Obama administration’s efforts to kill NASA’s Constellation Program

In testimony on Capitol Hill, top NASA managers are walking a thin and carefully lawyered line as they prepare a White House-ordered shift to commercial human flights to orbit and long-term exploration-technology development in Fiscal 2011, while trying to obey a congressional directive that none of the funds appropriated in Fiscal 2010 be used “to cancel, terminate or significantly modify” Constellation contracts without the express approval of lawmakers. “That provision is being strictly complied to,” says Administrator Charles Bolden. “We have not terminated nor canceled any contracts in the Constellation Program; we have not directed a slowdown of anything in the Constellation Program.” Bolden and Doug Cooke, associate administrator for exploration systems, drew sharp questioning on the issue in back-to-back testimony on Capitol Hill March 23 and 24, and doubtless would have faced more had the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with NASA oversight not postponed a planned March 25 hearing on the agency’s Fiscal 2011 budget request. The new NASA plan has drawn almost unanimous opposition in Congress (AW&ST Feb. 8, p. 22). As a result of the termination ban, work on the Ares I crew launch vehicle and Orion crew exploration vehicle in development under Constellation continues apace, while companies developing possible alternatives to Ares I/Orion forge ahead as well. Alliant Techsystems (ATK) engineers are evaluating the results of a second test of the attitude-control motor for the Orion launch abort system, which would pull the crew capsule off a failing Ares I stack during ascent so it could parachute to safety. Preliminary results of the March 17 hot-fire test at Elkton, Md., show the test was successful, and the motor is ready to operate with ATK’s main abort motor and the Aerojet jettison motor in a pad-abort flight test coming up at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., this year. Completion of the attitude-control motor tests came on the heels of preliminary design review for the Ares I/Orion stack, which cleared the vehicle to move on to detailed design, Cooke told the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee. “The Constellation Program will spend the next several months completing preliminary design reviews for its spacesuits, mission operations and ground operations and beginning detailed designs for future missions,” NASA states on its web site. But, while work continues on Constellation, the two U.S. companies holding NASA commercial contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station are preparing the vehicles the Obama administration hopes will someday be able to deliver humans there as well. Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) this month has hot-fired its Falcon 9 rocket on a converted military launch pad at Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. (AW&ST March 22, p. 18), and Orbital Sciences Corp. (OSC) is building a new pad for its Taurus II vehicle at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Va. Crews at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are preparing to begin testing the AJ26 engine for the Taurus II at the end of May or early in June, following a successful long-duration test in Russia of the NK-33 engine that is its basis (AW&ST March 22, p. 36). For the American version of the Russian engine, Aerojet has added a gimbal block for steering, new initiators and electronics harnessing and is working with OSC to modify its duty cycle for the new launch vehicle, according to Julie Van Kleek, Aerojet vice president for space programs. A single engine will be tested at Stennis through the summer, to set up a two-engine stage test at Wallops in the late summer or early fall, she says. Testifying to the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee, Bolden said he personally would like to “lease” commercial human-rated vehicles that NASA’s astronauts could pilot to the International Space Station, guided by a mixed team of NASA and contractor personnel at Mission Control Center-Houston. And he promised more details would be forthcoming on the plan for the shift from Constellation to the new effort to boost commercial transport to orbit. “I understand the committee’s concern that details, such as our justification documents, have been slow to reach you,” Bolden testified March 23 in the first appropriations hearing on the Fiscal 2011 budget request. “Very soon we will be announcing program office assignments needed to carry out the president’s vision, and challenges to NASA. Other details will become available in the coming weeks.” Those details still must clear the White House review process that apparently stymied releases of the full NASA budget along with the rest of the federal request on Feb. 1. Although Bolden took the blame personally for the uncoordinated budget release, members of the panel continued to express frustration that they still had not received a full explanation of the White House plan for the space agency. For his part, Bolden says he favors development of a “common crew module” that could fly on several different commercial launch vehicles. “I would like to help the commercial entities design a single crew module, because it’s good for us to train,” he says. “You don’t have to train crews for multiple crew modules, and that can be used interchangeably on any launch vehicle.” Under pressure from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and others, Bolden has vowed to do what is possible within the constraints of the Fiscal 2011 budget to accelerate development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle. For NASA, that would enable human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. However, under questioning from House appropriations subcommittee members, Bolden said such a vehicle would also have national security applications. “Just as recently as last week, I was involved in a video teleconference with the space-related agencies in our government, with Secretary [Michael] Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, and Gen. [Robert] Kehler [commander of Air Force Space Command], Gen. [Bruce] Carlson [director of the National Reconnaissance Office], and the issues that we discussed included the need for a broad national launch system that will put us back where we need to be,” Bolden testified. “We are too reliant right now on old systems.” In addition to its review of the civilian space program conducted in the runup to the Fiscal 2011 budget request, the Obama administration is also in the midst of a broader interagency review of U.S. space policy under the aegis of the National Security Council. Interestingly, though, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told House defense appropriators March 24 that they were not aware of specific concerns yet within the Pentagon over ramifications stemming from proposed changes under NASA. Pressed by new defense appropriations subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Mullen said he and other defense officials have long-standing concerns about the space industrial base, much as they do for shipbuilding, but specific concerns apparently have not risen to the highest levels (AW&ST Feb. 8, p. 19). While Bolden and other top NASA managers believe the gap in U.S. human access to space that will open after the shuttle fleet is retired can be closed more quickly and cheaply by commercial transport than the Ares I/Orion approach, Tom Young, the former president of Martin Marietta and executive vice president of Lockheed Martin, says he does not believe the record bears them out. Referring to the Pentagon acquisition reform program known as TSPR (Total System Performance Responsibility) of the late 1990s, when the U.S. Air Force wrote its national security space contracts to give industry system responsibility, Young told the House science panel, “the results were devastating, and the adverse impact is with us today.” Among examples of problematic programs developed at that time, Young cited the Future Imagery Architecture, the Space-Based Infrared System and the National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System. “These all started in the late ’90s, and not one of them has been launched to date,” Young says. “Today we’re getting half of the program content for twice the money, six years late.”

By Frank Morring, Jr. and Michael Bruno Washington

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