WASHINGTON — NASA this week told Congress it cannot afford to build a new heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft to replace the retiring space shuttle program within the current budget approved by Congress.
Lawmakers from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation shot back that the plan is not optional and that the US space agency must find a way to devise a workable plan.
"The production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It's the law," said a joint statement issued late Wednesday by Senators John Rockefeller, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Bill Nelson and David Vitter.
"NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently -- and, it must be a priority."
The Senate committee released a copy of the NASA report, which the US space agency had not issued publicly but presented to lawmakers on January 10.
It said that NASA fears it does not have the adequate funds according to budgets outlined in the fiscal year 2011 and President Barack Obama's 2012 budget request.
"None of the design options studied thus far appeared to be affordable in our present fiscal conditions, based upon existing cost models, historical data, and traditional acquisition approaches," said the NASA report.
The US space agency said no structures identified so far have been able to meet three criteria set out by its administrator of developing a future exploration system that is "affordable, sustainable and realistic."
It also said the plan to make a first launch of a new heavy-lift rocket system by 2016 "does not appear to be possible" within the projected budget.
NASA said it would continue to study the matter and would issue another report to Congress in the coming months.
"NASA commits to providing a follow-on report to Congress as early as the Spring 2011 timeframe to update our approach based on the plans described herein and, if necessary, modifications based on the outcome of FY 2011 appropriations and the president's FY 2012 budget request."
The final two -- or if the budget allows, three -- space shuttle flights are set to take place this year, with Discovery scheduled to launch February 24, before the fleet is retired for good.