Senate Subpoena Orders NASA to Deliver Documents On Big New Rocket
This artist's concept shows the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, a rocket that may be similar to NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) in many ways.
Credit: NASA/MSFC

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel issued a subpoena ordering NASA to produce internal documents related to the agency’s progress on the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket Congress ordered NASA to make ready for flight by Dec. 31, 2016.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, whose members were the architects of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that created the Space Launch System, took the unusual step of exercising its subpoena authority July 27.

"I can confirm that the committee sent a subpoena yesterday," Vincent Morris, a spokesman for the Committee, wrote in a July 28 email to Space News. Morris works for Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

In a June 22 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Committee leadership demanded that the space agency turn over documents detailing “the data and analysis NASA has relied on to comply with the 2010 Act’s space launch system and crew vehicle requirements.” The Committee said in the letter that if it did not see the documents it wanted by June 27, it would subpoena them.

"While we share the Senators' commitment to human space exploration and implementation of the Authorization Act, we also have a commitment to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars," NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said July 28. "The Space Launch System is the most important — and expensive — decision NASA will make for the next decade, and we want to get it right so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past or get pushed into making a premature decision about our nation's deep space exploration plans."

Bolden has said that SLS will likely not fly until 2017, when the rocket would be capable of launching the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a space capsule formerly called Orion, on an unmanned test mission. A crewed mission would not be in the offing until the early 2020s, Bolden said in a July 12 hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Also at that hearing, Bolden acknowledged for the first time that NASA had selected — and sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review — an SLS design that was almost identical to Ares 5, the heavy-lift rocket planned as part of the now-defunct Constellation Moon-return program.