Johnson Space Center Prepares ‘Plan B’ with Bolden’s Permission

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Updated at 3:40 p.m.

WASHINGTON – NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is expected to discuss changes to U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to scrap the agency’s Constellation program with at least one top lawmaker this week, according to an internal agency e-mail shared with Space News.

In the March 2 document, Michael Coats, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, wrote to the manned spaceflight center’s chief engineer, Stephen Altemus, instructing him to establish a “’Plan B’ team” to draw up “a potential compromise,” including a series of talking points for Bolden regarding development of a crewed spacecraft, heavy-lift launch vehicle and launch vehicle test program. The e-mail indicates Bolden is to discuss the compromise with House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) “in a couple days.”

Bolden, however, said March 4 that he did not request NASA human spaceflight officials to come up with an alternative to Obama’s plan.

“The President’s Budget for NASA is my budget.  I strongly support the priorities and the direction for NASA that he has put forward,” Bolden said in a written statement.  “I’m open to hearing ideas from any member of the NASA team, but I did not ask anybody for an alternative to the President’s plan and budget. We have to be forward thinking and aggressive in our pursuit of new technologies to take us beyond low-Earth orbit, and the President’s plan does this. After years of underinvestment in new technology and unrealistic budgeting, we finally have an ambitious plan for NASA that sets the agency on a reinvigorated path of space exploration.”

Obama’s plan to terminate Constellation, including the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares family of rockets encountered bipartisan resistance from House and Senate lawmakers during budget hearings held in February.

Coats, in his e-mail, said Bolden agreed to the creation of a team to examine changes to the president’s plan, adding that Bolden requested “talking points”  in advance of his meeting with Gordon, and instructs Altemus to “flesh this out, then report to Charlie through Doug Cooke,” the head of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

Cooke was not a recipient of the e-mail, though Coats sent copies to his deputy, Ellen Ochoa, Robert Lightfoot, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Bob Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley, Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer and Edward Mango, launch director for Constellation’s Ares 1-X flight test program. Johnson, Kennedy and Marshall all play central roles in Constellation’s development.

“Steve[,] Robert and I talked to Charlie and he agreed to let us set up a ‘Plan B’ team (my term, since Chairman Gordon asked Charlie about his ‘plan B’ at the hearing) to look at what a potential compromise might look like,” Coats wrote, referring to a Feb. 25 hearing before the House Science and Technology Committee in which Gordon urged Bolden to be open to compromise in order to achieve consensus in Congress.

In the e-mail, Coats told Altemus to contact Mango, Geyer and Gary Lyles, NASA’s associate director for technical management at Marshall, “to develop that one pager quickly, and set up a team (you can name it anything you want—I don’t recommend Constellation or Orion).”

In addition, while Obama’s budget proposal calls for a $6 billion increase to NASA’s top-line spending over the next five years, Coats urged Altemus to keep the alternate proposal’s cost estimates in mind.

“Living within the budget is a huge issue, since it’s doubtful we’ll get more funding,” he wrote.

Here’s the text of the entire e-mail:

From: Coats, Michael (JSC-Center-Director)(JSC-AA111)

To: Altemus, Stephen J. (JSC-EA111)

Cc: Lightfoot, Robert M. (MSFC-DA01); Cabana, Robert D. (KSC-Center-Director)(KSC-AA000); Mango, Edward J. (KSC-FA000); Geyer, Mark S. (JSC-ZV111); Hanley, Jeffrey M. (JSC-ZA111); Ochoa, Ellen (JSC-AB111)

Sent: Tue Mar 02 12:34:12 2010

Subject: Plan B team

Steve Robert and I talked to Charlie and he agreed to let us set up a “Plan B” team (my term, since Chairman Gordon asked Charlie about his “plan B” at the hearing) to look at what a potential compromise might look like.  Charlie is meeting with Chairman Gordon in a couple days and asked for a one pager with talking points  before his meeting.  Please contact Gary Lyles, Ed Mango, and Mark Geyer  to develop that one pager quickly, and set up a team (you can name it anything you want—I don’t recommend Constellation or Orion).  Robert and I mentioned the importance of three areas: a human spacecraft development effort; a heavy lift launch vehicle development effort; a launch vehicle test program.  Your white paper is a good basis, but please work with Gary, Ed and Mark.  Our desire is to establish a team to flesh this out, then report to Charlie through Doug Cooke.  Living within the budget is a huge issue, since it’s doubtful we’ll get more funding.  Mike