Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) headlined a hastily arranged press event in the Senate this morning announcing the long awaited decision on the design of the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other Members of Congress were also there and NASA will hold a more detailed media teleconference at noon today with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier. The Senate Appropriations Committee is marking up the bil that includes NASA beginning this afternoon, making the SLS announcement particularly timely.
At the Senate event, Senator Nelson stated that the cost of the SLS will be $10 billion through 2017. The main purpose of the SLS is to launch astronauts to destinations beyond low Earth orbit in a spacecraft called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Nelson said the MPCV cost through 2017 would be $6 billion, and the cost of associated ground facilities is $2 billion in that time frame, a total of $18 billion. That is essentially $3 billion per year for the next five years.
The press conference did not gloss over the fact that the White House and Congress have been at loggerheads over the program. Congress directed NASA to build the SLS and MPCV in the 2010 NASA authorization act as a compromise with the Obama Administration, but Hutchison and Nelson have accused the Obama Administration of deliberately undermining the law.
Hutchison referenced that in her remarks this morning. She said that the Wall Street Journal article last week asserting that the White House was in a state of "sticker shock" over the cost of the program was the tipping point, and that she, Nelson and others met with Administration officials including the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Jacob Lew, yesterday to iron things out.
Hutchison is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that authorizes NASA activities and is also the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that appropriates NASA's funding, so is an especially powerful influence on NASA in the Senate.
She and other congressional speakers this morning focused on the future and how delighted they are that everyone is now working together. Retaining the skilled aerospace workforce that might otherwise be decimated with the termination of the space shuttle program and ensuring U.S. preeminence in space exploration were recurring themes at the press conference.
Two House members, both Democrats, spoke at the Senate event: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee, and Rep. Chaka Fattah, ranking member of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA.
Their Republican counterparts, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of HSS&T, and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, chose instead to issue their own press release (which also included Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the HSS&T subcommittee that oversees NASA). They expressed satisfaction that the decision finally had been made, but used the opportunity to sharply criticize the Obama Administration. While Hutchison remarked on the unplesantness of watching sausage being made, her focus was on the fact that everyone was now in agreement. The three House Republicans instead complained stridently about the Administration's "obstructionism," which they assert has cost "thousands of American jobs." The HSS&T committee will hold a hearing on the future of the human spaceflight program on September 22.
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