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TMCNet:  NASA may push Ares I as demonstration project instead

[September 23, 2009]

NASA may push Ares I as demonstration project instead

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Sep 23, 2009 (The Orlando Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) -- New NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden may be backing away from making the wholesale changes to the agency's manned space program that were advocated by a presidential space panel, according to NASA insiders and administration officials.

Officials say in a teleconference last week, Bolden told senior agency managers he was considering recommending to President Obama that NASA keep working on its controversial Ares I rocket as a "technology demonstrator" _ a development project _ for the more powerful Ares V rocket still on the drawing board.

Bolden's remarks followed a presentation by NASA managers that showed how, with some changes, its Constellation program of Ares I and Ares V rockets could appear to fit in with findings of a 10-member presidential committee that recently reviewed the agency's plans for human exploration.

But one high-ranking NASA official who listened in to the meeting _ but wasn't authorized to talk about it _ said the conversation was "unfortunately caught up in the fantasy" that NASA would be getting an annual $3 billion increase to its current $18 billion budget _ a hike administration officials say is highly unlikely.

Senior administration officials also cautioned against reading too much into Bolden's comments, saying the NASA chief is still trying on ideas and weighing options.

They stressed the White House, not NASA, will choose America's space-exploration strategy, and the hardware to be used, after it receives the final report of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee later this month.

In a summary report issued two weeks ago, that panel suggested NASA should consider scrapping the Ares I, which is as much as two years behind schedule and over budget, and instead rely on commercial rockets to access the international space station. NASA would then focus on new technology-development programs as well as building a large rocket to visit various places in the solar system sometime in the 2020s, rather than returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 as Constellation was supposed to do.

By keeping Ares I and the larger Ares V under development, NASA would preserve the centerpieces of the Constellation program, keeping contractors employed and potentially assuaging critics on Capitol Hill opposed to scrapping the program after four years and nearly $8 billion spent.

Under the latest NASA scenario, Ares V could be used to take astronauts and cargo to explore the solar system. There was no mention of the Altair lunar lander _ which was tentatively slated to be built at Kennedy Space Center _ diminishing hopes of a moon landing anytime soon.

Overall, NASA's new idea is unlikely to do much for the space center, which is looking at thousands of layoffs when the space shuttle is retired next year. But the presidential panel's proposal also would not provide more work for the space center for years to come.

Bolden communicated his support for the new plan Sept. 16 in a teleconference that included associate administrators and directors of NASA's 10 field centers. It represents a reversal of recent NASA papers that were more in line with the presidential panel's conclusions.

Agency spokesmen, however, downplayed the significance of the teleconference.

"Any suggestion that NASA already has made decisions regarding the future of Ares or any other human-spaceflight program is inaccurate," said NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Why Bolden would be willing to promote Ares ahead of a White House decision is unclear, but officials around him say he was caught off guard by the reaction to the presidential panel's findings at congressional hearings last week. Several members of the House Science and Technology Committee attacked the panel's chairman, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, and ridiculed its proposed options. Some were very opposed to scrapping Ares.

On Wednesday, Bolden met with several Florida lawmakers, and one participant said the new NASA boss did not seem to have any firm ideas of how to proceed.

"I left the meeting unconvinced that there is a guiding vision for the future of manned spaceflight in the United States," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow. "I don't mean to imply that he (Bolden) is being evasive; I just don't think he knows." Putnam said several key questions are unanswered: how to replace the space shuttle; how to close the gap between the shuttle and its replacement; and how to ensure U.S. supremacy in space.

But Bolden has been busy behind the scenes. In recent weeks, he told the Ares rocket's main contractors they need to reduce their costs. There is even talk about reworking the agency's contracts with ATK, Boeing Co. and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

One idea is the contractors can cut the rocket's development costs and then charge NASA a fixed per-launch price, as other rocket companies wanting business with NASA have offered to do. Alternatively, NASA could allow the contractors to sell Ares I launches to other users, such as commercial-satellite makers, to bring down NASA's costs. The U.S. Air Force does this.

Relying more on commercial rockets to ferry crew and cargo to the international space station is one of the key recommendations of the Augustine committee.

The committee said NASA's current budget can't get the agency to the moon by 2020 or finance a "viable" exploration program. So it urged $3 billion more a year for the agency and said NASA must work with other countries and private companies to help pay for human exploration.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Critics are worried Bolden has been "hijacked" by Ares supporters who are trying to present their slightly modified version of Constellation as real change.

"This sounds like the average Washington bureaucracy trying to convince their political leadership that they really are changing, while basically continuing to do what they are comfortable doing," said Washington-based space consultant James Muncy.

___ Mark K. Matthews in Washington contributed to this report.

___ (c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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