There are some who think that, NASA administrator Charles Bolden is refusing to build a huge rocket that he has been told to build by 2016. The truth is Bolden wants to do so. He can’t because of contradicting restrictions put on him by Congress. To understand why, some background information is needed.
NASA wants to send our astronauts to the international space station in new spacecraft launched on already existing commercial rockets . Stringent safety standards must be met or the companies involved will not be paid. Some of these rockets are the ones the military has used for decades to reliably launch multi-billion dollar GPS, communications, and reconnaissance satellites so crucial to the safety and support of our combat troops in Afghanistan and other critical areas. For instance, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV rocket will send astronauts in Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft while its Atlas V rocket will loft Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft. Yet another launcher, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, was successfully developed from scratch for far less money than the cost overruns that were wasted on NASA’s cancelled Ares I. Falcon 9 has already propelled a cargo-hauling version of its Dragon spacecraft into orbit and returned it to Earth. This summer, a test of sending supplies to the ISS with Dragon will be launched on a Falcon 9. A special alternate version of Dragon is to take astronauts to the space station after a number of test flights have been completed. Free market competition among the commercial providers would keep NASA’s costs lower.
Once it was certain our astronauts would be flying to the ISS in vehicles not designed by NASA and possibly not built by the same people who had worked on either Ares I or Shuttle, some Senators wanted to make sure that NASA funds would continue to flow to their voters. They decided NASA would build a super rocket for trips into deep space and ordered it built using Shuttle derived parts made by their constituents and finished by 2016.
The Senators laid out technical specifications to make sure that pork went to their constituents. Senator Hatch of Utah bragged of making sure that the super launcher used Utah based ATK’s solid rocket boosters. Other politicians equally instrumental in this legislation were Senator Shelby of Alabama, Senator Nelson of Florida, and Senator Hutchinson of Texas.
NASA did an economic analysis and cost assessment of the proposed super launcher. It then reported that building a rocket meeting all the Senators’ specifications is not economically possible under any likely NASA budget by 2016. Yes, the Senators’ constituents would have jobs, but only until the rocket was cancelled from cost overruns. Even if the important commercial crew effort were ended to help pay for the super rocket, there would not be enough money to prevent cancellation. The Senators’ response was for NASA to go ahead anyway.
So that’s it. It’s not that Bolden wants to defy the Senators. He literally won’t have the money to finish the rocket they specified. There are new technologies offering more economical methods to reach deep space. The already specified money for perfecting those methods may be cannibalized by the super rocket. But that’s another article.