Senators Warning: Changes In Ares I Rocket Program Must Undergo Congressional Review

By | June 29, 2009 | Satellite News Feed

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An important Senate panel warned the Obama administration not to abandon the Ares I next-generation space rocket without congressional review and approval.

That warning was written by the Senate Appropriations Committee commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), and then endorsed by the full appropriations committee, in the NASA appropriations bill for the upcoming fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

At issue is which companies will make the rocket that will lift the next-generation Orion space capsule into orbit.

President Obama ordered that a committee be formed, headed by Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], to review NASA and its space hardware development and procurement effort, the Constellation Program.

As things now stand, the Orion crew exploration vehicle made by Lockheed will be lifted to space by the Ares I rocket made by other companies.

The Augustine panel is considering whether it would be cheaper to abandon the Ares I rocket and instead use an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) military lifter rocket made by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed and The Boeing Co. [BA]. (That EELV would be either an Atlas V, a Lockheed design, or a Delta IV, a Boeing design.)

The Ares I rocket has been in development for years. In separate efforts, it is being designed by Boeing, Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK], and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp. [UTX].

Some in the Obama administration say it would be cheaper to abandon Ares I and use an EELV instead. Further, they say the EELV is an existing rocket, and could be ready to fly sooner than Ares I.

But critics of that move say the EELV wouldn’t have the capability to support moon missions the way the Ares I lifter for the Orion capsule and the Ares V heavy cargo lifter would. Further, the critics point out that abandoning Ares I at this point would waste billions of dollars worth of investment in the rocket and many years of effort. Also, the Ares V design and development expects to use much of the Ares I design features, so that abandoning Ares I would add a huge amount of work, time and cost to developing Ares V. Finally, the critics point out that the EELV would have to be human rated if it is to lift a capsule full of astronauts to space.

The Senate panel waded into the controversy, with some stern directions for the Obama administration as the Augustine panel prepares to issue recommendations on how the Ares I- EELV issue should be resolved, a report expected in August. The administration must not grab the Augustine recommendations and unilaterally make changes in the Constellation Program, the Senate committee stated.

"The committee directs that NASA shall not use the operating plan or reprogramming process as the method of implementing the recommendations of the review," the senators said in a report accompanying the appropriations bill.

"The opportunity for directing a well constructed and thoughtful approach to manned space flight should be as a budget amendment to the [fiscal] 2010 budget requrest that is received [from Obama] in a manner that is timely for consideration by the [Senate] committee, or as part of the 2011 budget request" that Obama sends to Congress next year, the report continued.

The report then pointedly noted that it is supplying roughly $1.4 billion specifically for Ares I, along with a similar amount for Orion.

And the senators stated that they value the planned future Ares V heavy lifter rocket.

"The committee believes that the Ares V cargo launch vehicle will be a critical national asset for carrying exploration and scientific payloads beyond low Earth orbit to the moon and beyond," the senators declared.

And they aren’t eager to see delays in developing Ares V. "To facilitate the earliest possible start of the development of the Ares V, the committee recommends a funding level of" $100 million.

Complete Shuttle Missions

The Senate Appropriations Committee also ordered Obama to finish all scheduled space shuttle missions on the current manifest, even if that means funding and flying missions in fiscal 2011.

That possibility is looking increasingly likely. For example, just now, Space Shuttle Endeavour is weeks late in launching for a mission to the International Space Station, because of a leak in a hydrogen venting line. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, June 15, 2009.)

Currently, an order by then-President Bush compels the shuttles to stop flying on Sept. 30 next year, at the end of fiscal 2010, to free up money to pay for the Constellation Program development of the Orion-Ares I-Ares V-Altair Lunar Lander spaceship system that will replace the shuttle fleet. In other words, Bush didn’t want to increase the total NASA budget to pay for the Constellation Program while at the same time continuing to fly the shuttles. That means that from 2010 to the first Orion flight in 2015, NASA will be grounded, having to pay the Russians to take American astronauts to the U.S.-funded International Space Station.

The senate panel "supports the administration’s commitment to completing all the remaining shuttle missions on the current manifest by the end of fiscal year 2010," the appropriations bill report states.

However, it adds that if "additional time is necessary, to complete the manifest, the committee directs the administration to seek adequate funding for the remaining shuttle flights in its fiscal year 2011 budget request" that Obama will send Congress next winter.

And the senators are clear they won’t countenance any robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul zero sum games.

The appropriations committee "further directs that any funding necessary in 2011 to complete the manifest shall not come from, or jeopardize in any way, other ongoing NASA activities." In other words, don’t try the usual trick of slashing NASA science and aeronautics programs to come up with money for the exploration programs.

NASA Overruns Flailed

Separately, the NASA appropriations bill report lacerates the space agency for myriad cost overruns and delays in its procurement programs.

This is the 19th year that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and its predecessor, the General Accounting Office, has placed NASA acquisition management on a high-risk list, the Senate report observed.

Since 2006, "10 of 12 major NASA projects in development, or 83 percent, have exceeded baseline cost and schedules," the Senate report continued.

And another three projects have exceeded their baseline budgets by more than 15 percent and five more missions have experienced launch delays of half a year or more.

The senators concede that GAO reports NASA is "making progress in strengthening financial management, including better cost estimates and higher standards of accountability for contractors."

But the lawmakers are "very troubled by an emerging pattern of NASA’s contract awards being protested in increasing numbers," noting that the GAO found a 50 percent increase in bid protests over the past three years.

NASA is far from alone here, however. Many Department of Defense contract awards have been protested, including a successful protest against a $35 billion aerial refueling tanker plane contract award.

So the Senate Appropriations Committee directed NASA to state just what it will do to improve financial management — to eliminate cost overruns and schedule slippages — and "to ensure integrity of the procurement process."

And the NASA report must include an analysis of the increase in contract-award protests, and consideration of naming a senior procurement officer at NASA to oversee agency-wide procurement.

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