December 30, 2010

What Is Delaying Termination Of NASA’s Rocket Program?

Congressional roadblocks are forcing NASA to maintain an already obsolete rocket program until March, costing the space agency $500 million and further complicating efforts to replace the space shuttle.

NASA's Constellation program, which includes the building of the Ares I rocket to replace the space shuttle for transport to and from the International Space Station, was cancelled by President Obama last October as part of the his new NASA plan.  

But legislative inaction and administrative delays have prevented the program's termination, costing an estimated half a billion dollars, a large portion of which NASA will spend on the canceled rocket over the next few months.  The space agency will pay $165 million to Alliant Techsystems (ATK) towards the development of a solid-rocket first stage for the Ares I, reported. 

However, the Orlando Sentinel reported that with the cancellation of the Constellation program, there are doubts that the technology will ever be used.

The situation is the exasperating result of an ongoing political scuffle that continued throughout the year, in which lawmakers inserted provisions into NASA's 2010 budget to protect Ares I jobs in their home states, effectively preventing NASA from ending the Constellation program until Congress enacts a new budget.

While Congress typically sets the budget prior to the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1, this year lawmakers extended the current budget until March, obligating NASA to keep the Ares I project alive despite the program's cancellation.

NASA said it is currently spending nearly $100 million a month on the Ares I, or about $500 million from October to March 2011.  Such unwarranted spending is particularly ill timed as the agency struggles with budget issues.  Additionally, NASA now faces the costly job of modernizing and transforming the Kennedy Space Center, a project that now appears to be indefinitely delayed.

Nevertheless, the agency said it is optimistic that any development dollars invested in the Ares I could have benefits.  For instance, some programs from the new plan, such as a heavy-lift rocket, could use the solid-rocket technologies still being developed.

"Much of the Ares 1 work likely will be directly applicable to a heavy-lift vehicle if a shuttle-derived architecture is selected, including five-segment boosters, tank structures, upper-stage engine and avionics," NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage told the Orlando Sentinel.

But until Congress acts, the program's short-term rationale is unclear, and new initiatives will likely be delayed, said NASA Public Affairs Officer J.D. Harrington.

"Current CR language requires we continue work on the Constellation program at FY10 levels, yet it doesn't include money for us moving forward with a new heavy lift architecture," Harrington said during an interview with

"We expect much of the current Constellation work to migrate forward but won't know for sure until decisions are made on a path going forward."


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