Bolden Says NASA Will Leverage Constellation Technologies

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WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said he hopes to develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of delivering Americans beyond low Earth orbit between 2020 and 2030 using some of the residual technologies from the Constellation program that U.S. President Barack Obama proposed terminating in his 2011 budget request.

“It is my intent to work diligently toward developing a heavy-lift launch capability for the United States,” Bolden said during a Feb. 6 news conference at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., where NASA was preparing to launch Space Shuttle Endeavor to the international space station Feb. 7. “Ideally, I would like to be flying a heavy-lift launch capability between 2020 and 2030. Now whether or not we’ve matured to a point by then that … the next NASA administrator will feel comfortable that it’s okay to put humans on that heavy-lift launch vehicle, I can’t say right now.

Obama surprised lawmakers and industry when his administration delivered a $19 billion budget proposal to Congress Feb. 1 that scraps NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program in its entirety and bets $6 billion of the savings on the ability of commercial firms to ferry crews to the international space station. 

Bolden said that before the agency phases out Constellation, NASA would “scrub” the program for advanced technologies resident in its Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 and Ares 5 rocket designs that could be used to develop future human exploration systems, including a heavy-lift launcher.  

“I would not say that we are abandoning Constellation,” he said. “We are stopping that particular program and everything that went along with it, but … not the advanced technologies that we think are necessary.”

But before NASA can decide on a heavy-lift launch architecture, the agency must work with Congress and the administration to establish clear destinations for manned space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, Bolden said.

“My first negotiation with Congress and the White House and everybody else is do we all agree that Mars is the ultimate destination in the solar system. I think it is,” he said.

Bolden referred to the so-called “Flexible Path” option detailed in the findings of a White House-appointed panel tasked last year with reassessing U.S. human spaceflight plans. Flexible Path proposes abandoning NASA’s Moon-first focus in favor of lunar fly-bys, visits to asteroids and the moons of Mars.

“Flexible Path says we’re going to multiple destinations and we’re going to go there as we develop the capability to do it,” Bolden said, adding that Obama instructed him to expand NASA’s involvement with international partners to accomplish such missions, including collaborative development of a heavy-lift launcher.

“We’re going to put international partners in the critical path, which means they may develop a system that we know how to do, but we don’t know how to do it as well as they do,” he said.

Bolden said greater reliance on international partnerships would be one of the biggest changes NASA would see under his leadership.

“Am I concerned that China may have a flag on the surface of the Moon soon? Not really,” he said. “My approach to all this is that in a true international partnership, when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.”

With NASA set to retire the space shuttle by year’s end, Bolden said the agency is under contract with Russia to fly U.S. cargo and astronauts to station aboard Progress and Soyuz vehicles through 2013.

In the meantime, NASA will work to ensure the success of commercial firms seeking to develop rockets and spacecraft capable of delivering cargo and crew to low Earth orbit. The agency in 2006 began subsidizing alternatives for delivering cargo to the space station under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Under COTS, NASA is paying Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., up to $278 million to conduct three demonstration flights of a reusable Dragon logistics capsule launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket currently slated to make its debut this year. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is developing a competing cargo module and rocket under a separate COTS agreement valued at $170 million. Orbital expects to debut its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus cargo module in March 2011.

In its final report issued Oct. 22, the Augustine panel urged the Obama administration to consider abandoning the Ares 1 rocket and rely instead on a commercial service to deliver astronauts to and from the space station. Although the report suggests such capabilities could be operational by 2016 for a fraction of the expected cost of Ares 1 and Orion, Bolden struck a more cautious tone.

“I don’t have the confidence that some of the things that they said are totally accurate just yet because we’re still evaluating some of that,” Bolden said. “I can tell you what I’m hearing from the commercial sector in terms of their schedule and their costs and the jobs that they’re going to bring, but I haven’t been in this position long enough to tell you that I’ll take that to the bank.”

Bolden said he would work with SpaceX, Orbital and other companies in the near-term to verify that the schedule and cost claims they made to the Augustine panel last year are still valid.

“There have been months that have passed, tests have occurred and all kinds of things, so it’s time to take a reassessment of where the commercial industry thinks they are right now,” he said.

In addition to cost and schedule concerns associated with commercial cargo and crew services, NASA must grapple with safety and mission assurance issues. Bolden said NASA will develop a system to ensure cargo and crew safety aboard commercial rockets and spacecraft, though he said the degree of NASA oversight of commercial cargo and crew systems would vary depending on the provider.  

“The amount of oversight, for example, with a SpaceX compared to an Orbital is going to be different,” he said, comparing Orbital’s 30-year history of building and launching spacecraft versus SpaceX, which was formed in 2002 by Internet billionaire Elon Musk. “The amount of experience that Orbital has in flying vehicles to space is significantly different than that that SpaceX has.”

Bolden said the process of developing human-rating requirements for commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft would be an iterative one that would first address cargo safety. Bolden said NASA will work with Congress and the administration to hash out an “operational concept” for sending humans into space aboard commercial craft.

“This is going to be complex and complicated and we’ve got to work all this stuff out,” he said, adding, “We’ll be ready when that time comes.”