Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., took quick action on Thursday to end contracts for an already-canceled Constellation space program after NASA's inspector general argued that the cash-strapped agency would waste more than $215 million funding it by the end of next month due to a fiscal catch-22.
A provision in a fiscal 2010 omnibus appropriations bill forbids NASA from canceling contracts for the Bush-era Constellation rocket and space capsule program. But two months after he signed the spending bill, President Obama terminated Constellation; since then, the space agency's hands have been tied as it continued to pump millions into a program it no longer intended to field.
Nelson, a leading voice in the Senate on space issues, has written legislation repealing the provision. The money, Nelson said, should be spent on future space projects.
"Given that every dime counts in our space program right now, we can't afford to be wasting money," Nelson, who served as a payload specialist on a 1986 Columbia space shuttle mission, said in a statement.
According to an IG letter sent to Nelson and other key lawmakers, NASA would have considered ending or at least scaling back many of the aspects of the Constellation program protected by the spending measure. Provisions in last year's spending bill remain in effect because the government is operating under a stop-gap continuing resolution that funds most programs at fiscal 2010 levels.
The issue, according to the agency's watchdog, requires "immediate action by Congress." By the end of the fiscal year, NASA could waste $575 million on the program if Congress does not either pass legislation that repeals the 2010 appropriations language or approve a new spending bill that lifts the prohibition.
The major components of the Constellation program were the Ares I rocket that was being built to lift the Orion crew capsule into low Earth orbit, as well as a much larger Ares V rocket that could carry a crew to the moon. Rather than continue Constellation, Obama decided to focus space efforts on commercial ventures while also developing a new heavy-lift rocket and multipurpose crew vehicle. That rocket would be based on the space shuttle and previous technology.
In October 2010, Obama signed a three-year NASA authorization bill providing specific guidance for the manned space program after the space-shuttle era comes to a close later this year, a directive at odds with the omnibus appropriations bill.
The authorization bill does direct NASA to leverage the existing contracts, workforce and other investments from the Constellation program. But Congress has not yet approved a new appropriations bill to fund any new programs -- and new program starts are prohibited under continuing resolutions.
"As a result, NASA is in the difficult position of having to fund elements of a program that have been canceled," according to the IG letter. "At the same time, restrictions in the CR and the fiscal 2010 appropriations legislation prohibit NASA from establishing any new programs to implement the directives set forth in the 2010 Authorization Act."