Senate’s New NASA Plan: Heavy Lift, Extra Shuttle Mission, Less Commericial and Tech Development

The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation today unanimously approved legislation that would add a shuttle mission and jump start work on a heavy-lift rocket next year. The NASA Reauthorization Act effectively cancels the Constellation program, but directs NASA to begin work immediately on a new heavy-lift vehicle to be ready by 2016, along with a crew vehicle. The new legislation takes money away, however, from two main focuses on Obama’s proposed budget: commercial space development and funding for innovation and breakthrough technologies.

Commercial space ventures would only get $1.6 billion for development in the next three years, as opposed to Obama’s plan for $3.3 billion on commercial rocket companies between 2011 and 2013.

Obama had proposed $6 billion over five years for technology development whereas the new Senate bill funds advanced technologies at about $950 million over three years.

Both of these components are a big disappointment for those looking towards the future and not necessarily honing in on the short-term of the next few years.

The plan, mainly spearheaded by Florida Senator Bill Nelson is said to be a compromise between Obama’s plan and those in Congress who opposed it.

“The goal was to preserve U.S. leadership in space exploration and keep as much of the rocket-industry talent as possible employed,” said Nelson, following Thursday’s unanimous approval of the authorization bill.

Nelson said extending the space shuttle into 2011 keeps much of the KSC workforce in place and advances heavy-lift rocket development, with an eye toward manned flights nearly a decade earlier than 2025, as had been proposed by the White House. It also provides the money for operating the International Space Station through 2020.

Some, including business and space advocates on the Space Coast, were critical of the draft bill because it scaled back President Obama’s proposed funding for that program and for technology development, both of which could create jobs.

The heavy lift development would be started now instead of 2015, as proposed by Obama.

But is creating a heavy-lift vehicle by 2016 doable, or is it basically asking NASA to do too much with too little – to which Constellation fell victim?

Although Nelson said the bill would support an overall growth in science, aeronautics, and space technology and define a long-term goal for human space flight to expand a permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit, no particular destination was cited.

The ISS would remain funded until 2020.

Here are they key differences between Obama’s budget plan and the Senate’s Reauthorization Act:

Space Shuttle
Obama: end in February, 2011
Senate: end in late summer, 2011

Commercial Space:
Obama: $3.3 billion for 2011-2013
Senate: $1.6 billion during the same time period

Constellation Program
Obama: Cancel, but continue with a “lite” version of the Orion space capsule
Senate: Cancel but accelerate development of a heavy-lift rocket that can also carry astronauts to low-earth orbit and continue development of an Orion-like space capsule

Technology Development
Obama: Fund Flagship Technologies program at $6 billion over five years
Senate: Fund advanced technologies at about $950 million over three years

For education the new bill would support new education initiatives, such as teacher training programs, to reinforce NASA’s role in developing a workforce with strong science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills.

The bill would require NASA to look at alternative management models for NASA’s workforce, centers, and capabilities, while enforcing short-term prohibitions on major center displacements and reductions-in-force until a job study is completed.

Weigh in on your opinions below. What’s next? The White House will probably respond with another compromise, and those who work at NASA will remain in limbo while another compromise is worked on.

Further reading:
Nelson Press Release of NASA 2010 Reauthorization Act
Orlando Sentinel: Better Course on Space
Houston Chronicle: (Sci Guy) White House May be Inclined to Support Senate Bill
Letter from former astronauts supporting Commercial Crew Transport
Letter from former astronauts against Obama plan (MSNBC)

36 Replies to “Senate’s New NASA Plan: Heavy Lift, Extra Shuttle Mission, Less Commericial and Tech Development”

  1. The US really is composed of idiots isn’t it… Finally it looked as though there was a half decent plan for space exploration! But NO, the Senate did not have the guts to use it.

    There is no way for me to express my frustration. Ultimately, if the USA wants to create jobs related to the space industry and wants to have a permanent presence in space they are going to need commercial space exploration. Competition is the only way that will make spaceflight economical!

    I could rant on for thousands of words, but I’ll just add one last thing. Why is NASA going to develop a space capsule to get into LEO if there are commercial companies already doing it for them?

  2. That was what I said, never look at what they say, always look at what they do.

    Heavy lift and Orion I am happy about this. It keeps human space-flight in the loop.

  3. As I understand it, the Senate proposal is to hamper the most future directed part of the new space plan, the heavy lifter, with two things it was never intended for:

    – Keeping current solid rocket boosters.
    – Converting it to a man capable lifter.

    Both of these will cost unnecessarily.

    The former especially will also cost future jobs as it keeps old technology as political pork instead of going for development.

    The later especially will also cost future lives as it keeps the unsafe shuttle configuration (a heavy lifter) against the CAIB recommendations.

    On an ironic note a commenter elsewhere noted that the Orion can’t be used for ISS if there are commercial alternatives at that time (due to US legislation, I believe). I take it a manned LEO lift to transit may be juridically iffy as well. (I.e. later boarding of an NEO craft from an LEO craft is legal.)

    Maybe that is why they saddled the commercial alternatives with a wait until -12 at the earliest before getting any go ahead. Sigh!

    Well, at least this bantha poodoo can’t pass the more sane minds of the WH as noted in the article. Another compromise may be the ticket.

  4. Yay! I may have solved my UT problems: I _ban UT_ in NoScript and everything works. (And without annoying ads, I note.)

    “- No, let go of that! Sit! Bad, bad site!”

  5. The White House will probably respond with another compromise, and those who work at NASA will remain in limbo while another compromise is worked on

    UT, that is a sagacious call for such a controversial subject.
    The Bill is highly unlikely to be signed in it’s present form as (1) the administration has the power and patience to veto any deviation from the path it selected in the Augustine Commission’s report, (2) the Bill reduces support for the increased commercialization necessary to bring viability back to the US manned space programme, (3) the Bill is logically and chronologically challenged in bringing forward the heavy lifter programme without specific, fully funded and well advanced missions-for-use in place and (4) the Bill is narrowly and blatantly scoped around what’s best for Sen. Nelson’s re-election hopes i.e. local job retention (an alternative view of this pork barrel politicking, without the sugar coating, is that Shuttle workers have had over four years notice of impending redundancy. One doesn’t usually get that much notice and they aren’t the biggest issue at stake here).
    So UT is right and these are only the opening rounds.
    Those following the suggested “further reading” might also include the recent statement from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board which dismiss some of Sen. Nelson’s key views on the new direction.

  6. This is great! If anyone sees this as not being beneficial they clearly do not understand the logistics of the space program.

    This uses the Orion spacecraft for something that is actually useful… and ISS lifeboat is really not anything we need a Soyuz capsule with technology from the 70s and 80s could be used for this purpose so there would be no reason to waste this amazing piece of innovation to be used for such a purpose.

    The development of a heavy lift launcher is all NASA needs in principle to get to Mars. Using the Mars Semi-Direct plan advocated by Robert Zubrin it would be possible to start a human settlement on Mars if we could develop a new reliable series of heavy lift launchers to send HABs, ERVs, etc. to Mars!


  7. I agree with Restoration. For anything and everything outside of LEO, the Space X’s of the world have absolutely no incentive or technology for. It is 100% in NASA’s mission to explore deeper into space, places that make no business sense (but do make good science and exploration sense), and they need heavy lift capabilities to do it. The original plan had heavy lift technologies in never never land of research and far off dates, punting major decisions to administrations and congresses of the future.

    We really can’t afford to slack off on our technological prowess and leadership (and yes, you can rant cynically, but we are still amazing at those things.) But we do face threats from many countries that don’t whine so much and just do it (China, India, Japan, etc.)

  8. This is great news. I always thought it was a huge mistake to throw all our eggs in the commercial market. Hopefully the Direct proposal will be looked at seriously by NASA this time around.
    Also using Orion as a manned alternative to SpaceX Dragon is just plain smart. Using Orion as just an ISS lifeboat is a waste of money as Soyuz already does that. Now Orion has a real mission, not only LEO but deep space.
    Funding, while reduced, is still there for commercial. I actually believe people at SpaceX might actually be breathing a sigh of relieve (even though they will not admit to it) as Dragon is not the only option now for manned spaceflight. SpaceX can now man rate the Falcon 9 and Dragon on a commercial timeframe and not have the pressure of having to get something flying as timeframes slip, which they will. Whoever thinks different has no idea how hard it is to fly a manned spacecraft into orbit and getting the crew home safe.

  9. @Mr Redstone,

    The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has instructed NASA, for reasons of crew safety, that all new launch systems be divided into separate crew and cargo launch vehicles (hence the previous plan of Ares I for crew and Ares V for cargo). This rules out the combined cargo and crew approach that DIRECT follows and would be is serious overkill if ever used in a crew only mode.

    SpaceX is not the only COTS partner, there is also Orbital Science Corp. and both have contracts to fly crewed and freight missions to the ISS. Dragon has never been the only option.

    Boeings CST-100 crew capsule and the SpaceX and OSC crew capsules are available at a fraction of Lockheed-Martins Orion which is why that project has been trimmed back to Orion-Lite.

    Meanwhile, Sen. Nelson can and is promising anything he likes, he’s not paying for it and this is just the bargaining position we are seeing.

  10. @Spoodle58
    Yes sir, red tape is a big hassle, as are red ink and red faces.

    Sen. Nelson’s (D-Fl) attempt to reschedule the Heavy Lifter programme is one thing. But coupled with his simultaneous efforts to thwart commercialization, his true agenda becomes clear. He’s trying to avoid competing with stuff like this, after all that would mean jobs for California and not jobs for Florida. No wonder Sen. Boxer (D-Ca.) criticises the Bill saying “more could be done to foster development of commercial cargo and crew capabilities” and wants “more depth in the commercial side”.

    It would be a mistake to prejudge what or when the best Heavy Lifter for NASA might be, so it’s important not to be rushed into buying a quick Persian rug from self-severing politicians whoever they are.

  11. @TerryG
    Understand that SpaceX is not the only COTS partner, but OSC has a long way to go. SpaceX is at least 1 year ahead of them. Which raises the point that when the shuttle is retired, SpaceX will be under increasing pressure to get Dragon flying. Keep in mind they have not even tested a launch escape system yet. To assume that both SpaceX and OSC will not suffer any setbacks is not real life in this industry, which is why Orion, Orion lite and or the new Boeing CST-100 (only annouced this past June) needs to be all on the table. Orion is expensive also in part because of the infrustructure needed for deep space.
    In addition to go ahead and develope Orion-lite (which I believe was only a polical move) and only use it as crew rescue, makes no sense when you have either COTS or Soyuz providing the same function. Better to just kill Orion all together if that is the only mission.
    As far as the Columbia’s report on designing new vehicles and separating cargo and crew, that is only a recommendation. In my view it is a flawed and expensive one. It would have required two launches for Apollo and we would have probably never would have landed on the moon. What doomed Columbia had nothing to do with lifting cargo but a poor design of mounting the shuttle to the side of the external fuel tank. What doomed the Challenger crew was the lack of any launch escape system.

  12. It doesn’t happen very often, but I believe this is a pretty good plan.
    First off… Constellation’s design was just rediculous. Starting over with a heavy lift project will hopefully get things right.

    After bailing out banks, automotive industry, etc… the American public isn’t to keen on tossing money out to corporations… no matter who it is. The right public company should be able to sell their idea enough to get public investment. This is how it is suppose to be. Otherwise, we’ll end up bailing out more corporations who shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Also.. any money given to these companies will not be given back.
    So it is better to keep the funds low so there are only 2 or 3 companies instead of 6 to 15; since in the end, there will only be a few who survive anyhow.

    The current shuttle fleet is just fine. If it had to, the orbiters could keep going another 2 years or so. However it will have to end so facilities can transition and remachine to the new program. It would be too expensive to build new facilities.

    I like the idea in not specifying exactly what the heavy vehicle should be made for. This allows the experts at NASA to determine the future instead of a bunch of lawyers. Does seem they are hinting at something which could go to the moon, and to a destination beyond that; perhaps an asteroid and/or comet.

    In a time where the American public believe the Obama administration is spending too much money, there is one concession which is taking a hit… technological development. I hate to see this, but at the same time I understand. We have a lot of programs already going on… Cassini, Mars rovers, etc. Since we need to add a new manned vehicle, I believe this is probably the correct area to make concessions with. At least for a year or two. Since it is likely Congress will be lead by the Republicans next year, I can see NASA’s budget increasing, as is typical when the Repulicans control congress.

    Common sense needed to prevail here. Americans are tired of this administration and Congress handing out money hand over fist when they know it wont get paid back, and American’s also hate the thought of being dependent on Russia to get into space.

  13. One Billion Dollars is still being used on commercial in this proposal, so to say anyone is trying to kill a COTS option is foolish. Sen. Boxer only wants more dollars because SpaceX is in her backyard. One billion is still alot of money.

  14. @Redstone,
    Thank you. I think we a agree on lot, including the importance of getting the best bang for your buck.

    As you rightly pointed out, there is no immunity for the COTS partners from possible delays which would result in pressure to get back on schedule. In their favor however, (1) the COTS partners receive significant oversight from both NASA and the USAF, (2) they have past business and operations experience gained from servicing the commercial satellite launch market and continue to grow this business in addition to COTS commitments (meaning there could additional in-house resources to bring to bear if any COTS problems develop) and (3) if you took the COTS partners out of the equation leaving only NASA, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin….there’s plenty of scope for delays and cost overruns right there.
    I believe these are the types of people who thrive on challenge and will give it their best shot.

    Also as you rightly point out C.A.I.B. recommendations to introduce additional expense. But it would be a very brave NASA administrator who chose not to follow them.


  15. Hmm… Another shuttle flight – cool beans! I’ll wager right here and now that we will find a reason to fly several more shuttle missions in the coming years! Hope so anyway… One or two a year isn’t asking that much, is it? Or at least until the next gen. heavy lifter proves itself!

    A new heavy lift booster? Space X has a heavy lifter on the drawing boards NOW. HOPEFULLY whoever gets the contract WON’T use solid rocket boosters! Recoverable Kerosene/liquid O2 boosters cost more initially, but are just so much better environmentally speaking. I really like the Russian’s new ‘fly back to base’ heavy lift booster concept – pop out wings and all!

  16. Neither the Falcon 9 heavy (nor delta 4 heavy) meet the the heavy lift requirements that Nasa is talking about which is another Saturn 5 class rocket. Im also confused about all the anti-solid rocket debate here, considering with the exception of Russia, all the sat. launching countries of the world use them including, ESA, Japan, India and China. If polluton is a concern, than the delta 4 should be he rocket of choice being it burns liquid hydrogen and Oxygen not the Falcon 9.

  17. @TerryG
    Thanks. I forgot to mention, that my point about hoping that NASA takes a look at the Direct proposal again, is not so much that it can lift Orion into LEO. I agree that is over kill. That job probably needs to fall to Falcon 9 or Delta 4 rockets. But Directs Jupiter 130 and 246 can give Nasa it’s heavy lift rocket much fater than other designs. It also meets the commitees direction that the new heavy lift rocket uses existing shuttle technology. Hey I wish Nasa had the foresight not to throw away the Saturn 5 and Saturn 1B rockets of the 60’s and 70’s 🙂

  18. Don’t know if anyone saw it….

    Director Bolden was in an interview where he listed the “top three Priorities” for NASA according to the President (Obama):

    1- get kids to be interested in science and math;

    2- foster international relationships;

    and the top priority “above all else” was —

    help make muslim nations “feel good about” contributions they made IN THE PAST.

    Sorry folks, NASA seems to be no longer in the space or exploration biz!

  19. @redstone: Actually the Heavy Lift Falcon 9 derivative is on par with any other commercially available heavy lift rocket. Check out the specs @:

    The problem with solid rockets is that they use some rather NASTY materials, i.e. Ammonium Perchlorate mixed with Aluminum held together in a base of PBAN or HTPB (rubber-like fuels). When injected into the upper atmosphere the hydrogen chloride created can easily dissociate into water and create corrosive hydrochloric acid biasing the pH of local water and rainfall (See acid rain). Solid fuels also create an abundance of toxic waste in its manufacture, MOST of which has been hidden from public view by the likes of Morton Thikol and other solid fuel manufacturers…

    Google “Pollution generated in the manufacture of solid rocket fuel”, and you will see what I mean..

  20. @ Restoration:

    If anyone sees this as not being beneficial they clearly do not understand the logistics of the space program.

    Well, maybe you can clarify it then. I note that you haven’t resolved the problem I noted, the non-beneficial effects on technology and jobs, as well as on safety.

    @ redstone:

    Better to just kill Orion all together if that is the only mission.
    As far as the Columbia’s report on designing new vehicles and separating cargo and crew, that is only a recommendation. In my view it is a flawed and expensive one.

    Yes, kill Orion was the original remit of the Obama plan, to first develop a lifter, then the NEO and so forth crafts as needed.

    No, separation isn’t expensive considering that you have LEO crafts. It will cheapen things eventually, as all market driven approaches, because you can use cheaper smaller heavy lifters at the same efficiency level. It is only in the Apollo perspective of one off missions that single lifters makes for cheaper missions (fewer lift offs).

    And it is beneficial if you want cheapest lifters (not man rated) and highest security (low mass high redundancy man rated crafts).

    @ RUF:

    What, no references!? Then it didn’t happen… 😀

  21. Umm… I just listened to the Senate press conference on NASA reauthorization.. ( and saw that Sen. Orin Hatch as a MAJOR player in that bill. His INSISTENCE that solid rockets are the ONLY way to go really irks me. Soooo, it turns out that this bill is NOT a good thing after all. There are simply too many fingers in the soup, and too much PORK!

    There they are ranting about ‘bipartisanship’, all the while padding their pockets with lobbyists PORK! Dzzzz…

  22. Aqua. I listened to this same Senate press conference. Sadly I need to agree with you. Sen. Hatch said he talked to “his man” in Utah who told him that solid rockets was the only way. I’m sure that was an unbiased opinion.

    But, having said that, I believe this is an OK plan. I was a kid when Nixon was president and ended the Apollo program without capturing the knowledge to rebuild Saturn V. So I am OK with not terminating solid rockets immediately. But, this is just one more reason to provide more seed capital to commercial space. If NASA doesn’t concentrate on liquid fuels commercial space can and may do a better job given that more designs will likely be tried and tested since there are multiple commercial enterprises that will be in this game.

    Just as important as the amount of seed capital is the speed the seed capital is delivered. I hope we can get funds into the hands of commercial space soon and work toward getting increased funding over time. In fact, I am very hopeful that the demonstrated successes in the recent past and near future will make the return on these investments obvious to all.

  23. @ TerryG

    There will only be red faces if there is still any blood still going to them, humanity has been waiting too long on the sidelines of space, its about damn time we got out there.

  24. @Redstone
    I’ll have a go at the resistance to SRBs question.
    Liquid fueled rockets can be held on the pad after ignition and tested before release and launch. If they don’t pass the test (some engines aren’t reporting correct thrust or the pump pressures are bad etc.) you can shut them down, fix the issue and attempt another launch later. IIRC, this happened with Falcon-9.

    But SRBs can’t be shutdown or even throttled. Once you lite them your committed.

    So for rockets that you intend to strap humans into, the crew have a greater safety margin in designs without SRBs. For example a Falcon or similar would be safer for human flight than an Ares I with it’s SRB first stage.

    Your comment “What doomed the Challenger crew was the lack of any launch escape system” is true in that it might have helped, but the first part to fail was O-ring seal on an SRB. There’s no automatic shutdown if you can detect an SRB malfunction in time. I always remember Richard Feynman’s famous recreation of the component failure with a C-clamp, a sample of O-ring rubber and a glass of ice water (and for his Jersey Groucho Marx accent). 🙂

    Can I have a question regarding an earlier post? What details or links do you have regarding NASA requirements for a Heavy Lifter? It was my understanding they aren’t intending to commit to a design until 2015.

  25. @Aqua

    Yes, right on que, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) home of ATK (previously Morton-Thiokol) makers of SRBs no less, not wanting to miss a place at the trough.

    Perhaps the Senate sees the new Heavy Lifter painted in a shade of pink, make “oinking” sounds and decorated with lipstick. 🙁 Term limits anyone?

  26. @Spoodle58
    Agreed, lets “get out there”.

    That means bringing the manned non-LEO missions forward in tandem with a Heavy Lifter. Without these missions, the Heavy Lifters might as well rust on the launch pad.
    This Bill pushes for a Heavy Lifter only and so doesn’t “get us out there”. It’s only about making a big rocket from old tech parts sourced form the states whose politicians are sponsoring the Bill. I wish I could share your excitement.

  27. @ TerryG

    You are totally correct and I agree with you, as for my excitement, I’m too much a manned non-LEO missions optimist (that may change in the next 20 years 🙂 )

  28. @TerryG
    What passed with bipartisan support from the Senate Committee was to not wait for a 2015 final design on Heavy Lift (which Obama wanted) but to proceed immediately in 2011 with a heavy lift launcher using shuttle, and constellation technology.

    “A heavy-lift rocket and human-rated deep space capsule, collectively called the Space Launch System, is also part of the Senate bill. The authorization act would move up the rocket’s development to fiscal year 2011, which begins in October.

    The government-owned booster and manned spacecraft should lift between 70 and 100 tons to space, according to the current version of the bill.

    The legislation requires NASA to use existing contracts, workers and capabilities from the space shuttle, Orion and Ares 1 programs. ”

    This make perfect sense since in reality there will be no new break throughs in the next 5 years in rocket populsion, and waiting 5 years for a design will only set us back even more. I addition it keeps the workforce intact at not only the space center, but around the country. It also provides a good plan B if the commercial sector has any setbacks in either rocket or capsule development.

    On another point on Challenger. Yes the fact that once lighted you cannot shut down solids is their major drawback. But solids are also much more simple than liquid fuel and if you look at all the launches at the cape, whether it be the Shuttle, Titan 4, Delta’s, or even other countries that use them , there is a very high success rate.
    What doomed Challanger in the end was poor management at the cape and the pressure to get the shuttle flying. Engineers knew that the O-rings had problems in extreme cold and told NASA not to launch that morning. Some Martin engineers refused to sign off on the launch that morning and actually did not expect Challenger to make it off the pad. They thought they dodged a bullet when it did.

  29. @Redstone
    Thanks very much for that. Nancy Atkinson’s prediction “The White House will probably respond with another compromise” in her essay above looks like the next stage of escalation, so it now comes down to the Administrations reaction.

    At the risk of wandering off topic, we’ve seen them doggedly pursue much bigger issues such as Healthcare and Financial reform and win. Now it’s Immigration Reform. I’ve never noticed them backing away from a fight, and it’s likely they will notice the huge gap between the Augustine Commission’s Plan they are following and this Bill. There remains a strong possibly the only thing that will be flying in the meantime is fur.

  30. @TerryG
    I hope not. The Augustine Commission really did not provide any single recommendation. They even did not shoot down Constellation other than saying without additional funding (about 3 billion dollars) it could not meet its goals.
    Whats is radically different now is that the Senate Committee truly is bipartisan whether it be Dem or republican on this With the other bills there was no republican support and time was spent getting enough so called moderate and conservative dems on broad.
    My only fear with Obama is that he has pretty much run with the crowd that sees no value in manned space flight or other space programs and that Obama really does not have a plan other than to get Nasa out of manned space flight. I hope I am wrong.

  31. Innovation and breakthrough technologies, I hope space program includes cutting edge technologies to advance in space exploration.

Comments are closed.