500 jobs at the Marshall Space Flight Center”.
That language (specifically, that the heavy-lift vehicle funded in the bill “shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons and which shall have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously”) has raised concerns that it short-circuits the NASA authorization act last year that mandated a 70- to 100-ton vehicle that could later be upgraded to at least 130 tons. A congressional source familiar with the formulation of the legislation, though, said that’s not the case. Early versions of the language in the appropriations bill did call for an initial lift capacity of 130 tons, but that word was stricken from later versions. The language does require NASA to work simultaneously on the core elements as well as an upper stage that may be specific to the 130-ton version, but that work does not have to take place at the same pace, allowing NASA to focus more attention on an initial, smaller version while assuring Congress that it will evolve it later to the ultimate capacity.