WASHINGTON — The future of NASA’s major project in Huntsville, the Space Launch System, looks strong, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told area business leaders here Monday.
“I don’t see that going crazy,” Lightfoot said during a question session after a talk to the annual Washington lobbying trip of the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County.
Lightfoot was answering Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, who wanted to know if the city should try to reform a congressional space association to keep funding stable, especially in the lame-duck period following this fall’s presidential election. Lightfoot recently moved from director of Marshall Space Flight Center to acting NASA associate administrator, the highest-ranking civilian post in the agency.
Funding does look relatively stable, Lightfoot said, noting that budget committees in both the House and Senate have written 2013 NASA budgets fairly close to President Obama’s $17.7 billion request.
“The markups all look very positive,” Lightfoot said of the committee versions of the funding bills. Lightfoot said the agency must deliver the first version of the evolvable heavy-lift rocket Congress wants by a planned unmanned test flight to the moon in 2017. And he gave the business and government leaders examples of why that’s hard to do.
The rocket’s core, which is being designed and developed now in Huntsville, must be able to accomodate either solid or liquid boosters in its final form, because NASA hasn’t decided which it will ultimately use.
And the challenge of protecting the new system’s Orion capsule from the heat of re-entry is harder than the shuttle or the Apollo or Gemini capsules that went before it, Lightfoot said. “It’s so big and it will be moving so fast,” he noted.
The big rocket is the Huntsville NASA’s center’s flagship project, but what Battle and the others here this week are looking for is what might come next. They didn’t hear any specific ideas from Lightfoot, who is still mastering all of his new agency-wide responsibilities.