WASHINGTON – Money problems will likely force NASA to abandon its ambitious internal goal of having a new moon spaceship ready by 2013, a top space agency official told The Associated Press Wednesday.
The agency should still be able to meet its public commitment to test-launch astronauts in the first Orion capsule by March 2015, the official said, unless national budget stalemates continue.
But the agency's own hurry-up plan to get the job done even earlier — with a first crew launch by 2013 — will "very likely" be changed during meetings this week in Houston, said Doug Cooke, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration.
"We're probably going to have to move our target date," Cooke said in a phone interview.
An actual astronaut moon landing is still set for 2020. Orion initially will just orbit Earth before attempting a more complicated moon launch that also will involve unmanned rockets.
Cooke acknowledged the slipped launch target date during an interview about an internal NASA report leaked to the Web site Nasa Watch.
The document shows that the space agency's overall moon plan has encountered financial and technical problems, which NASA says it can overcome.
The leaked report reflects typical problems of a program this early in the running, Cooke said.
"What you're seeing is sausage-making," he said. "I'm really satisfied with the work that's getting done."
The 117-page report, posted Wednesday at nasawatch.com, shows an $80 million cost overrun this year for just one motor and a dozen different technical problems that the space agency put in the top risk zone, meaning the problems are considered severe.
The report put the program's financial performance in that category.
Technical problems included software that may not be developed on time, the heat shield, a dangerous level of shaking during launch, and a hard-to-open hatch door.
The report also said NASA's plans would shortchange astronauts' daily water needs, giving them only two liters a day when medical experts say they need at least 2.5 liters.
The report showed technical problems in operations for Orion nearly doubling from May to July, with 24 items now on the most worrisome list.
Outside experts say it's too early to be too worried, but they have some concerns.
"It doesn't surprise me that there are these kinds of pains given the early stage (of development) and the long time since we did anything like this," said John Logsdon, director of space policy at George Washington University. "NASA is trying to do this with inadequate and uncertain funding."
The problem is mostly the political system for not coming up with budgets that are passed and signed by the president so that NASA can go ahead with its financial plans, said W. Henry Lambright, a technology and public policy professor at Syracuse University. The budget for next year still has not been passed.
"We have a government that is dysfunctional," Lambright said. "I'm not blaming NASA. I think NASA is a victim of a political situation we have in this country."
But Nasawatch's Keith Cowing, a former engineer for the agency, said the problem is poor design and planning, repeating some of the problems of Apollo without learning the lessons of such disasters as the Apollo 1 fire.
A group of NASA engineers, working on their own time, and other experts have come up with an alternate moon rocket design that they contend is cheaper and could be ready earlier. NASA has rejected their proposal.