Robert Braun, the chief technologist for NASA, took note of some of the requirements for the Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Vehicle in the recently passed NASA authorization bill, and had a brave and true thing to say.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Braun said, “NASA engineers — not Congress — must determine the design of America’s next big spaceship to take humans beyond the moon.”
The NASA Authorization bill required that the new SD-HLV be built as much as possible from space shuttle hardware and other legacy parts of the now defunct Constellation program. Critics have suggested that Congress is attempting to do something it is not qualified to do, which is to design a rocket. Others maintain that all the Congress is doing is laying down detailed requirements, just as any other customer would do for a requested product.
What is left unmentioned in this particular controversy is that NASA engineers have already designed and were building a launch system that was supposed to take human explorers back to the Moon and beyond when they were overruled by the politicians in the Obama administration. That launch system was the Ares I, which was designed to take the Orion space craft to low Earth orbit, and the heavy lift Ares V, which would have taken an Altair lunar lander and an Earth departure stage to dock with the Orion. The combined space vehicle would have taken people back to the Moon.
When the Ares/Orion architecture was announced, the Internet erupted in protest. Some space activist organizations and some arm chair rocket scientists denounced the whole concept of the Ares/Orion system that they regarded as too expensive, unworkable, and-their favorite word-unsustainable. Various alternate concepts, such as a super heavy version of the Ares V or Delta IV, as well as one called “Direct” were proposed and argued about. In the meantime the development of the Ares and the Orion was scrutinize, with every technical challenge used as evidence that the project could never be completed, despite the fact that every space hardware development project runs into problems; why else have engineers hired to solve them?
Even the Augustine Committee, which proposed a number of alternative options to Constellation, concluded that the design of the Ares was technically sound, but that the project was being underfunded.
The Obama administration, agreeing with the Internet racketeers, decided that it did not want to build the Ares launch vehicles or the Orion, largely because it took the political decision that it was uninterested in going back to the Moon. Eventually the Congress forced the administration to accept the development of Orion and some kind of shuttle derived heavy lift vehicle to take it into space.
Now, with politics having already being interjected into rocket design by killing the Ares, it should come as no surprise that politics, in part, now is driving the design of its successor heavy lifter. Part of the reason for this is that Congress does not trust NASA to comply with congressional wishes. NASA Watch quotes a posting on the NASA Space Flight website by Jeff Bingham, a staffer on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation:
“Well, many of the same people who wrote the 2005 and 2008 Authorization Acts were involved in drafting S.3729, so they are VERY aware of the potential for ‘non-compliance.’ They are also very much aware of continuing efforts on the part of certain parties to ‘slow-roll’ or otherwise undermine the letter and intent of what will soon be signed into law. With regard to the bill itself, the very detailed report required in Section 309 is the first ‘early warning system’ built into the bill to ensure steps are taken towards compliance, well before the two-year scenario you described. If it appears that the completion of that report is being delayed arbitrarily and without justification, there are a number of fairly aggressive ‘oversight’ steps that can–and likely would–be taken that would ensure ‘transparency’ of those activities–and accountability for those undertaking them–which appeared intended to dilute or subvert the law.”
Congress has already had unhappy experience with the Obama-era NASA doing everything it could to throttle the Constellation program, using legal and political jujitsu, even though Congress had mandated that Constellation continue. So it is somewhat understandable that the oversight committees want to keep a tight rein on things.
Politics? You betcha. But the space agency crossed that Rubicon a long time ago.
Sources: NASA technology chief: We’ll decide what rocket we want to build, Robert Block, Orlando Sentinel, October 4th, 2010
Congressional Early Warning System for NASA Authorization Compliance, Keith Cowing, NASA Watch, October 6th, 2010