NASA Says it Cannot Produce Heavy-Lift Rocket on Time, Budget


NASA has sent Congress a report stating that it cannot meet the requirements that it produce a heavy-lift rocket by the current 2016 deadline – or under the current allocated budget. In the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, NASA was directed to develop a heavy-lift rocket in preparation to flights to an asteroid and possibly Mars. NASA said it cannot produce this new rocket despite the fact that the agency would be using so-called “legacy” hardware – components that have been employed in the shuttle program for the past 30 years. NASA would also utilize modern versions of engines used on the massive Saturn V rocket.

Now, approximately three months after the act was signed into law, NASA is telling Congress that they can’t build the vehicles that will succeed the shuttle. At least, NASA said, not in the time allotted or for the amount allocated to them. The agency expressed these inadequacies in a 22-page report that was submitted to Congress.

In the report, NASA said it “recognizes it has a responsibility to be clear with the Congress and the American taxpayers about our true estimated costs and schedules for developing the SLS and MPCV, and we intend to do so.”

“Currently, our SLS (Space Launch System) studies have shown that while cost is not a major discriminator among the design options studied, none of the design options studied thus far appeared to be affordable in our present fiscal condition.”

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) who helped to draft and pass the NASA Authorization Act said that none of the rationale posted within the report provided justification for NASA not to meet its requirements.

Congress has been hoping to shore up any potential failings of the emerging commercial space market by having NASA design, in parallel, a heavy-lift rocket. That way, if these firms don’t produce, the nation has a ‘backup’ in place. NASA has essentially admitted that it cannot accomplish the task set in front of it. Congress might decide to take funds from other areas of the space agency’s budget to fill in the projected shortfall. There have been some suggestions that these funds may come from those intended for Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

KSC has already been sent reeling from massive layoffs which are set to continue until the end of the shuttle program. There is no established program set to follow the space shuttle program. Many have tried to compare the gap between shuttle and whatever is to follow to the gap between Apollo and shuttle. But this is a false analogy. At the end of Apollo the next program was established (the space shuttle was approved during the Apollo 16 mission). As the twilight of the shuttle era nears – there no longer is any established program. Under the Vision for Space Exploration, the succeeding program was called Constellation and consisted of a Apollo-like capsule, man-rated rocket the Ares-I (based off a single shuttle solid rocket booster) and a unmanned heavy-lift booster – the Ares-V.

While Congress may have signed the directive to produce the new heavy-lift booster into law – they haven’t done as much to pay for it. NASA was supposed to receive $11 billion over the course of the next three years to build both the rocket as well as the Orion spacecraft. Congress is now working to find ways to cut federal spending and NASA could find itself receiving far less than promised.

Many of the elements that would go into this new heavy-lift rocket are based off of well-known systems - such as the space shuttle. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

44 Replies to “NASA Says it Cannot Produce Heavy-Lift Rocket on Time, Budget”

  1. How about cutting $100 Billion from the WAR Budget ! DUH !
    and putting it into the Space Budget !!!
    (War is even more wasteful than bureaucracy)

    1. How about $100 billion looking after the poor, the sick, the US economy…
      (Stupidity is even more wasteful than bureaucracy)

  2. DOD: $516 billion
    NASA: $17.2 billion
    2008 Budget
    It’s no wonder we’re significantly better at killing eachother than we are at reaching orbit.

    1. US economy government debt +$13 trillion dollar, and growing at 5.5 billion dollars a day… but hell, who worries about the bills?

  3. I’m sorry for the space enthusiasts out there (myself included), but I seriously doubt that Humans will make the journey to Mars in my lifetime. The USA is intent of maintaining military superiority in the world and there just isn’t a way to fund big space exploration projects anymore with the kind of military budgets we see. Unless the various space agencies can collaborate, it ain’t goin to happen! Space exploration is just too expensive for Humans I guess.

    1. The US yes, the rest of the world is investing in space exploration. Think about Chinese, India,…

      1. You guys like the Hubble Space Telescope, or most of the ISS, Mars Rovers? Almost every significant thing done in space exploration has up until now been done by America(& will continue IMHO but you got that cern thing go ride around on that). Heck for us it isn’t about military superiority, I didn’t put the uniform on to die valiantly for the good old USA, most of the time I was scared, I’m same flesh and bone as the other guy. So we want the other guy to die, valiantly or not, and break all his stuff. It’s about doing for ourselves because WE CAN and helping others when they need it. It isn’t about military superiority it’s about having only a few good friends, our friend to the North, our other on islands across the Atlantic, and lastly one down under. At sometimes I feel that you all think we are running some kind of space welfare program you where all your universitys teach about our discoverys and when the dole of new programs is reduced you all riot and go all china or india on us. Shame on you. We can built a big heavy lifter any time we want to but what do we need it today for?
        BTW: you gotta love that Space Shuttle!

      2. maybe a little credit to the soviet union is in order:

        “…first intercontinental ballistic missile (1957), first satellite (Sputnik 1), first animal in space (the dog Laika on Sputnik 2), first human in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1), first Moon impact (1959) and unmanned landing, first space rover, first space station, and first interplanetary probe..”

        these were all quite significant milestones wouldn’t you agree?

      3. Exactly…and the first women in space was Russian too. And soon Soyuz will be the only manned rocket capable of swapping crews aboard the I.S.S.
        But you can’t reach tripleclean with facts. He’s kinda UT’s resident Archie Bunker (and we love him for it) and possibly even thinks the Viet Nam war was a tie.

      4. Partial Credit
        Sputnik didn’t do science,our first found the Van Allen Belt.Laika died in space minutes after launch from heat stress and the Sovietswent on like the Micheal Vick of outerspace and kept killing dogs, but they never bothered to tell the outside world they could only launch dogs and not recover them, they had fakes and look alikes they would cart around after. Good old Yuri, he jumped out and parachuted down, but again they lied to the world. The salyut space stations just sucked, kind of an orbiting sewer pipe. Soviet unmanned probes more often than not failed and if they worked only sent back small amounts of data then they just gave up, when was the last one(we’ll be to pluto soon). All of this goes back to what I said about dying valiantly or not… You could fill a small childs golden book or a really sweet comic book with all scienctific discoverys the soviets made.

        Milestones? Like first kid in the class to be done with the test and seeing he scored a D+

      5. There is a good reason why all empires throughout history eventually perish. It is nothing to do with economic success, or what they stand for, or even what they have achieved. In fact, it lies in unfettered boastfulness of ego. For empires, this has been their ultimate undoing, and it is plain to see why, as example here by the words of tripleclean.
        When you can only desperately grasp at your past laurels and achievements, it is a sure bet that the whole façade is just about to be overrun and crumble around you.
        There is also great old true saying that “pride comes before a fall.” Only then will you know, that you were not a good as you thought you were.
        After reading this seemingly atypical fervour of pompous flag-waving, the rest of the world might just be better off make its own way to a different destiny.
        (..and they still wonder why they think we hate them.)

      6. Tripleclean mentions all the negative things about the Russian firsts, but you have to also remember the TRIED. Sure, they failed, their stuff sucks, but they did something. Sure we did go to the moon and they didn’t but they gave it a try with the N1 rocket.
        So no we just give up since there is no time, no money, and no motivation?!?!!?
        The Russians win again!

      7. Almost every significant thing done in space exploration has up until now been done by America (& will continue IMHO but you got that cern thing go ride around on that)…

        Yeah, this is exactly what happen when you wear those rose coloured glasses too long. Sweet land of liberty, eh?
        Well as Abraham Lincoln said; “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
        Seems Americans like he now are a long-lost extinct breed.
        I wonder why?

      8. This is exactly the attitude that people all around the world dislike hearing from Americans. No one in Afghanistan was polled on whether or not they wanted the States to intervene in their affairs. Since all the 911 hijackers were in fact Saudis, the reason for invading Afghanistan was dubious at best. If it was all about dislodging terrorists, the American administration at the time surely knew that these mobile organizations would just set up shop elsewhere. Afghanistan will likely default back to business as usual once politicians get up enough guts to challenge the US military industrial complex. The end result will have been virtually nothing accomplished and a big dig on American debt.

        As for space accomplishments, the US has many, but the fact remains the Soviets have a number of them too – better face up to this.

        Your “friend” north of the border

  4. ask some of these multi billion heirs in america to drop a little change in nasa’s cup!they would have the pride of sending us to mars and beyond for the next 20 or more years, and there name would be on the list of who donated funds.

    1. They do. I believe it’s called taxes. (And there’s no way to give money to a specific government program, anyway. You *can* just give money you don’t actually owe to the IRS if you want, but it goes into general revenues. The only possible exception I know, was the effort to extend the operational lives of the Viking landers.)

      And why put money into an HLV we don’t need now, and won’t need anytime soon? If you’ve the deep pockets, don’t wait for NASA, go build your own launcher and spacecraft.

      Oh, wait. A rich guy named Elon Musk is doing that…

      As they say, if you want something done right, do it yourself.

  5. Congratulations to NASA for some refreshing honesty.

    1) When did a major NASA program ever come in on-time and within budget? The usual ploy of under-estimating costs to get a program underway has historically been forced upon NASA in part, by having only a small cartel of cost-plus major contractors to choose from, and that these programs are subject to the approval of certain pork-happy Senators eager to divert the resulting jobs to their district with costs being of secondary importance.

    A contributing factor to NASA’s honesty may be that these same Senators are now being overly prescriptive by fancying themselves as rocket engineers when clearly they are not.

    2) If you can’t find a link to the “22 page report”, readers may care to download the “Exploration Program Status Presentation to the NASA Advisory Council, January 11th 2011” by Doug Cooke (Associate Administrator NASA) from

    3) This article attributes to Congress, the idea of developing a heavy-lift rocket “as a backup” in case of “any potential failings of the emerging commercial space market”. The attribution may be correct, but the idea is of course absurd. The heavy lift rocket is part of an exploration vehicle (Mars, Asteroids, LG points, etc) and would be total over kill for a milk run to LEO where NASA has already awarded the “emerging commercial space market” fixed-cost contracts to operate.

    4) In light of the new congress’s intention to cut federal spending and with only a continuing resolution in hand, NASA is well justified in waiting till they “show me the money” needed to do complete the job.

    Congratulations on growing a backbone NASA. This is a very pleasing turn of events.

  6. What makes me kind of angry all the time is that NASA is forced to use Shuttle parts for the new rocket. Holy cr*p, what kind of stupidity is that? Built a new rocket, with a lot of new technology in it. We rely on old things from 30-40 years ago?

    The sad thing is, I know the reason: lobby. Damn it. Such things should be forbidden!

    1. Seriously Doctor, research and development are expensive! but NOT as expensive as building and maintaining the MOST complicated machines ever built! The idea was… to employ the maximum number of people possible and spread that out over the whole country! NOT as important were things like going to the MOon … or going to Mars… or hitchin a ride on a comet! The aerospace industry paying lobbyists are symptoms of entrenched money controlling portions of the federal bureaucracy… THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT Elan Musk is trying to avoid… being owned.

  7. NASA shouldn’t be in the business of building glorified pickup trucks for congress. They should be expanded our frontiers of knowledge through exploration, theoretical research and engineering. Let the Air Force build this stupid rocket.

    1. Haha, but if the air force builds it it will cost 2 trillion dollars and dissolve when it gets rained on.

    2. Exactly why should they? The USAF has even less need for an HLV than NASA does. There’s nothing they do that can’t be satisfied by the Atlas and Delta (and maybe Falcon) launchers.

      Which is true of NASA too, in spite of Congress.

  8. Well, duh, this was what the Augustine report told US congress long ago. It also set a program that AFAIU has started, on developing new technology for a future booster.

    IIRC Obama mainly kept to that program, while underfunding. And then US congress preempted, and pre-emptied, the program with a booster development with old technology that has proven itself too expensive.

    Nothing to see here, move on, US is forcing itself to accept the Augustine findings while the pork handlers will be whining all the way to save face. Luckily SpaceX and others are taking up the slack in employment, as much as is productive that is, despite said pork politicians trying to force unnecessary layoffs.

  9. Actually, Bolden is standing his own and telling congress that if they dictate Shuttle technology, it’d not affordable.

    Congress, on the other hand, is telling Bolden “Lie to me baby, tell me sweet budgetary lies, tell me you’ll do it for a quarter what you think it will, and I’ll shower you with dollars”. Yuck.

    Bolden/Obama made sure that the COTS horses are out of the barn, and are letting congress fight over the barn door… Good for them – smart leadership IMO.

    When the dust settles, launch will be a commercial activity, and NASA budget will be diverted towards true exploration goals, such as manned BEO vehicles and MARS EDL – which is what the Obama plan called for in the first place.

    1. Your comments are always on the mark CEB. I made similar comments earlier, but they are awaiting moderation due to the links they contain.

      You once predicted here, that the new HLV would resemble the side saddle Shuttle C option. Are you still sticking to that?

  10. If we devoted one dollar from each ticket sold at movie theaters and professional sporting events then i doubt there would be a budget problem. So sad that we Americans show the world that we would rather be entertained than focus on real world events.

    1. Maybe they need to make spaceflight more interesting to the populace. Maybe a competitive orbital skydiving league or something along those lines…

      1. we could open the door for corporate sponsors. i hear it costs several million to air a commercial during the superbowl. how much would Pepsi pay for their logo to be on a rocket?

    2. Do you understand now, why even the Romans knew what is important to keep people calm: “panem et circensis” (if my non-existing Latin is good enough here); “bread and games” (so to speak).

  11. As informative as the article is, I really appreciate the extra context some of the comments provide. Good job guys! I really dig this site.

  12. This whole debate has turned into a socio-political argument that harkens back to the 1970’s. The fact remains that the most significant space science since the 1950’s has been funded and completed by the USA and NASA. Recently, I have been very impressed with the ESA missions and we have to give our partners overseas their due credit. Japan and JAXA are also working hard on on developing their space science program. I think the Scandinavian countries like Sweden are also doing the same. And yes China and India are trying but they are in the very early stages of developing their space programs. However, far and away the most significant spectacular headline grabbing space science accomplishments in the past have originated from the USA. These programs cost money and right now the US is feeling a financial pinch. Personally, I think they should have kept the shuttle program alive if for no other reason than to service the space station. I think the next heavy lift vehicle will be developed it just takes more money that Congress realistically has budgeted for it. The last time NASA tried to cut corners on space missions was during the tenure of Daniel Goldin and that did not work well. Remember, the failed Mars Polar Lander mission? You can’t do these projects properly on a shoe string budget. If the money is not there now then let’s shelve some of these grandiose plans for another day and concentrate on what we can achieve right now.

  13. I think NASA needs to take another look at the X-33/Venture Star. IIRC, the fuel tank issues have been solved.

  14. Back in the 60’s “can’t” wasn’t a word used when it came to space exploration.
    I can just see JFK’s speech today “We don’t choose to go to the moon, and not do the other things. Not because it is easy but because it’s too hard!”

    Enjoy the last flights of the shuttle (if it ever flies), KSC will become a space museum next year. I won’t be going back. 🙁

  15. Sad as it is that the US can no longer reach the ISS, I am glad the shuttle is finally being retired. Maybe the American populace is just to short sighted to invest in a functional space program at the moment. And with regards to that; the commercial space industry might just be the US’s saving grace. We’ve still got the brain power, but now we are dependent on investors instead of taxpayers, they’re a whole lot harder to wrangle but at least these sheep look up, there’s no shame in profiting off of exploration and a CEO has a whole lot more drive to make a mission profitable (i.e. keep the investors interested).

  16. Still got the brain power, yea for how long? Kids don’t go to college because they want to work for a mundane aerospace company, military supplier, or to make some CEO and investors reach their quarterly goal. They go to college with hopes of working for NASA, Area 51, or smashing particles at a national lab. Go ahead, take the motivation away, and we’ll see how long the brain power exists.

    It is immeasurable how many of us start out shooting for the stars and end up powering our economy at GE, Intel, Microsoft, Google, Boeing, Ford, etc. What happens if the next generation doesn’t even start because there are no stars to shot for?

    1. You’re right, and it is sad that the desire to understand the world and reach towards the edges of our abilities has all but vanished from the world. But it is true, my generation is not in school for the pursuit of knowledge, my generation goes to college for the white picket fence and the BMW.

      And if we want to get them to do what we want them to we must speak their language, tell ’em all they can have a room with a view someday in geosynchronous orbit and they might start caring again. Remember the gold mine on the moon thread?

    2. The motivation is there no matter whats happening. Young men like study and design things that go fast, fly, shoot, and or blow up it how we are wired. I get your point and agree with it, I think where internships and recuitment. are important. Remember this, all the boys didn’t give up , change lifestyles and start going to pride week just because all the girls at the dance were ugly.

  17. Looks like NASA has different plans under the NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Projec… See “NASA unveils aircraft of the future”

    Some images of the plans for these aircraft too….

    Nice news story for the “2011 Australian International Airshow and Aerospace & Defence Exposition”, at Avalon airport in Melbourne between 1st and 6th March, 2011.

  18. Sadly, with the exception of repeating the aforementioned US achievements in pioneering much of early space exploration, I can’t argue the points that HSBC and Uncle Fred point out. This certainly isn’t the America I grew up in, and I’m just shy of 50. US priorities have become slave to rampant greed. Perhaps my wife is right, it’s time to leave what was formerly a great place to live.

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