Today, on the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's historic speech at Rice University about America's challenge to land a man on the moon, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to examine the ongoing development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Crew Capsule and to discuss how these human exploration technologies can also be used for future scientific missions. Testifying before the Subcommittee were Mr. Daniel Dumbacher, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); Mr. Cleon Lacefield, Vice President and Orion Program Manager for Lockheed Martin Corporation; Mr. Jim Chilton, Exploration Vice President for The Boeing Company; and Dr. Matt Mountain, the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Three successive NASA Authorization Acts have directed NASA to undertake a program of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The most recent of those Authorization Acts, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, directed NASA to develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle known as the Space Launch System (SLS) and a multipurpose crew vehicle (MPCV) to be used to enable crewed missions to destinations beyond low Earth orbit as well as provide a backup capability for cargo and crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). In May 2011 NASA announced that the Orion crew capsule that was being developed for the Constellation program would be the MPCV, and in September 2011, NASA issued a final decision on the configuration of the SLS. Congress has called for a systematic, step-by-step program of human exploration of the solar system involving missions to the Moon, the Lagrangian points, asteroids, the moons of Mars, and ultimately Mars. NASA's current development plan includes an uncrewed test flight of the Orion crew capsule in 2014, the first integrated SLS and Orion uncrewed test flight in 2017, and a crewed test flight by 2021.
Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-MI) said in his opening statement, "As Members of Congress we need to do our part in helping to keep the SLS and Orion programs on track. While we need to ensure that the program is making wise decisions and prudent use of the funds provided to it, we also need to ensure that NASA is given the resources and stability that will allow SLS and Orion to succeed." During questions and answers, he emphasized the importance of programs such as Orion and SLS to getting our young people engaged in cutting edge technologies, characterizing them as investments that advance the goals of STEM and strengthen workforce skills.
Mr. Lacefield said "It remains critically important that Congress maintain FY2013 funding at the current level to ensure timely and successful implementation of the Orion crew module in 2014, as well as outyear budgets to support a robust crew safety-risk mitigation demonstration test leading to the first crewed mission." Mr. Chilton discussed the challenges of continuing development of SLS with flat funding discussing how flat funding prohibits simultaneous development of different elements of SLS. Mr. Dumbacher said, "Currently the major challenges to the programs are not primarily technical. Rather the challenges are in maintaining program stability while acquiring the Orion and SLS systems so that the next elements of the Exploration enterprise can be developed."
In her statement for the record, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said, "It is clear that NASA and its contractor team have made significant progress under very challenging conditions. They are turning designs and concepts into hardware and software and are moving forward towards flight tests in spite of funding that has been significantly less than authorized. However, they can't do it alone. We--Congress and the White House--can set them up for failure if we disrupt their funding and programmatic plans in the name of short-term cost savings or if we allow the funding that Congress provides for these programs to be reallocated or otherwise restricted within NASA during the upcoming Continuing Resolution. We will need to guard against both dangers in the coming months."
The Subcommittee also discussed how SLS could be used to enable the expansion of scientific missions like constructing large space telescopes and planetary probes and sending sophisticated robotic laboratories to the outer reaches of the solar system, as well as the importance of the SLS and Orion programs in engaging the nation's students in challenging and inspiring programs.
Ms. Johnson said, "I am fully aware that we are facing lots of constraints and I fully acknowledge that we have some real concerns about how we're going to be able to fund. But I'm also aware that until we out innovate, and, we only can innovate through research, our economy is really not going to get much better. So I'm hoping that you will keep the pressure on us to stay on track. Because when you just reflect; we are aware that where we are today basically came from this type of research. And where we're going to be tomorrow, it will come from this research. It will either be done here in partnership, or it will be done somewhere else. If it's not done by the United States, or not a major part, we'll be watching it as spectators. So I will just simply say, to keep the pressure up, keep young people intrigued, so we can continue to educate the manpower we need. We simply cannot afford to do without this research."