WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of more than 60 members ofthe U.S. House of Representatives wrote to President Barack Obama Tuesdayurging that he direct NASA to immediately begin development of a heavy-liftlaunch vehicle capable of sending NASA's Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle on deepspace missions.
In a June22 letter to the president signed by 62 House lawmakers, including 25Democrats and 16 members of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, themembers say it is in the nation's best interest to leverage the $10 billionNASA has already invested in Constellation, a 5-year-old effort to replace theretiring space shuttle with Orion and the Ares family of rockets. Obama markedthe program for cancellation in his 2011spending proposal delivered to lawmakers in February.
"We support the immediate development and production ofa heavy-lift launch vehicle that, in conjunction with the Orion CrewExploration Vehicle, may be used for either lunar or deep-space exploration toan asteroid and beyond, as you said in Florida," the lawmakers say in theletter. During an April15 speech at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Obama said NASA wouldcontinue development of Constellation's Orion crew capsule for use as alifeboat aboard the international space station and would spend up to fiveyears studying heavy-lift propulsion technologies before initiating developmentof a heavy-lift launch vehicle no later than 2015.
The lawmakers assert that a "heavy-lift explorationsystem could be operational within six years and achieved within NASA'sExploration topline budget."
NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate stands toreceive a total of $23.6 billion between 2011 and 2015 under White House budgetprojections released in February. That figure includes $3.1 billion forheavy-lift and in-space propulsion research, $6 billion to foster developmentof commercial crew systems and $12 billion for various advanced technologyresearch and demonstration projects.
"With no significant breakthroughs on the horizon inregard to heavy-lift propulsion needs, we see no reason to prolong a decisionthat will result in the loss of a highly-experienced and motivated workforce,"the lawmakers state in the letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. Gene Green(D-Texas) and three members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice,science subcommittee that oversees NASA spending, including the rankingminority member Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Reps. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger(D-Md.) and John Culberson (R-Texas).
While the lawmakers say a robust U.S. deep-space explorationprogram would ensure that NASA astronauts explore beyond low-Earth orbit to themoon, Mars or "any number of exciting destinations," they remainedsilent on thepresident's plans to privatize operations in low-Earth orbit, an omissionthat did not go unnoticed by at least one company seeking to develop a crewtransportation system for missions to the space station.
"It looks like Congress is on the right track,encouraging the Administration to move forward as quickly as possible withheavy-lift," said Lawrence Williams, vice president of strategic relationsat Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Corp. "Since President Bushunveiled his Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, the plan has been that NASAwould focus its development efforts on moving beyond [low Earth orbit] and usecommercially-developed rockets to service the [international space station]."
Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX has spent roughly $350million in NASA funds since 2006 to develop the Falcon9 rocket and Dragon capsule with astronaut transport in mind.
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Amy Klamper is a space reporter and former staff writer for the space industry news publication SpaceNews. From 2004 to 2010, Amy covered U.S. space policy, NASA and space industry professionals for SpaceNews. Her stories included profiles on major players in the space industry, space policy work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as national policy set by the White House.