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Extreme weather derailed NASA’s launched dates for new spacecraft

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Photo: NASA

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group)- Members of Congress held a hearing with NASA on Capitol Hill Thursday to discuss the future of human spaceflight and space exploration.

President Donald Trump signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act in March 2017. The act approves the proposed funding levels for Fiscal Year 2017 set at $19.5 billion.

According to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee website the bill maintains “support for the James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System, the Orion crew vehicle, the International Space Station, and the commercial crew and cargo programs.”

Thursday’s hearing held by the Subcommittee on Spaces focused primarily on the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew vehicle, and improvements to ground infrastructure for these projects. Recent extreme weather like the tornadoes and hurricanes that affected Texas and Florida have led to some setbacks to NASA’s schedule for these programs.

NASA’s Space Launch System is a new advanced heavy lift rocket intended to become the next primary vehicle for space exploration and use in deep space. NASA’s website calls the rocket “the world’s most powerful rocket.”

“Offering the highest-ever payload mass and volume capability and energy to speed missions through space, SLS is designed to be flexible and evolvable, to meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs,” according to NASA.

Engineers have already begun production on this rocket and NASA intends on making its first launch before 2020. The rocket will launch astronauts in the new Orion spacecraft. Orion was built with the similar expectation to transport astronauts into deep space and return them to earth.

NASA has two projected missions for Orion in the near future called exploration missions one and two. The first mission will last about 25 days, and no crew will ride in the crew capsule.

“Orion will make a large orbit around the moon. The spacecraft will go farther into space than people have traveled before. After Orion is tested on this mission, it will soon be time for the spacecraft to transport humans,” NASA states.

The second mission, also known as exploration mission two, will carry a crew and follow the same path as the first mission.

“Then, in the 2020s, Orion will carry astronauts to an asteroid. In the 2030s, NASA’s goal is for Orion to carry the first human explorers to Mars,” NASA states.

Space subcommittee Chairman Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, opened the hearing by putting his support behind the “steppingstone” approach to a manned mission to Mars. Meaning that the NASA would aim to travel back to the moon and use the moon as a staging area for an eventual Mars mission.

“The bill that originated with this committee directed NASA to stay the course with SLS and Orion. It also reaffirmed congressional and presidential direction for NASA to utilize a steppingstone approach to exploration,” Babin said.

Ranking Member Ami Bera, D- Calif., echoed the chairman’s concerns of not meeting projected launch dates.

“An April 2017 report, GAO (Government Accountability Office) found that despite SLS Orion and EGS activities, making progress, schedule pressure is escalating as tactical challenges continue to cause delays. GAO characterized NASA’s planned launch date of November 2018 as precarious,” Bera said.

Chairman of House Science, Space and Technology Committee Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, expressed his frustration at the shifting deadline.

“Funding for the exploration systems development now is nearly $4 billion a year. The Government Accountability Office reported last spring that the first launch of the SLS likely will be delayed a year from late 2018 to late 2019. Delays with the European service module also could push this into 2020,” Smith said.

The chairman then issued a stern warning.

“NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” Smith said.

Witness and Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration William H. Gerstenmaier urged the subcommittee not to focus on a single launch date.

“We need to be careful and not focus on a single launch date projection but rather take time to examine the quality, quantity and future benefit of the work completed,” Gerstenmaier said. “NASA is taking additional steps to reduce schedule risk for both known and unknown issues and protect for the earliest possible launch date.”

Witness, former astronaut and Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Dr. Sandra Magnus said that budget constraints and consistent funding challenges have repercussions on these projects.

“The politics of the situation give it no freedom to adjust overhead, either facilities or civil workforce, whether in size or skill set, as well as in some cases, the management of task assignments around the agency,” Magnus said. “Starting and stopping in our industry is really not healthy.”

While many on the committee also expressed their desire to ensure a manned mission to Mars reaches the red planet by the 2030s Gerstenmaier advised the committee not to think of only one destination.

“I think we need to be careful and I don’t pick destinations. I talk more about building a capability or the expanding bubble that Sandy described, Gerstenmaier said. We kind of move out into the solar system and we bring the commercial sector the economy with us as we move. I’m looking at a much longer strategic vision than a particular destination.”

He added that continued constraints by the financial environment inhibit their progress.