NASA rocket scientists secretly working on what they say is a better, safer rocket want President Obama to ditch the space agency's official space-shuttle replacement design and pick theirs instead.
Representatives of the alternative project, named DIRECT, met with members of Obama's transition team before the inauguration in January and are now pressing Congress and the White House to order an independent review.
The renegade NASA engineers, along with others from space contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, began meeting secretly three years ago to share doubts about the Ares I and Ares V rockets, which are the linchpins of the upcoming Constellation program.
The DIRECT team counters that their single 'Jupiter' rocket could be off the ground sooner than the Ares, that all of its parts have been already tested and that it would cost less money.
The scientists, who have been collaborating after-hours in Internet chat rooms to discuss fuel-mass ratios and rocket trajectories, insist on remaining anonymous and leave their public comments to a spokesman.
"The reason we have to be unnamed is NASA has a reputation for making life miserable for anyone who's working on [DIRECT]," said an engineer who works at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and asked not to be identified. "Quite a few have been transferred to undesirable locations."
NASA denies taking punitive action against DIRECT project participants.
"What they do in their own time is their business," said agency spokesman Grey Hautaluoma.
So far, reception to their ideas from political decision-makers has been less than enthusiastic.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, "sees no reason to second-guess NASA's own experts," his office said.
A White House spokesman said the Obama administration would not comment on Constellation and the alternative proposed by DIRECT until it names a replacement for former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who stepped down in January.
Constellation, which will replace today's space shuttle, aims to put men back on the moon by 2020.
NASA designed the Ares I rocket, which is based on a modified version of the space shuttle's solid-fuel booster, to lift light payloads such as crew capsules.
The Ares V, based on the shuttle's large external fuel tank and coupled with two extended shuttle solid-fuel boosters, would launch heavier equipment such as the main part of a lunar-mission craft.
But both are already over budget and behind schedule, and engineers from DIRECT say they also suffer from substantial design flaws.
"Ask me if Ares will fly, and I'll say 'Yes, just not very well,'" said the Kennedy Space Center engineer. "I was an Ares fan. But it only took me about three weeks of having access to the classified documents to see a problem. ... I'm looking at this thing and saying to myself, 'This is ridiculous.'"
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last month that the development costs on Ares I alone, which is projected to cost between $17 and $20 billion over its lifespan, have already been increased by $300 million and the craft's first manned mission has been pushed back a year until 2015.
"The Ares I and Ares V are going to cost around $15 billion each," said Ross Tierney, a 34-year-old British space enthusiast living in Florida who's a founding member of the DIRECT project and acts as its spokesman. "If you used one launcher, you could cut the development costs in half."
DIRECT scientists argue for multiple configurations built around their simpler Jupiter design, which uses fewer engines than Ares V on the central fuel tank, along with unmodified shuttle boosters.
The Jupiters could ferry into orbit the new Orion crew capsule and the extensive amounts of equipment and fuel required for a lunar mission more easily and a lot sooner than the Ares rockets, DIRECT's members say.
NASA spokesman Hautaluoma said the space agency had considered using the Jupiter rocket, but decided it lacked the firepower for a moon mission.
"We found the Jupiter Direct more than necessary to get to the space station, but not enough to get to the moon," he said. "Plus Ares is safer."
Some third-party observers would tend to agree with NASA in the dispute.
"There are always people, especially in engineering, who think they can engineer the problem better," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, which promotes space exploration.
"[Jupiter Direct] is perceived as sound at heart. It's not crackpot. But there's also not a lot of feeling like these guys have the answer and the way the Ares guys are going at is all wrong."
Congress' biggest space-related concern right now is the looming five-year gap between the end of the space shuttle program next year and the beginning of the Constellation program in 2015, at the earliest.
Unless the shuttle missions are extended, American scientists and astronauts will have to hitchhike into orbit, mostly aboard Russian spacecraft.
NASA is at a crossroads amidst the debate.
Its shuttle program, which first went into space in 1981, is mostly remembered for the Challenger and Columbia disasters, in which 14 astronauts lost their lives.
Its primary mission, the construction of the International Space Station, seems lackluster compared to past achievements, like the moon landings of the Apollo program.
"With the human program, they've had themselves in a box with a shuttle that really doesn't go anywhere," Friedman said. "NASA's biggest problem is it hasn't been inspirational, and without that it's difficult for them to make the case for more money."