While some members of Congress are gearing up for a battle royale with the White House over President Barack Obama’splans to cancel NASA’s Constellation moon program, some of the agency’s main aerospace contractors appear to be abandoning the troubled rocket project that was once billed as “Apollo on steroids.” Recently rocket engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne have told other contractors — namely Lockheed Martin, Boeing, ATK and the United Space Alliance — that it will no longer support their lobbying efforts to keep Constellation alive. Their departure from the elite lobbying effort — confirmed by very reliable sources and PWR officials — is a blow to the effort to keep the moon program going over the objections of the President. Pratt & Whitney is the nation’s No. 1 rocket engine maker and has powered missions to nearly every planet in the solar system. PWR had a contract for the J2-X engine that would have powered the upper stage of the Ares I, the crew- carrying rocket at the heart of Constellation. The company’s upgraded RS-68 engines were also supposed to launch the Ares V cargo lifter taking the the Altair lunar lander and extra fuel and supplies needed to get astronauts in the Orion capsule to the lunar surface. The company also makes the three SSMEs that power the space shuttles, but officials say that the company is not pushing for more shuttle flights either. The move is unlikely to rebound on the company as any next major NASA rocket project would almost have to rely on PWR engines. Instead, sources say that the company really wants Obama’s proposed 2011 budget include a new rocket development program, a clear destination and a development time-line which are currently conspicuous by their absence from the White House’s financial plan that still has to be approved by Congress. PWR also works closely with United Launch Alliance, a Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. joint-venture which operates a fleet of military rockets that are expected to play a big role in the President’s push to outsource NASA crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station to private rocket companies on fixed-price contracts. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which has a manufacturing plant in West Palm Beach, is not the only aerospace giant turning their back on Constellation. Boeing Co. also appears to be joining the ditch-the-Ares crowd. During every shuttle launch, Boeing publishes a “Reporter’s Notebook” full of facts,figures and puffery about NASA’s latest orbiter mission. These are handed out with other freebies to journalists, VIPs and anybody else looking for launch SWAG. Every notebook always starts with a section on Constellation. “The vision to inspire begins with a dream of hope and knowledge and ends with a mission of purpose and realization,” it began — that is until now. The Constellation section vanished from the latest notebook prepared for the STS-131 flight of Discovery’s resupply mission to the space station. The cut was not unintentional or left for keen-eyed reporters to discover on their own like old Soviet-era readers looking for possible changes in Politburo by reading the Pravda newspaper to see whose name was left out of stories. No. In this case the change was pointed out, somewhat boastfully by Boeing spokesman Ed Memi. “Hey Bobby, you’ll see that we finally took out the Constellation section of the notebook,” Memi said as I picked one up early on Monday morning ahead of the launch. While neither the PWR or Boeing moves are irreversible, they had to be approved at the highest levels of the respective organizations. [Boeing spokesman Ed Memi later said nobody at Boeing approved the decision to remove the Constellation section from the notebook. He said it was a public affairs office decision alone because “the program is slated for cancellation.” He also said that his remarks to me were in jest and not to be taken as a corporate position. “We are prepared to go wherever the NASA customer goes on this and if Constellation is kept alive, we are fully on board with whatever decision is made,” Memi said in an email, apologizing for any misinterpretation of his remarks.] Going back to the “program of record” looks like it is going to be harder to do than many Constellation supporters had hoped for.
By Orlando Sentinel