By LEDYARD KING,Gannett Washington Bureau, and TODD HALVORSON, FLORIDA TODAY
WASHINGTON – Key lawmakers who had criticized the Obama administration’s handling of NASA’s new super-sized rocket were all smiles Wednesday as the agency unveiled the project’s design.
They also predicted Congress will come up with the $30 billion it will cost over the next decade or so to continue deep space exploration.
“This is a day that we have been looking forward to for a long time,” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., said at a Capitol Hill news conference as she stood in front of an artist’s rendering of the heavy-lift rocket. “It’s really a new beginning. That’s what we’ve been looking for since our last shuttle came down.”
The Space Launch System rocket NASA unveiled Wednesday will propel astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars the following decade, senior Obama administration officials told FLORIDA TODAY.
An evolvable launch vehicle more than 30 stories tall, it will be the most powerful American rocket since the Saturn V that took Apollo astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Riding atop the rocket will be NASA’s Orion crew capsule.
An initial unmanned test flight is slated for 2017. A first piloted shakedown cruise would follow in 2021.
Astronauts then would make preparatory voyages about once a year before heading to an asteroid in 2025.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who joined lawmakers at Wednesday’s news conference, called the project “the cornerstone of our deep space human exploration program.”
“President Obama has challenged us at NASA to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.
But lawmakers, notably Hutchison and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, say the administration has been too slow to release details of the heavy-lift rocket’s design.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has subpoenaed records about the design, and Hutchison said Wednesday there were concerns some administration officials have tried to “sabotage” the project by floating cost projections close to twice the true estimates.
“Now that the administration has come forward, everyone is on the same page,” she said. “I think we’re moving forward as a team ... and that’s where we want to be.”
NASA’s announcement comes as lawmakers work to make dramatic spending cuts to reduce the nation’s debt, now at about $14.7 trillion
“We are in an era in which we have to do more with less across the board,” Nelson said. “The competition for dollars will be fierce.”
Senior administration officials say the heavy-lift development program will cost $3 billion per year. That’s about the same amount NASA spent to run the space shuttle program in 2009.
“We are trying to make this as affordable and sustainable as possible,” an administration official said. “That’s a large part of what we’ve been doing over the last year.”
Nelson said cost estimates have been vetted by independent third parties and are accurate for a project taxpayers truly support.
“I can tell you in the bosom of every American, there is a yearning for us to explore the heavens,” said Nelson, who flew on shuttle Columbia with a crew that included Bolden in January 1986.
The heavy-lift rocket, which will launch from Kennedy Space Center, will leverage billions of dollars in investments already made in the shuttle program and the cancelled Constellation return-to-the-moon project.
Here’s a look at the rocket’s main components:
-- The vehicle’s core stage will be a stretched version of the shuttle’s bullet-shaped external tank. It will be powered at first by three and later five space-shuttle main engines. An upgraded version will be developed after the current inventory of shuttle engines is exhausted during test-flights.
-- The second stage will be powered by a J2X engine, already in development. An advanced version of a Saturn V second-stage engine, the J2X would have been the second stage of the Constellation project’s Ares I and Ares V rockets.
-- The rocket will be equipped with either shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters or liquid-fueled boosters.
A booster contract competition will be based on cost and performance requirements. Administration officials envision potential cost savings and improved performance.
The White House considers the heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule programs crucial parts of an affordable program that calls for:
-- Extending International Space Station operations to at least 2020.
-- Investing in the development of commercial spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station and other low Earth orbit destinations.
“It really is critical that we pair this with the commercial crew program,” a senior administration official said. “That is the way that NASA is going to have sustainable resources in the long run to be able to focus on deep space.”
The new initiative is important to Florida’s Space Coast, where thousands of jobs have disappeared with completion of the International Space Station assembly and the retirement of the shuttles.
Administration officials said the heavy-lift development program would provide a “stable future” for KSC, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss. – NASA’s four major human space flight facilities.
“I think we’re preserving high-tech jobs here that will be producing innovation over the coming decade that will be useful to the space program,” a senior administration official said.
The shutdown of the 30-year-old shuttle program dropped the work force at KSC from 15,000 NASA and contractor employees in 2008 to 9,000 now. Nelson said he believes employment will begin to edge up as NASA invests money in upgrading ground systems for the heavy-lift launch vehicle.
“Now that that this is decided, and if we get the funding for it, which we think we will get, you start to see at the Kennedy Space Center immediately the redoing of the ground support equipment, the launch facilities that have to be redesigned for this big rocket," Nelson said.
Additionally, Nelson noted that work on the Orion spacecraft will begin to pick up.
"You will see the development of this capsule that is already underway. And the assembly of that capsule will be at Kennedy Space Center," he said. "All of these are starting to add jobs."
Test flights between 2017 and 2025 also will bring new jobs.
"And so as you ramp up to those tests, you increasingly employ the launch team for the big new rocket. And then you go through a series of tests getting up to the first human flight on the big new rocket in 2021. That’s all adding people," Nelson said.
The plan for a heavy-lift rocket emerged in Congress last year with the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010. It called on NASA to develop a rocket that initially could carry at least 70 to 100 metric tons into orbit – about three to four times the capacity of the retired space shuttle.
The vehicle would evolve into a rocket that could haul 130 metric tons – roughly five times the capability of the shuttle and about the equivalent of the Saturn V moon rocket.
Obama signed the legislation last fall and required NASA to report back within 90 days on its design for the rocket.
The agency did so in January, sending a report that said the job could not be done with $11 billion by 2016 – the funding limit and deadline date set by key congressional leaders.
At $3 billion per year, the new plan would cost $18 billion through an initial test flight in 2017, and about $30 billion through the first piloted mission in 2021.
The heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft then would become the workhorses of inner solar system exploration -- the vehicles enabling mankind once again to explore beyond the grasp of Earth’s gravity.
So why did it take until September for NASA to nail down a design?
“We think the timetable is appropriate for the level of investment that we’re asking the American taxpayers to make here,” a senior administration official said. “It’s the most important (space program) decision we will make for at least the next decade. We wanted to take the time to get it right.”
Contact Ledyard King at email@example.com or Todd Halvorson at firstname.lastname@example.org. King reported from Washington, D.C.; Halvorson reported from Kennedy Space Center.
ABOUT THE IMAGES: Click to enlarge any of the NASA artist concepts. The first and third show the Space Launch System a Kennedy Space Center. The second shows NASA's Orion spacecraft flying in dp space. You can also click the enlarged versions to get an even bigger, more detailed view. Credit: NASA.