Surprise NASA move may force shutdown of Constellation program

June 10, 2010 By Robert Block

In a surprise move, NASA has told the major contractors working on its troubled Constellation moon rocket program that they are in violation of federal spending rules -- and must immediately cut back work by almost $1 billion to get into compliance.

As many as 5,000 jobs from Utah to Florida are expected to be lost over the next month.

The effect of the directive, which went out to contractors earlier this week and which Congress was told about on Wednesday, may accomplish something that President has sought since February: killing Constellation's system of rockets, capsules and lunar landers that has already cost at least $9 billion to date.

The decision caps a bitter, three-month behind-the-scenes battle between aerospace giants and NASA managers over who is responsible for covering the costs of dismantling the Constellation program. The fight has dragged in members of Congress and the White House -- and has dramatically raised the stakes in the struggle over the future of the country's human spaceflight program.

At issue is the federal Anti-Deficiency Act that requires all federal contractors to set aside a portion of their payments to cover costs in case the project is ever cancelled.

New NASA calculations say contractors are $991 million short of what they must withhold -- and the agency has ordered the companies to find that money from the roughly $3.5 billion they're budgeted to get for Constellation projects this year.

In a letter to Congress released Wednesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said: "Given this estimated shortfall, the Constellation program cannot continue all of its planned ... program activities (this year) within the resources available. Under the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA), NASA has no choice but to correct this situation."

The biggest loser is Utah-based Alliant Techsystems Inc., or ATK, which is building the first stage of the Ares I -- Constellation's centerpiece that was supposed to take to the International Space Station and ultimately the moon.

According to NASA, the company's termination costs total $500 million -- the most for any contractor working on the program -- and will result in the immediate cutoff of any funds going to Ares I.

Other large companies affected include Lockheed Martin ($350 million); Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne ($48 million); and Boeing ($81 million). "Many of these reductions will be implemented via reductions in work force ... primarily affecting Texas, Alabama, Colorado, Utah, and Florida," NASA told Congress, but it did not include a breakdown by state of job losses.

"It is the responsibility of the contractor, not the government, to ensure its costs and obligations are managed appropriately," said NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs. "NASA has no choice but to take this corrective action."

Contractors, especially ATK, have maintained to NASA and to members of Congress that historically NASA has not required them to withhold termination money and that therefore they should not be forced to cover the shortfall.

Members of Congress from states that will be hardest hit, including Utah and Alabama, support ATK and other contractors. They accuse the administration of using the federal spending rules to undermine a congressional prohibition -- passed last year -- that blocks NASA from holding back any contract payments for Constellation in this fiscal year.

"This latest attempt by the administration to force an early termination of the Constellation program is nothing more than a disingenuous legal maneuver to circumvent statutory language that was put in place to prevent this very type of action," said U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "Hurting our national defense capabilities and industrial base are examples of the long-term collateral damage that will come as a result of this administration's destructive and dangerous political agenda."

NASA spokesman Jacobs rejected charges that the decision was a backdoor effort to cancel Constellation, saying that the agency is legally compelled to cut back spending now, no matter what happens to the program.

The Obama administration has wanted to cancel most of Constellation since last fall, when a White House blue-ribbon commission concluded the program was "unsustainable," well over budget and as much as a decade behind schedule.

The administration seeks instead to outsource rides to the space station to private rocket companies while revamping NASA to focus on longer-term technology development. Following Obama's budget proposal in February, the agency ordered the program's main contractors to show proof they had had set aside termination costs as required under law.

According to NASA officials, Bolden has prioritized the areas of the program that should not be cut. These include advanced technology work on the Orion space capsule, the J2X rocket engine that was to power the Ares I second stage and any hardware that could be used for other programs.

NASA chief financial officer Beth Robinson told members of Congress that contractors had "erroneously assumed" that they didn't have to set aside any funds to cover the program's cancellation and instead put everything they had into production of the various systems. But she also admitted that NASA did not manage the contractors properly.

Privately officials are pointing fingers at former Michael Griffin, the architect of the , for turning a blind eye to termination liability requirements in order to try to sink as much money as possible into the program to make it harder to cancel.

officials say they assume there will be investigations ordered by Congress in coming months.

Explore further: NASA not over the moon about prospect of buying out Constellation program contracts


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1 / 5 (3) Jun 10, 2010
How can it cost 500 million to stop doing something? Could you image someone saying it will cost $500 to stop tearing a wall down?
not rated yet Jun 10, 2010
It might, if the wall is big enough and has thousands of people standing atop it.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 10, 2010
The inertia of a typical government/contractor pork barrel once set spinning is considerable and hard to stop
1.4 / 5 (10) Jun 10, 2010
all of this is brought to you by the folks who diddled for "55 days at Peking" of oil spilling. Now PresBO wants to blame British Petroleum. Same kind of mind set at work.
3.5 / 5 (8) Jun 10, 2010
Doesn't matter.

Our existing "manned space flight" program is pointless as it has never even remotely focused on "foresight" issues such as sustainability or profitability, but rather, it's only real goal has been, "Just put a guy in space or on the moon or on a space station just for the hell of it to say we can do it."

Until someone actually gets serious about space-based mining, self-assembling robotics, and PERMANENT colonization, no manned space flight program will ever be "worth it" anyway.
3.8 / 5 (4) Jun 10, 2010
I'm with ya QC, there's not much to gain from blasting men into space when there is no plan to get something useful out of it. The money should be spent developing 21st century space technologies like nuclear reactors for spacecraft and VASMIR. When the correct designs are made, the mineral wealth of the solar system will provide a motivation to get there.

More daunting than the technical problems of getting into space is the current political climate - There exists an international agenda of austerity and contraction and Obama seems to be a servant of this agenda. Combined with a useless and corrupt congress, there is little hope for anything other than war machines and battle systems receiving funding, as these directly profit the masters of the world.

Our future is up, but right now America is looking at its feet.
2.5 / 5 (10) Jun 10, 2010
BO Stinks. Although NASA has been bleeding our tax money for a long time and I do agree in privatization because competition is one of the tentpoles of America.
P.S. Yes laying people off is expensive.
5 / 5 (9) Jun 10, 2010
NASA isn't designed to be a money maker, but a money spender. It's an altruistic mission of sorts, since one can say that there is no real profit to be had from military expenditures but that since it does employ a lot of contractors and people that it is a useful and viable economic exercise. So with NASA. I'd rather see money spent on peaceful expensive pursuits like space exploration, whether it turns a profit or not. It occupies people and resources and the only way that anybody dies by it is if something goes wrong.
3 / 5 (8) Jun 10, 2010
Five stars 'cause you said Obama stinks.

Here's a thought:

For our next presidential election, how about all parties actually nominate a candidate who's good at something other than lying and blow smoke up people's ass?
4.3 / 5 (6) Jun 10, 2010
This is the culmination of a fight that has been going on for years. I characterize it as the battle between two viewpoints: Destination-driven or Capability-driven spaceflight development. The former is aligned with the old cost-plus way of doing things, the latter with entrepreneurial New Space.

Constellation kept the destination as the ultimate good, and, being badly starved in the budget, continually sacrificed capability.

President Obama is doing the right thing, and will no doubt take a political hit. While many have awaited a new Presidential Proclamation ala Kennedy, I have been waiting for a POTUS willing to make the shift from that which has been tried and failed, and that which gives me every reason to believe will work.

Remember, the goal is to establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization. To do that, we need capability which we currently do not have in place.
4.3 / 5 (6) Jun 10, 2010
The administration seeks instead to outsource rides to the space station to private rocket companies while revamping NASA to focus on longer-term technology development.
That is exactly right, IMHO. And about damn time, too.
4 / 5 (4) Jun 10, 2010
I wonder why they cant just sell the constellation design and technology to a consortium comprised of Lockheed Martin, Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne, Boeing and others who could continue it independently? Unless of course the design is itself deficient or outdated in some way, and couldnt compete against the current, more profit-driven private efforts-
3.5 / 5 (8) Jun 10, 2010
The administration seeks instead to outsource rides to the space station to private rocket companies while revamping NASA to focus on longer-term technology development.
That is exactly right, IMHO. And about damn time, too.

With you on that, PE.

NASA money should be going to development of next wave technology, not being poured into defense contractors pockets, who deliver largely extant technology over-budget and behind schedule. This anti-deficiency clause was put into effect to prevent just such a case as this- hold some in reserve to enable continued operations if there is some sort of funding shortfall. They knew this, but spent everything allocated, and expected more.

Also to be considered is the fact that for every dollar that NASA spends, there is roughly a 20X factor in dollars generated in the economy at large, through technology transfer/maufacturing/retail, et c. into the public sector. Not a bad investment.
3 / 5 (7) Jun 10, 2010
IMO, the existing tech should be, as Otto says, split off for further development by private enterprise.

The only reason why it isn't is because the defense and aerospace contractors have a vested interest in continuing to suck on the teat of Public Money- they can continue to make fat profits, while failing to deliver the goods- have every reason, in fact, to delay delivery.

It would be far better if they were required to self-fund when their contracted funding runs out- that would encourage them to actually get the job done on time, if not ahead of schedule.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2010
It would be far better if they were required to self-fund when their contracted funding runs out- that would encourage them to actually get the job done on time, if not ahead of schedule.

4 / 5 (4) Jun 10, 2010
Maybe this would work b-b-b-better for you:
5 / 5 (2) Jun 10, 2010

Thats way OT, but too funny...
Jun 11, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2010
Intelligent design in spacecraft would be advisable, such as building hulls that can be reconfigured in orbit and are kept in orbit until needed for missions in the solar system. We could use the space station as a docking port and transfer station for crew and supplies.

It's all in what we want for our future - a "1984" world of social control and tyranny, or a liberated planet able to join the cosmic reality.
5 / 5 (3) Jun 12, 2010
Sigh. US can spend hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars on the "war on terror", but cant fork out 10 or so billion to inspire the minds of future engineers and scientists, and set the world in awe of what man can achieve? that makes me very sad :(.
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 13, 2010
We just need to stay focused on a big goal or two. The presidents plan ( and by "president's", I mean the one he picked that was designed by experts) to go to an asteroid and then Mars are big enough that it forces NASA to stay focused on specifics. They need to solve some big issues with space travel, specifically propulsion. We went from capsules to shuttles in about 20 years. It's been 20 years since the shuttles creation, where is the future? Look around, it's everywhere except the space program. Maybe Apple or Google need to start competing for space contracts. Maybe then we'd get revolutionary ideas and designs.

And enough Obama bashing. I've never heard so much complaining from adults. The man was handed a very big and very broken machine. It's almost like a cold, you can't cure it, just wait it out and try to make it hurt less. There is very little anyone can do to fix the economy. It will heal over time. He's doing a fine job.
4 / 5 (6) Jun 13, 2010

I agree with almost everything you wrote, except for this:
There is very little anyone can do to fix the economy. It will heal over time. He's doing a fine job.
Obama's been doing a mighty fine job performing fellatio on Wall Street's "captains of industry" and most of all Goldman Sachs' upper management echelons. All he's doing (with enthusiastic assistance from Congress), is digging us further into record debt and deficits, pushing us ever closer to national bankruptcy, and turning a blind eye to systemic fraud and looting. Now, he could start addressing our economic quagmire any time by enforcing the law, prosecuting fraud and grand theft, and re-regulating the financial industry. But that would mean bankrupting and locking up America's financial cream of the crop. Cut out the gangrene to save the patient, or watch the rot spread and the patient become a corpse: that's Obama's choice. And so far, he's been utterly on the wrong side of history in this regard.
not rated yet Jun 14, 2010
Obama's opposition to the manned space program long predates the Augustine Commission report.

During the 2008 campaign, Candidate Obama made clear his intention to cancel Constellation. The current "plan" to hand the work to the private sector is a ruse that will only be sustained as long as it serves its purpose of fragmenting opposition to the cancellation. Once Constellation is dead, funding for private space will magically disappear from the budget.
not rated yet Jun 14, 2010
Just for the record: Heavy lift is not a "destination driven" goal. It is a capability driven goal. That, more than anything, is what Constellation is about. At least from Griffin's perspective. Going to the moon, or Mars, is a goal-oriented way of driving the capability development.

Put another way, at 180K tons cargo per launch, you need to align launches, and even test launches, with the usage of the capability. If I'm going to use the cargo capacity to put fuel in space, it has to be in the right orbit. It I'm going to the Moon or Mars, the M-base hardware has to be launched into the right orbit.

Don't tell me you're going to do a couple of test launches of an ARES V capability vehicle without telling me what the cargo will be used for. That's the equivalent of an ISS worth of cargo - over 750K lbs. of cargo.

So anyone who thinks developing heavy lift is just a capability oriented project, doesn't understand the economics of space.

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