Until now ATK, the rocket manufacturer that stands to be perhaps the biggest aerospace loser if the White House plan to cancel Constellation moves forward, has waged its battles behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. Now the company appears to be taking the fight public.

Charlie Precourt: ATK’s astronaut fights Obama space plan

Former astronaut Charlie Precourt at an Ares I briefing
Former astronaut Charlie Precourt at an Ares I briefing

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

Until now ATK, the rocket manufacturer that stands to be perhaps the biggest aerospace loser if the White House plan to cancel Constellation moves forward, has waged  its battles behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.  Now the company appears to be taking the fight public.

As you can see from the email below,  Charlie Precourt, ATK’s general manager for the Ares I rocket and a former astronaut,  is carrying  the Constellation torch, repeating well-known arguments that the Obama plan will cede U.S. leadership in space, set the country back, and put 25,000 aerospace workers on the street. He also vents against commercial rockets for being “unproven”, a charge that many Constellation critics level at the Ares I despite the successful flight of a mock up prototype last year. 

But Charlie goes one step  further than other aerospace industry critics by accusing nameless NASA political appointees of disenfranchising “the ENTIRE leadership team in the agency who are our nation’s brain trust on how to execute our space program.”  It’s a charge that almost begs to be followed by a clap of thunder and a scream. The implication is that rockets could soon be falling from the skies along with astronauts, satellites, telescopes and space stations because NASA is being run by hobbyists. Precourt offers no evidence to support his complaint.

As reported on these pages earlier this week, some folks inside NASA and in Congress say ATK has been behind the sniping at NASA’s deputy administrator Lori Garver. The not so-thinly veiled broadside against her in Precourt’s email  appears to lend further credence to the charges. It’s hard to understand how this will help ATK going forward as some could see it as a declaration of war on NASA’s political leadership and is almost certain to strengthen Garver’s hand. Perhaps ATK decided that with the shuttle being retired and Constellation on the brink  it has nothing left to lose.

Also interesting to note is that fact that while railing against commercial rocket companies, Precourt made no mention of SpaceX’s upcoming test flight of the actual Falcon 9 rocket that  it intends to fly to the space station, not a mock up  test-of-concept vehicle like was the Ares I-X. He also makes no mention of ATK’s own earlier public position to take the Ares I commercial. Perhaps that’s because Lockheed Martin Corp. has other plans for the Orion capsule that was supposed to fly on top of Ares.

Officially, Lockheed Martin, Boeing Company and ATK are still doing the rounds in Washington telling lawmakers that they support staying the course with Constellation. But behind the scenes, each company is busy hedging its bets and trying to cut separate deals that best reward their shareholders.

Boeing has a piece of the commercial space program with Bigelow Aerospace and is also behind an in-line shuttle -derived heavy-lift vehicle that would involve ATK. Lockheed Martin, is pushing for Orion to fly on anything but word is that it has a preference for a Delta IV-derived vehicle (a “commercial” rocket)  but, of course, the company would not spit at a Direct-like rocket if Orion was perched on top.

While Precourt also touts Ares’ emphasis on astronaut safety he ignores the findings of several government investigators and panels that have found Constellation to be dogged by numerous technical issues that make it virtually unaffordable given current the country’s present economic circumstances and unlikely to fly before 2017.

Notwithstanding, the pressure may be helping speed up a compromise between Constellation supporters and backers of the Obama plan. The bet is that Congress and the White House are going to settle on the development of some heavy-lift rocket while continuing with the administration’s plans to help commercial rocket companies develop human spaceflight capabilities. What role ATK, has in that, if any, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Precourt’s appeal is included below in its full glory. Read, enjoy and stay tuned.


 From: “Charlie Precourt”

Date: Sat, 20 Feb 2010 21:45:31

Subject: NASA News

Dear friends and family, 

For many of you it has been a long time since last contact, so I hope this note finds everyone well!

 I am not one to provide mass e-mail ordinarily; however, a very unusual circumstance regarding NASA’s future has been unfolding that I felt compelled to share.  The President’s budget request for fiscal year 2011 (beginning in October) calls for the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program.  Specifically, the budget calls for the outsourcing of all human spaceflight services to an unproven private sector.  What this means to our space program is deeply disturbing.  The Space Shuttle will be retired this year, after its final flight (4 to go) and with the proposed cancellation of Constellation, which was intended to replace Shuttle with ever more capable spacecraft, there will be no US capability to transport American astronauts to the space station or other future destinations.

 Constellation was envisioned to provide far safer and more capable access to space, including plans to return to the moon, asteroids or one day Mars.  However, the President’s budget would outsource human spaceflight access for our nation to private companies who seek to develop other markets such as space tourism. This market is a fantasy that remains in our distant future.  Our astronaut program as we know it would evolve to private corporate space fliers, and our access to the International Space Station will be via Russian launchers.  We are ceding our leadership in space.  Worse, when the Shuttle program ends and Constellation is terminated there will be 25,000 high tech jobs in our workforce that will be in limbo as there will be no existing government contracts in place to actively and productively engage this workforce.

 Many of you know that I have had the personal privilege of being the general manager at ATK for the development of the Ares rocket under Constellation… and we achieved our first flight in October, earning with it Time magazine’s invention of the year award for 2009.  Ares was designed to be 10 times safer that Shuttle, achieving the objective of drastically reducing the risk of another Challenger or Columbia accident… Ares would be terminated under Constellation, in spite of this success.

 Obama’s budget for NASA takes the agency back years and cedes our leadership in space to China, Russia and other nations who see the value in a robust program.  What is most disturbing however is the PROCESS.  Administration political appointees to the NASA agency have disenfranchised the ENTIRE leadership team in the agency who are our nation’s brain trust on how to execute our space program….Hubble, Mars Rovers, International Space Station, Shuttle to name a few would not exist without these incredible folks…. and the Administration has put forth a budget proposal that no one in the agency’s technical ranks has the foggiest idea how they can support or execute.  The proposal to cancel Constellation puts 25,000 high tech jobs on the street with the enactment of the bill at the end of this year.

 So given this very strange and disturbing set of circumstances, I thought I would share links to three web sites, where you can register for a petition to the President, and find further information on how to contact your Congressional representatives and the President by fax or mail.  The links to these web sites are below.  Please feel free to forward this note and information widely…  The Congressional process to review, alter and approve the budget is just beginning, so now is the time to write if you are so inclined.




 This last web site in particular has additional background information on the program.

 The important messages to communicate are:

 NASA’s Constellation program must not be cancelled.  Constellation systems must continue to be developed so that we maintain our world leadership in space, motivate our youth to pursue careers in science and math, provide for safer access to our International Space Station and ever greater destinations in space, and continue to reap the benefits created by NASA’s high tech workforce.

 The change that is needed to the President’s budget is simply one of balance. We cannot put all our eggs in one basket and hope that the private sector can provide for NASA’s space mission needs.  Funding needs to be restored to the Constellation program (interestingly NASA’s budget did not go down with this cancellation, the funds were just vectored to purchasing services from this undefined private sector). Constellation development and a rational amount of stimulus to spin off NASA space flight technologies to the private sector are both achievable within the President’s budget request.  Prior to this budget NASA was investing $4B to stimulate private sector space activities.  With this budget proposal, NASA’s own Constellation Program and its promising future will be canceled to underwrite an additional $6B to this undefined private sector activity.

 Thanks for reading… don’t hesitate to pass this along.

 Best regards

 Charlie Precourt

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