NASA’s uncertain future: New rocket design in works, but its mission is unclear Even some NASA boosters are questioning the need for new rocket

WASHINGTON — By month’s end, NASA plans to present Congress with a design for a new rocket that one day could take astronauts to the moon or beyond.

Several options are on the table, including one that recycles key parts of the space shuttle, set to retire in July. But as engineers ponder designs, even some NASA boosters are posing a deeper question:

Why even build it?

With Congress struggling to control spending, critics are wondering whether the country needs a new spaceship that lacks both a mission and destination except for occasional trips to the International Space Station.
“I don’t think we need it. I don’t think we can afford to operate it. I think it will be rarely used and expensive to maintain,” said Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator. “The most likely possibility is that it [the rocket] is unfortunately going to collapse under its own weight in a couple years.”

Already, NASA has told Congress that it can’t build the rocket and its companion crew capsule by the 2017 deadline with the money — at least $14 billion over the next five years — it has been given.

More seriously, NASA hasn’t decided where it wants the rocket and capsule to go.

Agency officials talk constantly about the ultimate goal — Mars — but that trip is likely decades away. Few are talking about what to do in the meantime.

“The ultimate destination is Mars, but there are multiple ways to get there. Where we go between now and then is what we have to figure out,” said Dan Dumbacher, a top official in NASA’s exploration division.

When asked when NASA will make that decision — whether it would be months, or years — Dumbacher demurred: “I can’t give you a schedule,” he said.

In February 2010, President Barack Obama unveiled his vision for NASA: He urged Congress to cancel the over-budget Constellation moon-rocket program; fund commercial rockets to service the space station; and direct NASA to focus for the remainder of the decade on developing futuristic new spacecraft.

Congress rebelled. And the resulting compromise left no one happy.

Constellation was canceled, but its so-called Orion crew capsule survived, as did Constellation’s ultimate goal of building a new heavy-lift rocket. At the same time, lawmakers from Texas, Florida and Alabama imposed strict guidelines on NASA when building the new rocket.

As much as it could, NASA was to use existing contracts and workers — protecting NASA centers in those three states as well as traditional aerospace companies, such as ATK of Minnesota, which builds the shuttle’s solid-rocket boosters, and Lockheed Martin, which is the prime manufacturer of the shuttle’s external tank in addition to the rocket’s crew capsule.

The compromise also ignored the problem that doomed Constellation: cost. Constellation spent $13.1 billion — and didn’t produce a finished rocket. Congress is allocating even less money during the next three years for the new rocket.

And even if the rocket is built, it remains uncertain where NASA will find the money to build the landers, habitats and other equipment necessary to land humans on a moon or asteroid.

“We’re trying to figure out what is possible,” Dumbacher said.

All that flies in the face of what a presidential committee recommended in 2009: that NASA match its expectations with a proper budget. The committee, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, suggested that in order for NASA to do “meaningful” human exploration, its budget must increase by $3 billion annually to more than $20 billion a year.

Instead, the White House and Congress are freezing funding — the agency’s proposed 2012 budget is $18.7 billion. And that doesn’t bode well for the future, said one member of the Augustine committee.

“I’m a little less optimistic now then I was a year-and-a-half ago,” said Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut. “The money is not there, and there is all this uncertainty.”

That uncertainty is reflected in the continuing tension between the White House and Congress of where to go and why.

Last year, Obama visited Kennedy Space Center and called on NASA to mount a human expedition to an asteroid by 2025. But that goal has gotten little mention since then.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, filed a bill in April that directs NASA to “return to the Moon by 2022 and develop a sustained human presence.”

“The current administration has left them [NASA officials] without a clear destination, and I think it’s critical that we provide NASA with a sense of direction,” Posey said. But so far, his bill has only six co-sponsors.

One architect of the compromise bill, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., did not respond to repeated requests for an interview to discuss his goals for the new rocket. Nelson, a senior space-policy figure on Capitol Hill thanks to his 1986 flight aboard a shuttle, is running for re-election in a state that will lose 7,000 jobs once the shuttle is retired.

Instead of the senator answering questions, a Nelson spokesman emailed: “NASA is going to take a cost-effective and incremental approach that will develop their capabilities through journeying to deep space destinations that could include the moon or an asteroid.”

When NASA announces its decision on a rocket design, all of these questions — the rocket’s mission, who should build it, how does the agency pay for it — are likely to remain. And until they are answered, America’s manned-space program will remain in limbo.

Says Chiao, a 50-year-old engineer who flew three times on the shuttle, “It is hard to see how this ends well and gets to the main goal of doing something meaningful.” or 202-824-8222

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