NASA's $9.4 billion mission to nowhere leaves staff bewildered
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Anyone need a $500 million, 355-foot steel tower for launching rockets into space?
There's one available at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Never been used.
The mobile launcher has been built for a rocket called the Ares 1. The problem is, there is not yet any such thing as an Ares 1 rocket -- and if the Obama administration has its way, there never will be.
President Barack Obama's 2011 budget kills that rocket, along with the rest of NASA's Constellation program, the ambitious back-to-the-moon effort initiated under President George W. Bush.
People around the Cape Canaveral were shocked when they heard the news last month. They were already facing the imminent retirement of the aging space shuttle and the likelihood of thousands of layoffs in the contracting corps, but many hoped to find a Constellation job, stay on site and essentially just switch badges.
Now suddenly, they're looking at no shuttle, no Ares 1, no NASA-owned spaceship of any kind in the near future. American astronauts for years to come will hitch rides to space on Russian rockets.
"It's almost like losing manned space flight," said Michele Kosiba, 44, a quality inspector for United Space Alliance.
People are dismayed and bewildered. Mr. Obama has gotten the message and will fly to the Kennedy Space Center on April 15 to hold a space conference and a town hall meeting. He is certain to point out that his budget actually boosts funding for NASA. The new NASA strategy shifts the task of launching astronauts to low Earth orbit from traditional government contracts to commercial contracts. If the private sector can create a taxi to space, NASA can focus on new technologies and longer journeys in the solar system.
"We think it's exciting," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, said in an e-mailed response to questions. "It will enable us to do things we can only dream about today. It will foster new industries, spur innovation, create jobs and lead to more missions, to more destinations, sooner, safer and faster."
A presidential commission, led by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine, reported to Mr. Obama in September that the Ares 1 would have limited use and that the heavy-lift rocket necessary for a moon mission probably wouldn't be ready until 2028. At that point, the panel said, there would be no money left in the program for a moon lander or moon habitat. In effect, the Augustine committee said Constellation, which has already cost $9.4 billion, was destined for a (metaphorical) crash landing.
"We could get to the moon and do what?" said Dale Ketcham, a University of Central Florida professor who runs a think tank called the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute. "The taxpayers would really be ticked off: Sixty years later we go back and plant the flag and go home."
Lawmakers in Congress in both parties, particularly those in districts with space jobs, have given the Obama plan a cold reception. Congress still must approve Mr. Obama's budget. Until that happens, Constellation maintains a ghostly existence as "the program of record."
Which means that, every day, workers are still adding elements to the mobile launcher. Across the country, work continues on Ares and the new crew capsule, Orion. The Orion launchpad abort system will be tested later this spring in New Mexico. Even if Congress sanctions Mr. Obama's plan, the administration expects to spend $2.5 billion just closing out contracts and shutting down Constellation.
NASA employees and contractors at Cape Canaveral say they were caught off guard by the new strategy.
"We just pulled the rug out from human space flight," said Jim Bolton, a NASA manager for shuttle processing. The morning of the announcement, Mr. Bolton said, "People were just truly shocked. 'How can that be? Cancel Constellation? What are you talking about?' "
NASA isn't the only game in town. The Cape is shared by NASA, the Air Force and commercial rocket companies. On the Air Force-controlled side of the Cape, one will find the commercial rockets named the Delta IV and the Atlas V, each with a dedicated launch complex. And there's a newcomer on the block: the Falcon 9.
This is the rocket built by SpaceX, a private company founded by Internet tycoon Elon Musk. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to launch cargo to the space station. The Falcon 9 has never flown.
NASA officials insist that they could still find a use for the half-billion-dollar tower even if the Ares 1 never materializes.
Mr. DeCastro, the United Space Alliance executive, said he doubted the mobile launcher could be useful without the Ares 1.
"It's just a big old tower now," Mr. DeCastro said. "I guess you could sell it to SeaWorld or something and put a big ol' slide on it."
First Published March 29, 2010 12:00 am