Canceled NASA rocket resurfaces in private ATK bid for tax dollars

ATK is pursuing funds after strongly opposing privatized space flight — months after Congress and the White House canceled Ares I.

 Ares 1 rocketA launch tower (right) designed for NASA’s Ares 1 rocket is pictured at Kennedy Space Center. The rocket has never flown because its price tag kept rising as its launch date kept slipping. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel / January 20, 2010)

By Mark K. Matthews, Washington Bureau  

WASHINGTON — Over the last six years, NASA has paid Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota more than $1 billion to build a rocket capable of taking a half-dozen astronauts to the International Space Station as a first step to flying them to the moon.

But the rocket — dubbed Ares I — never has flown. And last fall, President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to cancel it — along with the entire Constellation moon-rocket program of which it was a part — because its price tag kept rising as its launch date kept slipping.

So ATK, as the company is known, has gone to a Plan B: It’s repackaging the Ares I to compete as a commercial “space taxi” that could ferry astronauts to the space station.

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But the company doesn’t plan to give NASA a discount. Instead, after taking roughly $1.2 billion for the Ares I, ATK is angling for a piece of roughly $300 million in grant money that NASA wants to use to help spur the commercial development of a space taxi.

What’s more, it claims it can have the new model ready to fly in 2015 — two years earlier than the Ares I would have been available.

This dramatic shift has amazed even veteran space observers.

“It’s a thinly-veiled attempt to profit at the expense of the taxpayers,” said Rick Tumlinson, a co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and longtime advocate of commercial space travel. “What ATK is trying to do is put the taxpayers’ skin in the game and act as if it’s their own.”

When asked about this arrangement, ATK officials did not directly address questions about the tax dollars the company has received to build Ares I.

Instead, ATK spokesman George Torres pointed out that ATK isn’t the only competitor for the $300 million that has taken government money. An announcement of the winners is expected in early April.

“Everyone else that you look at gets all kinds of money,” said Torres, who later added: “There is no such thing as a pure commercial company.”

2 big differences

Indeed, at least two other rivals in the competition have taken federal dollars. SpaceX of California has received nearly a half-billion dollars from NASA to help develop and build the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that it launched into space last year. And United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has a longstanding contract with the Defense Department worth billions of dollars to launch payloads into orbit, a program also beset by cost overruns.

But critics note there are two differences in the ATK bid.

First, the company is pursuing funds for commercial spaceflight after strongly opposing efforts by the White House to have NASA rely more on commercial rocket companies. In a letter last year, ATK vice president Charlie Precourt raised concerns about “outsourcing” human spaceflight to what he called the “unproven private sector” — a move he said would cede U.S. leadership in space.

“It goes beyond ironic,” Tumlinson said.

Secondly, ATK’s bid comes just months after Congress and the White House cancelled Ares I, which was supposed to be a simple and cheap rocket with a first stage created by bolting together five segments of the solid-rocket boosters that help power the space shuttle.

But the new design proved more difficult to build than expected, as ATK labored for years to solve problems such as violent shaking of the rocket.

“It would not make sense to throw more bad money [toward ATK] after taxpayers already received nothing for the $1.2 billion,” said Tom Schatz, president of the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. “There is a history and credibility issue here.”

That $1.2 billion also does not include millions of dollars more — a NASA spokesman was unable to provide a figure — that the agency has spent on facilities used by ATK. NASA is also continuing to pay the company for its Constellation contract — even after its cancellation — as it’s required to do until Congress passes a 2011 budget, something that hasn’t yet happened.

But NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said he had little concern that ATK was using its failed Ares I effort to help it compete for commercial dollars.

“We want to help facilitate a vibrant space economy,” Bolden said. “If somebody wants to take the shuttle and re-fly it. I don’t care. I just want to make sure the nation has the capability of getting to low-Earth orbit.”

There’s also the issue of ATK claiming the latest version of the Ares I rocket, dubbed Liberty, could meet a 2015 deadline. A presidential commission in 2009 said the rocket suffered from so many problems that it would not be ready until 2017 at the earliest.

ATK’s new partner

ATK, however, said the Liberty won’t rely on other U.S. aerospace companies to build its upper stage — which they blame for the delays. Instead, ATK is partnering with Astrium, the European company behind the Ariane 5 rocket, to build the upper stage.

“Gaining operational capability by 2015 is possible because the Liberty launch vehicle takes advantage of decades of flight-proven, highly mature hardware and technology,” Torres said.

Others weren’t so sure.

“It’s like the Dukes of Hazzard. They paint up an old car to make it look faster, but it’s the same rocket,” said Keith Cowing, editor of the watchdog site NASA Watch. “I’m glad they are trying to use this [Ares I] technology, but shouldn’t taxpayers be getting a percentage of the profit?”

ATK’s new plan has at least one optimistic supporter: U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who singled out the Liberty rocket earlier this year for its potential to bring 300 jobs in Florida.

While these positions represent a fraction of the 7,000 jobs that will disappear at Kennedy Space Center when the shuttle stops flying this summer, Nelson held out hope that a company such as ATK could “get us flying by 2015” — critical to KSC because the center’s main job is processing spacecraft for launch.

Whether another payment to ATK is a wise investment, however, is a question that Nelson said he did not feel was appropriate for him to address.

“This is a decision for NASA to make in a competition,” said Nelson through a spokesman. or 202-824-8222.

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