Obama administration to review NASA program, sources say

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In a major turnaround, the Obama administration intends this week to order a review of the spacecraft program that NASA had hoped would one day replace the space shuttle, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

According to several administration officials and industry insiders, the review would examine whether the Ares 1 rocket and Orion capsule are the best option to send astronauts into orbit by 2015. It could start as soon as this month and be finished by early fall, depending on how soon a panel of experts can be assembled.

The decision follows months of critical reports that have questioned whether Ares and Orion can overcome major financial and technical hurdles that threaten to delay a scheduled 2015 to the and even a return to the moon by 2020.

The outcome is critical for Kennedy Space Center, which is looking at as many as 10,000 job losses if the shuttle is retired in 2010. Right now, there's a five-year gap until the first Ares launch; proponents of different rocket designs say they could be launched sooner and save many jobs.

"I don't think they (White House officials) are completely convinced that the Constellation program, as designed, is the best way to go," said Vincent Sabathier, a space expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Sabathier said the White House had wanted to name a new administrator before announcing the study, but that the difficulty in finding a leader and the shuttle's looming retirement forced the administration's hand. "They want to mitigate the gap (between programs)," Sabathier said.

The announcement is planned to coincide with the Thursday release of President Barack Obama's $18.7 billion spending plan for NASA. Agency and industry insiders said it should offer the first major clues to the new president's plans for the agency.

Obama has said little about NASA since taking office, other than noting this spring that the agency was afflicted by a "sense of drift." NASA has not had a permanent administrator since former chief Michael Griffin resigned in January.

Obama's budget summary released in February backed former President George W. Bush's plan to retire the shuttle in 2010 and return astronauts to the moon by 2020. But it did not specifically express support for Constellation, the program picked by Griffin in 2005 that uses the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule.

Ares' woes are well-known. It requires re-engineering to deal with violent shaking caused by vibrations in its solid-rocket first stage, and engineers are concerned the rocket could drift into its launch tower on takeoff. Its estimated costs through 2015 have risen from $28 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today.

Top NASA officials have been mum on the possibility of another study, but Griffin has lashed out at engineers and space advocates who criticize Constellation.

"I don't agree that there is a better approach for the money, but if there were, so what?" he said in a speech last month to the National Space Club. "Any proposed approach would need to be enormously better to justify wiping out four years' worth of solid progress."

But critics question whether there has been solid progress, pointing to constant revisions to the rocket's design because of technical and cost woes.

Recently, NASA announced that it would cut the Orion capsule's passenger capacity from six astronauts to four. Originally, Orion was to fly six astronauts to the space station and four to the moon. But because Ares I is less powerful and more expensive than originally planned, NASA has had to cut weight and costs from Orion.

The study that set NASA on its current course was ordered by Griffin in 2005. Called the Exploration Systems Architecture Study, or ESAS, it ruled against beefing up existing rockets used to launch military satellites in favor of building two new rockets -- Ares I, which would use the shuttle's solid rocket boosters as a first stage, and its heavy-lifting cousin, Ares V.

But many contractors and rocket companies complained that the study was not fairly conducted and that the results were suspect.

"I think the people who are going to oversee this want to take another hard look at this," said Roger Launius, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. "And there are people in some quarters, not all, who say that the study done in 2005 might have been shaded in such a way to lead you to the current architecture and (the administration) now wants to take a look at whether (Constellation) is the right answer."

Launius said a member of the Obama transition team told him months ago that the administration planned to "shine a bright light" on the Constellation program.

Frustrated with Ares I, a number of NASA engineers have worked in their spare time on other designs that they insist would be a better choice. One that is supported by many engineers and space advocates has been the Direct 2.0 Jupiter 120 rocket -- essentially, the shuttle's fuel tank and solid rocket boosters with a top-mounted capsule in place of the orbiter.

Despite the fact that the rocket is a NASA-originated design, Griffin and his top officials dismissed the project as a "hobby rocket."

Now Direct proponents are hopeful that their design will get a second look.

"It's about time," said Steve Metschan, the CEO of TeamVision Corp., a software-design company promoting Direct. "That is all we have been advocating from the very beginning, when it was clear that there were problems with the original study."

He is confident that the study will find the Direct design safer and more affordable -- and that it will keep more jobs at than Ares I or other rivals. But whatever option is chosen, Metschan said that it is vital that the new panel takes an independent look.

"It's important that we get this right because the best option was not chosen first time around," he said. "Engineers always suspected that Ares I was DOA."


(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at www.orlandosentinel.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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User comments

May 06, 2009
No worries, the Koreans will surely rent out some capacity on their buggies

May 06, 2009
Why does this look so much like the pre-Sputnik attitude? The USSR beat us to orbit, because the civilians running the space program wanted an all-new rocket, uncontaminated with military roots.

Now they want an all-new system uncontaminated with a history of success.

May 06, 2009

Professor Richard Harrison, a respected solar scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, recently admitted to Richard Gray, Science Correspondent for the Telegraph that:

1. "The Sun influences us in many ways and is central to life on Earth," and

2. "Although humans have been studying the Sun for millennia, we still know relatively little."

[See: Richard Gray, "Space missions to visit the sun," The Telegraph.co.uk (25 April 2009)]

Why -- 50 years after NASA was established -- do scientists still know so little about the nearby star that heats planet Earth and sustains our very lives?

My experiences with NASA suggest that Former President Eisenhower anticipated this problem.

In January of 1961, Eisenhower warned about the danger of science being corrupted by the flow of federal funds:

"The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded." See: ["Eisenhower's Farewell Address to the Nation", January 17, 1961].

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA PI for Apollo Samples

May 07, 2009
what about science being corrupted by ritual magick?

May 07, 2009
Spacecraft design isn't a perfected art, so some slack will have to be given to both the Ares and Direct 2.0 designs. Yes, Ares has been discovered to have some faults -- that's expected, surely -- but will such occassions also arrive if we go down the Direct 2.0 route? Of course they will!

Engineers and workers at gound level on both projects are the key! They know how a design evolves, how it functions, how it tests afterwards, and from these make crucial decisions as to bettering the design, or re-designing it again (and again?). These same engineeers are telling us there's a problem, so we need to be listening to them. However, if the listeners are simply 'hearing' and not actually 'listening', is this why we find we're in the situation we're in?

Given Obama, from what we see, is a good listener, let's hope that some kind of compromise can be reached in both designs and camps.

It would be a shame to wipe out four years of "solid progress" [Griffin], however, surely, it also be an additional shame to continue on a route that isn't working.

After, all, it's not just a physical design at the end of all this, but there are jobs, safety, and a future exploration of other worlds.

John -- http://www.moonposter.ie
New Moon Atlas just launched -- have a peak :-)

May 07, 2009

In our first paper showing that the Sun sorts atoms by mass and consists mostly of Iron (Fe) inside its surface veneer of Hydrogen (H) [the lightest of all elements], we predicted that the Galileo probe would find excess Xe-136 from the r-process in the He-rich atmosphere of Jupiter [See: "Solar abundance of the elements", Meteoritics 18 (1983) page 220].

The Galileo probe arrived in 1996. The measurements revealed evidence of excess Xe-136 in Jupiter. For two years the data were hidden, and NASA scientists reported that the Galileo probe observed only normal isotope abundances in Jupiter.

On 7 January 1998 Dr. Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator, ordered the data released in response to a request recorded by news cameras at the AAS meeting in Washington, DC [See: C-SPAN tape 98-01-07-22-1, Purdue U. Public Affairs Video Archives, # 98526].

The data confirmed the prediction made 13 years earlier in the first IRON SUN paper:

Excess Xe-136 in Jupiter confirmed mass separation in the Sun [See: "Isotopic ratios in Jupiter confirm intra-solar diffusion", Meteoritics and Planetary Sci. 33, A97, abstract 5011 (1998)].


Thus, NASA knows that the Sun is not a ball of Hydrogen but has tried to hide this information from the public.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

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