Houston Chronicle: NASA's giant rocket gives JSC a lift

September 20, 2011


Houston Chronicle:  “NASA's giant rocket gives JSC a lift”

Houston Chronicle Editorial

Published on Sunday, September 18, 2011

After a lengthy tug of war between the White House and Congress, NASA has finally - some would say grudgingly - unveiled plans for a massive booster rocket to propel U.S. astronauts on future expeditions into deep space.

It's a victory for Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and other lawmakers who fought to keep a heavy-launch vehicle in the space agency playbook after the Obama administration canceled the Constellation "return to the moon" program.

Whether the new rocket with the unassuming name Space Launch System (SLS) becomes reality depends upon the nation's manned space program getting the necessary $18 billion in funding over the next six years. The total price tag for the project is $35 billion.

Sen. Hutchison is hopeful the current budget-cutting bent in Congress does not interfere with a schedule that would have the first test flight of the booster in 2017.

She told the New York Times that the Republican leadership sees manned space flight "as part of the American spirit and most certainly part of the American economy and America's national security where we cannot afford to be in second place."

The unveiling of what could become the most powerful rocket ever built by humans provides insurance that the Johnson Space Center at Clear Lake will remain a hub of the U.S. space program and a bulwark of the Clear Lake economy.

Now that NASA has revived the former Orion Crew Capsule as part of the SLS while extending the life of the International Space Station controlled from JSC, there should be plenty of work training astronauts for the new missions.

That's reassuring for the space center's workforce (currently around 14,000), which has lost some 3,800 employees and contractors in the last year and a half with the cancellation of Constellation and the end of the space shuttle program.

The Greater Houston Partnership's President and CEO Jeff Mose-ly called the NASA announcement "a positive step toward retaining and potentially growing high-paying jobs at the Johnson Space Center." He credited Sen. Hutchison with the perseverance and leadership that made it happen.

The final version of the new rocket, powered by three large boosters fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, will be more powerful than the Saturn 5 that launched the Apollo moon missions. It borrows and expands upon the Apollo technology while incorporating rocket motors from the shuttle program.

Having made a costly start and stop with Constellation, NASA will be under tight scrutiny to see if it can maintain the construction and flight schedule for the SLS and stay within budget.

With the Chinese moving forward toward building a space station and eventual lunar landings, America's preeminence in manned space exploration is literally riding on the success of the new rocket.

NASA can't afford not to get it right