NASA's Constellation
NASA's Constellation program, featuring the Orion manned capsule set atop the Ares 1 launch vehicle, was meant to send astronauts back to the moon. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Industry proponents of NASA sticking with the Ares 1 rocket squared off during a Nov. 2 debate here against representatives of commercial space ventures insisting the private sector can provide the U.S. space agency with more affordable access to low Earth orbit than any government-owned system.

In back-to-back panel discussions, supporters on both sides used the recent findings of a White House-appointed panel to underpin their arguments for and against NASA’s embattled Constellation program, a nearly 5-year-old effort to replace the space shuttle with new rockets and spacecraft optimized for transporting astronauts and their gear to the Moon for extended stays. In its Oct. 22 report, the blue-ribbon panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, found that while Constellation is a well-managed and technically feasible program, technical and budgetary issues have resulted in schedule delays. Resolving such issues could add to the program’s cost and further delay its schedule, according to the report.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is mulling over the report, which offered a number of alternatives to Constellation and questioned the wisdom of continuing development of Ares 1. The report called on NASA to commit to operating the international space station beyond its 2016 de-orbiting date to 2020, and suggested outsourcing low Earth orbit launch operations to the private sector in an effort to save money and speed development of an alternative shuttle replacement architecture.

But Scott “Doc” Horowitz, a former NASA associate administrator for exploration systems and the man credited with coming up with the basic concept behind the Ares 1 rocket, accused the Obama administration of using the Augustine panel’s findings to mask a political agenda.

“There are a few people in the administration who want to kill Ares 1 and put all the money in commercial, and the report tends to endorse that type of scenario,” Horowitz said during the Nov. 2 debate here hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “That is the political agenda, and I think the report bears that out.”

Lawrence Williams, vice president of strategic relations for Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), said the characterization was inaccurate.

“They tried to put together an unassailable group of experts … and for those who didn’t like the outcome to attack the conclusions is quite unfair,” he said.

Williams said that when the Constellation program was started in response to then-President George W. Bush’s 2004 call for returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020, it was not intended to compete with private companies seeking to develop new transportation capabilities to low Earth orbit. Today, budget realities are forcing the issue, which he characterized as a fiscal “tradeoff between extending [the space station] to 2020 and Ares 1.”

Douglas Stanley, the Georgia Tech professor tapped by NASA in 2005 to lead the three-month Exploration Systems Architecture Study that persuaded NASA to build Ares 1 and the heavy-lift Ares 5, said during the second round of debate that the Augustine committee overlooked options that would allow NASA to finish Ares 1 and keep flying the space station through 2020 without a big budget increase.

“Even using a very conservative Ares 1 budget, the cost of extending [the station] to 2020 can be accommodated while developing Ares 1, even under the worst-case Augustine budget scenario, if exploration systems are deferred,” Stanley said. “Certainly for the cases where additional budget is available, the Ares 1 and [the station] extension can easily be accommodated within the available budget, and Ares 1 availability can even be accelerated.”

Stanley also said that continuing development of Ares 1 will preserve NASA’s ability to develop Ares 5 or a different shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket at a later date.

“And a refueled Ares 1 upper stage can deliver as much payload as an Ares 5 for exploration purposes,” he said, referring to options in the Augustine panel’s report that incorporated the use of in-space refueling capabilities.

Michael Kahn, vice president of ATK Space Systems of Magna, Utah — the company building the Ares 1 main stage — said he did not see any sense in canceling Ares 1 to come up with the $5 billion the Augustine committee estimated NASA would need to spend to foster development of crewed commercial vehicles of the type SpaceX and others are proposing.

“If it’s all about budget, why cancel something to save $3 billion and turn around and spend $5 billion that |doesn’t provide the same level of safety?” asked Kahn.

Mike Gold, head of Washington operations for North Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow Aerospace, said NASA would do better to work with the U.S. Air Force to human-rate the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets developed under the service’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. For about $1 billion, he said, the Atlas 5 could be man-rated and equipped with a commercial capsule capable of launching astronauts into space.

“Until someone comes to me and shows me that this isn’t real, this can’t be done, someone has to show me the evidence that for a single $1 billion, somebody shouldn’t do that,” Gold said.

Horowitz, a former space shuttle astronaut who worked for ATK before returning to NASA in 2005 to head the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, said the Bush administration considered human-rating the Delta 4 and Atlas 5, but opted to build a safer rocket in light of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations following the shuttle disaster of 2003.

“While spending time looking at the particulars of the accident, [the board] made some high-level important statements, that the next vehicle for crew should concentrate on safety first,” Horowitz said. “Not … faster, better, cheaper.”

During the second panel, Stanley pointed out that the Augustine committee did not examine the relative safety of the launch system options included in its report.

“That still has to be done,” he said. “They said all had sufficient safety, but can’t point to a single commercial vehicle for which this is true. To make that statement a priori does not have a lot of credibility.”

Stanley said the reliability and safety of human-rated NASA vehicles far exceed the record of commercial industry.

“Yes, it costs a lot of money to do things the NASA human-rated way,” he said, adding, “It’s undeniable that if you look at the safety record of NASA human-rated vehicles, it is extremely good.”

NASA has had two fatal launch accidents in its 50-year history: the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Both accidents killed seven astronauts.