In the News
Culberson urges NASA contractors to press forward
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle | By Andrea Rumbaugh
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, expressed concern to NASA contractors about the timeline for launching the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft during a visit to his hometown on Monday.
Exploration Mission-1, an unmanned trek that will take SLS and Orion past the moon, is slated to launch in December 2019 and contractors and suppliers continue to work toward that. But, as previously announced, that date will likely be pushed to spring 2020.
“It’s just critical that we get it up and flying as quickly as possible,” Culberson told media after touring Oceaneering Space Systems in Houston. “Every delay is a concern and a worry.”
Culberson chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science that funds NASA. He was in Houston to get an update on the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft by prime contractors Orbital ATK and Lockheed Martin. The companies’ suppliers were also in the audience.
“The thing you need to stay focused on is your mission,” he told the crowd. “ … There’s strong bipartisan support for NASA.”
The agency received $20.7 billion in the fiscal 2018 spending bill signed into law in March. Part of that money is to build a second mobile launch platform to assist with liftoff. Culberson said appropriating that money will minimize the time needed between the unmanned Exploration Mission-1 and the first manned flight slated for 2022, known as Exploration-Mission 2.
NASA agreed that having a second mobile launcher, which will transport the rocket to the launch pad and then hold that rocket for liftoff, could allow the agency to move up Exploration Mission-2. It is examining potential dates and should have an announcement in the coming months.
While hearing about the launch timeline, Culberson asked about suppliers that could be causing delays for the spacecraft and rocket, which will be integral for NASA’s plans to send humans beyond the International Space Station’s low-earth orbit.
Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Orion deputy program manager, said the suppliers are identifying problems early and finding resolutions. If there’s an issue, they work to ensure it doesn’t stop other work and affect the launch date.
He said in a followup email that problems are hardly uncommon when developing “complex, first-of-a-kind systems,” and that contractors and suppliers are diligent in addressing them.
“We work through challenges with all of our partners as a team to hold our scheduled,” he said.
Thousands of supplier companies across the U.S. are working on SLS, Orion and Exploration Ground Systems, supporting more than 16,000 jobs in 50 states. More than 165 supplier companies in Texas are contributing and providing more than 750 supplier jobs this year.
“I’m counting on you guys to put the cattle prod to them,” Culberson told Price. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor tasked with designing, testing and manufacturing the Orion spacecraft.
Culberson also queried Orbital ATK on whether the SLS rocket boosters are reusable. Both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are developing reusable rocket components, with Blue Origin’s latest test flight occurring Sunday in West Texas. It flew the New Shepard, being designed for space tourism, for its eighth test. Both the spacecraft and booster had flown before.
“If Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are successful in launching rocket bodies and engines four to 10 times, at least, that changes the whole equation,” Culberson said.
The SLS engines are not designed to be reused, said Brian Duffy, Orbital ATK vice president for NASA Programs.
The event was hosted by Oceaneering Space Systems, which is producing the airbags that upright the Orion spacecraft after it lands in water, and the Thermal Curtain that will protect components inside the rocket booster from heat generated during launch.
Carl Walz, director of business development for Oceaneering Space Systems, said the event was an opportunity for Oceaneering employees and area suppliers to feel Culberson’s enthusiasm for NASA and space.
Mark J. Hahn, Jr., president of Houston Precision Fasteners, also noted Culberson’s interest in the space program. He said the recent spending bill appropriating money to NASA has allowed his company, which creates structural fasteners that hold together various components of the SLS and Orion, to hire people and buy equipment.
“SLS and Orion, for us, has really increased our business,” Hahn said.