January 27, 2010

Constellation Program May Lose Funding

The Orlando Sentinel reports that President Barack Obama will possibly end NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon, as well as the rockets being designed to take them there.

When the White House releases Obama's budget proposal on Monday, there might not be any funding found for the Constellation program that was going to help pay for humans to return to the moon by 2020. 

The funding for the Ares I rocket, which was set to replace the space shuttle to help take humans to space, is expected to be gone.  Also the Ares V cargo rocket is expected to have no money saved in the budget for it as well.

According to White House insiders, agency officials and industry executives, NASA will look at developing a new "heavy-lift" rocket that will take humans and robots to explore beyond low Earth orbit.

The White House is redirecting NASA to concentrate on Earth-science projects, as well as new technology research and development programs that will one day make human exploration of asteroids and the inner solar system available.

Funding will also be provided to private companies to help develop capsules and rockets that can be used as space ferries to take astronauts on fixed-price contracts to and from the International Space Station.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that the White House budget request scraps the Bush administration's Vision for Space Exploration and signals a major reorientation of NASA, especially in the area of human spaceflight.

"We certainly don't need to go back to the moon," said one administration official.

Senior administration officials say the spending freeze for some federal agencies is not going to apply to NASA in this budget proposal.  They said the space agency is expected to see some "modest" increase in its current $18.7 billion budget.

The officials also said the White House plans to extend the life of the International Space Station at least until 2020.

According to the Sentinel, Obama's budget freeze is likely to slow down NASA in coming years as the spending clampdown will eventually hinder the agency and its ambitions.  It also said that this year's funding request to develop both commercial rockets and a new NASA spaceship will be less than what was recommended by a White House panel of experts in 2009.

Lawmakers prohibited NASA from canceling any Constellation programs last year, as well as starting new ones in their place.  U.S. Senator Richard Shelby said the provision sends a "direct message that the Congress believes Constellation is, and should remain, the future of America's human space flight program."

NASA contractors have been quietly preparing themselves for the end of Ares I, which is years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

The space agency has spent over $3 billion on Ares I, and more than $5 billion on the rest of Constellation project.

NASA has been soliciting concepts for a new heavy-lift rocket from major contractors in recent days, including Boeing Co. and Pratt & Whitney. 

A group of moonlighting NASA engineers and rocket hobbyists purposed variations last week of the old agency designs that use the shuttle's main engines and fuel tank to launch a capsule into space.  Some of the contractor designs are similar to the one pressed by the hobbyists, the Sentinel reported.

However, Boeing still supports Constellation, and others believe that Ares may survive a battle with Congress.

"I would not say Ares is dead yet," said an executive with one major NASA contractor. "It's probably more accurate to say it's on life support. We have to wait to see how the coming battle ends."

Obama is killing off programs that have created jobs in some powerful constituencies like Marshall Space Flight Center in Shelby's Alabama.  The paper said that he's done this to help finance new science and technology programs and find money for commercial rockets.

The end of the shuttle program will cut 7,000 jobs at Kennedy Space Center.

According to one administration official, the budget will send a message that it is time members of Congress recognize that NASA cannot design space programs to create jobs in their districts. 

"That's the view of the president," the official said.


On the Net: