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Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana placed a hold Monday on President Obama's nominee for undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. The nominee, Elizabeth Robinson, is currently the chief financial officer at NASA. Vitter said he's imposed the hold because she has delayed approving contracts for work on the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The contracts would provide 300-600 jobs at the facility, according to Vitter.
In fact, budget cuts at NASA that Vitter has raised no objection to are a key element in the delay. The program's developers are also part of the problem.
Any senator can put a hold on a nominee. Unless he withdraws it, Robinson would need 60 votes in the Senate to be confirmed. This isn't Vitter's first hold. He also put one on Labor Secretary Thomas L. Perez. But the Senate confirmed Perez anyway.
Orion and the Space Launch System is NASA's planned next generation of spacecraft, meant to have both near- and deep-space capabilities. The first test of an uncrewed Orion is slated for September 2014. But it won't be launched by the new SLS rocket. The first crewed flight is not scheduled until 2021. Critics of Orion/SLS are numerous. Some say the $30 billion development cost of the single-use SLS rocket system and its half-billion-a-launch cost is unsustainable. John Strickland argued this summer that a reusable rocket makes more sense and would be cheaper.
As you can read here, here, here, here and here, engineering problems are contributing to delays that Robinson has zero to do with. When one development milestone slips, they all slip.
“The incremental development approach NASA has adopted for the MPCV puts the Program at risk for increased cost and schedule delays,” concluded the OIG report. That incremental approach, it stated, is necessary since Orion does not have the traditional bell-shaped funding profile, but is instead projected to receive a constant $1 billion per year through 2018, according to the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal.
Under this incremental approach, the report states, managers “allocate available funding to the most critical systems needed to meet the next development milestone.” The OIG concludes warns that this could lead to schedule and cost problems down the road, including some tests that have already been delayed, such as a test of Orion’s abort system that has been delayed four years to 2018. The program also have to overcome some technical problems, including the capsule being above its target weight and cracks in its heat shield.
Making Robinson somehow accountable for delays that are the fault of congressional budgeting and engineering snares is the epitome of pettiness. As Keith Cowing at NASA Watch writes:
Reminder to NASA employees: Sen. Vitter voted against sending all of you back to work during the shutdown. Is he really concerned about jobs? It depends what day of the week it is, so it would seem. Clearly this is all naked politics on Sen. Vitter's part.
Not exactly a surprise.
Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 09:54 AM PDT.