WASHINGTON — A senior NASA official has signed the formal death warrant for the Constellation deep space exploration program even as work proceeds on one of Constellation’s legacy development efforts and agency officials continue to ponder the fate of another.
“I have signed the letter to close out the Constellation Program,” Douglas Cooke, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, wrote in a June 10 memo.
With Constellation’s demise now official, the Constellation project office, which “has already scaled back in size significantly,” will be charged “with transitioning contracts, etc. to the new [Space Launch System] and [Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle] programs,” Cooke wrote in the memo.
NASA spokesman Michael Braukus confirmed June 10 that the letter came from Cooke.
The fate of some Constellation contracts remains unclear, as NASA has not decided whether to use those contracts to build the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket with a 130-ton lift capacity that Congress ordered the space agency to construct in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.
The rocket’s prescribed lift capability resembles that of the Ares 5, which was to have been the cargo-hauling vehicle for Moon-bound missions under Constellation. Ares 5’s design is based closely on the smaller Ares 1 crew launching rocket, which was well under development when the White House proposed canceling Constellation and taking NASA’s human spaceflight program in a new direction.
Boeing Space Exploration, Houston, ATK Aerospace Systems, Magna, Utah, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Canoga Park, Calif., hold contracts to build key components of the now-canceled Ares 1.
NASA is expected to make a decision on the design of the congressionally mandated heavy-lifter sometime in the coming weeks. Braukus declined to set a date for that announcement, saying NASA is still “working through the integrated acquisition strategy” for heavy-lift launcher procurement.
The Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle, also mandated by the 2010 authorization act, is the space capsule formerly known as Orion. Orion was designed as part of Constellation and NASA said in May that it would adapt the vehicle to fulfill Congress’ mandate for a new U.S. crew transporter. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver holds the contract to build the capsule.