WASHINGTON – U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's NASA transition team is asking U.S. space agency officials to quantify how much money could be saved by canceling the Ares 1 rocket and scaling back the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle next year.
Obama pledged during his campaign to inject an additional $2 billion into NASA aimed in part at narrowing the gap between the space shuttle's retirement and the introduction of a successor system.
While NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and his senior managers are adamant that Ares and Orion are the right vehicles to fill that role, Obama did not endorse either system by name during his campaign.
If that omission was enough to raise doubts about the incoming administration's commitment to a rocket some believe will prove much tougher to field than NASA is ready to admit, the five-page list of questions Obama's NASA transition team sent to the agency Nov. 24 probably will not make Ares supporters feel any better.
The questionnaire, "NASA Presidential Transition Team Requests for Information," asks agency officials to provide the latest information on Ares 1, Orion and the planned Ares 5 heavy-lift cargo launcher, and to calculate the near-term close-out costs and longer-term savings associated with canceling those programs.
The questionnaire also contemplates a scenario where Ares 1 would be canceled but development of the Ares 5 would continue.
While the questionnaire, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, also asks NASA to provide a cost estimate for accelerating the first operational flight of Ares 1 and Orion from the current target date of March 2015 to as soon as 2013, NASA was not asked to study the cost implications of canceling any of its other programs, including the significantly overbudget 2009 Mars Science Laboratory or the James Webb Space Telescope.
Obama's NASA transition team also asked agency officials to investigate how much it would cost and how long it would take to build a smaller version of Orion and human-rate an Atlas 5 or Delta 4 expendable rocket to serve as its launcher.
Additionally, the questionnaire requests that NASA "[e]stimate the feasibility of designing a resized Orion capsule that could be launched by international launch vehicles such as the [European] Ariane 5 or the [Japanese] H2A."
The transition team also wants information from NASA about accelerating plans for using the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to fund demonstrations of vehicles capable of carrying crews to the international space station, a proposal Obama supported during his campaign.
NASA is not asked what it could save by canceling COTS. Nor is NASA asked to contemplate canceling the space shuttle or space station programs, although the transition team does request the budget implications of flying the shuttle until 2015 and committing to U.S. utilization of the space station through 2020.
Lori Garver, a space consultant and former NASA associate administrator who is leading the Obama NASA transition team, declined comment on the questionnaire.
NASA spokesman David Mould also declined to address specifics. "We are, of course, supplying any information they request," Mould wrote in a Nov. 26 e-mail.
John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, cautioned against reading too much into the transition team's questions.
"After all, these are the questions that everyone is asking, and the transition team certainly must get NASA's best answers to them," Logsdon said, adding that the questionnaire "is unlikely to reflect the totality" of the transition team's investigation of current programs and alternatives.
"That is likely to take some weeks and involve lots of questions to lots of people. So I would not overinterpret and come to any conclusion regarding what direction the team may be headed — after all, there is still almost two months left in the transition."
Logsdon also said he did not see any significance to the omission of cancellation questions about COTS, space shuttle, space station or other programs.
Executives at Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the Edina, Minn.-based prime contractor for the Ares 1 main stage, told Space News Nov. 25 they were not alarmed by the questions the transition team is asking about Ares and the Constellation program, which encompasses not only the shuttle replacement but also hardware NASA would need to land astronauts on the Moon.
"They are doing due diligence," said Charlie Precourt, ATK's vice president of NASA space launch systems. "If you are the incoming steward of all federal agencies you are going to ask a spectrum of questions like this."
Precourt said he was confident the transition team ultimately would reach the same conclusion as NASA, namely that Ares offers the best combination of cost, safety, reliability and performance, and that staying the course is the best way to minimize the gap between the shuttle and its replacement.
Dropping Ares 1 in favor of Atlas 5, Delta 4 or some other rocket would only lengthen that gap, he said. "
Ares passed [preliminary design review] several months ago," Precourt said. "Alternatives that could be brought to the table today don't get a pass on that because NASA requirements are going to need to be met."
Preliminary design review, he said, "is not a couple-of-months effort. It puts Ares a few years ahead of any alternatives at this point."
Meanwhile, a page of questions devoted to NASA's Science Mission Directorate requests status reports on various flight projects currently in development.
The transition team asked NASA to estimate the cost of implementing the full slate of 15 Earth science missions recommended by the National Research Council last year as part of its first-ever Earth science decadal survey.
Under NASA's current budget plans, the agency would make only a small dent in the list by 2020.
Obama's NASA transition team also appears to be interested in a number of specific projects that have more or less languished in recent years.
Among those projects are: the Deep Space Climate Observatory; a mothballed Earth-observing satellite formerly known as Triana; agency efforts to catalog asteroids and comets that could threaten Earth; and the harnessing of space-based solar power for use on Earth.
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