NASA Pressed for Specifics on Orion Astronaut Lifeboat
NASA's Orion Launch Abort System launched on its first test flight, Pad Abort 1, on May 6, 2010 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Here, the escape system (left) has reoriented the Orion capsule mockup and is poised to release it after a successful launch abort.
Credit: collectSPACE.com/NASA TV

WASHINGTON - The U.S. House Science and Technology Committee has given NASA one week to flesh out cost and schedule estimates for a slimmed-down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle the agency has been directed to build to provide emergency crew escape for the International Space Station.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said the agency is working to give the committee the information it seeks, including how much it would cost to build the Orion lifeboat, how long it would take, and whether the agency would modify Lockheed Martin's existing Orion contract or put the project out for bid.

"We will work to provide the requested budgetary information as requested by the Committee leadership," Jacobs said June 10. "There is an internal team within Exploration Systems making the Orion assessments."

The House Science and Technology Committee's request, made June 10 in a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, comes as the oversight committee drafts legislation authorizing NASA programs and spending levels for at least the year ahead. The letter was signed by House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), ranking member Ralph Hall (R-Texas) and Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Pete Olson (R-Texas), the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the space and aeronautics subcommittee.

During a May 26 hearing before the committee, Bolden testified that the Orion lifeboat NASA has been directed by President Barack Obama to build could cost around $4.5 billion and take five years to complete.

Gordon said he had been told internal NASA estimates put the price tag as high a $7 billion, prompting Bolden to promise a refined estimate as part of a revised 2011 budget request he said would be delivered to Congress imminently.

In the June 10 letter to Bolden, Gordon and his colleagues gave NASA until the close of business on June 16 to deliver the budget details the committee seeks.

"As the committee prepares to move forward with an authorization for the agency, it is essential that we have the agency's justification for these significant programmatic and funding changes," the letter states.

Gordon and his colleagues also asked Bolden in the letter to provide the committee with the "budgetary analysis and assumptions" behind NASA's plan to build the Orion lifeboat, extend space station operations through 2020, foster development of commercial crewed systems to get astronauts there and develop a heavy-lift rocket while also investing billion of dollars in technologies and robotic precursor missions meant to lead to a manned expedition to an asteroid in 2025.

While NASA now says it will try to meet the committee's June 16 deadline, Jacobs told Space News that producing clear cost and schedule estimates for a project like the Orion lifeboat normally takes a couple months to complete.