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Will Congress Rescue Orion-Ares From Delay By Adding Funds?

By | March 5, 2007

      A leading lawmaker asked NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to supply Congress with estimates of how much money it would take to accelerate a now-delayed Orion-Ares space exploration program.

      Griffin will supply estimates of how much money it would take to launch the first Orion-Ares mission in fiscal 2014, or in 2013, or in 2012.

      The interest in more funding on Capitol Hill came after Griffin testified before senators that a looming shortage of money now means NASA will see a delay of up to half a year in the first launch of the next-generation Orion-Ares crew exploration vehicle, pushing the launch into fiscal 2015.

      That delay will only lengthen further an already “unseemly” four-year gap from when the existing space shuttle fleet stops flying in 2010 until Orion-Ares flies, a time when the United States — long the leading nation in space — will have to rely on other nations for trips into space, Griffin told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee space subcommittee.

      “The United States will be in a position of purchasing [launch] services from other governments,” which they aren’t obligated to provide, and it is “unseemly … the United States would be in a position” such as that, Griffin said. “I don’t like it.”

      There is no money currently available to accelerate the Orion-Ares program, he said.

      The Senate panel was reviewing the NASA budget request for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008. But the funds shortage centers on the current fiscal 2007.

      The subcommittee chairman, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), asked Griffin what amount of money it would take to have a first launch of Orion-Ares in 2012, or in 2013, or in 2014, rather than fiscal 2015.

      As well, the gap between the shuttle program and the initial operating capability of Orion-Ares will mean NASA will lose personnel, those remaining on staff will grow stale, and facilities will decay with disuse, Griffin said. That occurred in the gap between the Apollo moon-shot program and the inception of the space shuttle flights, and “I expect it [another gap] will be damaging again,” he said.

      NASA last year gave Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] a multi-billion dollar contract to develop the Orion crew capsule, over a competing bid by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and The Boeing Co. [BA], and NASA this year will award another major contract to procure the rocket that will loft the capsules into space, part of the Constellation vision of voyages to the moon, Mars and beyond.

      In a subcommittee hearing on the new NASA budget request, Griffin said the space agency is afflicted with funding shortages in the current fiscal 2007 ending Sept. 30. Because Congress didn’t pass a NASA appropriations measure, and instead essentially froze NASA funding in a continuing budget resolution, that means that NASA will be short $545 million from the funds that President Bush had sought for fiscal 2007.

      And that lack of money, while not halting work on the Orion-Ares program, “does stretch it out,” Griffin said.

      Instead of launching the first Orion-Ares mission in fiscal 2014, the launch will occur in 2015, he said. “Regrettably, there will be a four to six months slip in the launch date,” meaning that the first liftoff “regrettably … will slip into early [fiscal 2015].”

      Pressed by senators, Griffin said that might mean a liftoff no sooner than December in calendar 2014, if all goes well in the development program.

      Senators asked Griffin if he could make do by juggling funds among accounts, and somehow slip around the problem that way. But he explained that he has no power to move funds from other programs into the human space flight area. “I do not have the flexibility to move money from one area to another area,” he said. He only can move funds within the human space flight sector of his budget, and that is short by hundreds of millions of dollars.

      “The bottom line is that we’re down over half a billion dollars,” he said.

      On other points:

      • Griffin said that Space Shuttle Atlantis, with a hailstorm causing hundreds of dings in its external fuel tank foam insulation, won’t fly until next month, perhaps late April, instead of a March 15 planned ascent. And the launch could be even later, depending on what crews find in repairing the damage. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      • The danger has abated that the International Space Station might be seriously damaged or destroyed by debris created by China demolishing one of its own satellites, Griffin said. The anti-satellite shot created a huge field of thousands of chunks of debris. “Each day there is a one in 100,000 chance the space station will be fatally damaged by space debris,” and the Chinese ASAT shot temporarily doubled that probability. But since then, the “risk receded into the background,” and now is down to the usual one in 100,000.

      • Asked by journalists whether he will resign soon, Griffin said that he serves at the pleasure of President Bush, and will continue to serve until the president asks him to leave.

      • Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) asked whether the persistent funding woes NASA faces could be alleviated by the government issuing “space bonds,” funding the space agency with debt instead of tax revenues. The bonds might carry “a very low rate of interest,” Stevens said.

      • NASA shouldn’t be unfairly tainted by the actions of one lone, disturbed person, Griffin said. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D., without citing the astronaut by name, asked Griffin about astronaut Lisa Nowak, whom police alleged became unhinged and attempted to dispatch a romantic rival, now charging her with attempted kidnapping. Dorgan asked whether NASA is reviewing its means of assessing the fitness of astronauts, and Griffin indicated that is the case. “She is in major trouble,” Griffin said, and NASA professionals “failed to recognize” that. NASA is reviewing pre-screening of astronauts, and will “look at how we support our astronauts.” He will report back to the subcommittee the findings of these reviews. But her actions shouldn’t taint NASA or the astronaut corps, he said. “I don’t think any one incident should be allowed to paint a picture” unfairly reflecting upon an entire group or organization, he said.

      • NASA doesn’t have the room to add large scientific payloads to the 13 or 14 planned missions before the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, he indicated. That’s because every space shuttle mission save one — the Hubble space telescope refurbishment and rescue mission — is to involve hauling huge structural components into orbit to finish construction of the International Space Station. There isn’t room left in the space shuttle cargo bay on any mission for the addition of some large scientific payload, Griffin said. Even the heavy-lift version of the next-generation space vehicles, the Ares V cargo ship, won’t be able to lift the enormous payloads that shuttles now hoist into space. Perhaps some smaller scientific payload might be shoe-horned into the cargo bay of a shuttle, but “I’m initially doubtful,” he said.

      • He is bullish on NASA using commercial orbital transportation systems (COTS), where private firms will for a taxi fee provide trips from Earth to the space station for crew members and cargo. It is well worth the investment for NASA to supply such nascent firms with “seed money to help them attract capital,” he said.

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