WASHINGTON — A retired U.S. Air Force general told a Senate panel that NASA should use Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets to transport astronauts to the international space station rather than spend money trying to speed the completion of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle or one of the commercial alternatives the U.S. space agency is subsidizing.


With the space shuttle fleet retiring in 2010, NASA plans to rely on Russia to carry U.S. astronauts to the space station until Ares and its Orion capsule – or a commercial system such as the one Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has under development – enters service.


Robert Dickman, a retired Air Force major general and former senior Pentagon space official, told the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee during a May 7 hearing on reauthorizing NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration that human-rating Atlas 5 or Delta 4 represents the best bet for closing the looming five-year gap NASA faces between the last flight of shuttle and the first flight of the United States’ next crewed orbital space vehicle.


“We have launch vehicles today that can haul a capsule. Atlas 5 and Delta 4 have a very proven record. They can do that. For less than a cost of a single space shuttle mission, they can be human-qualified and … a relatively simple capsule to go to low Earth orbit could be built,” Dickman said.


Leveraging the U.S. Air Force’s sizable investment in Atlas 5 and Delta 4 would make more sense than trying to accelerate development of Orion and Ares or giving SpaceX money for a crewed demonstration of its Falcon 9 rocket and reusable Dragon capsule that is still the better part of a year from attempting its first unmanned launch, said Dickman, currently executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.


“You realize there are people who disagree with what you just said,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairman, told Dickman. “But you are saying you ought to take another vehicle, another rocket, and put a simple capsule on it and let’s get it to low Earth orbit?”


“That’s what I would suggest. I don’t think we should change Ares or Orion,” Dickman said. “I think they are the right architecture to support lunar exploration. They are not the right architecture to support station with human transportation.”


Nelson asked Dickman if he was proposing human-rating Atlas 5 or Delta 4 as an alternative to funding the demonstration of a crewed flight under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which already is spending $500 million to subsidize rival cargo delivery systems under development by SpaceX and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp.


Dickman said the crewed flight demonstration effort SpaceX has proposed under the so-called COTS Capability D option that was included in its original COTS agreement, is a “risky program” with no guarantee of closing the gap.


“We are months or perhaps longer away from the first flight of the vehicle under the COTS program from the one contractor who would build one large enough for Capability D,” Dickman said. “We have the vehicle that can carry that kind of weight to station today. They are the [Atlas 5 and Delta 4].”


NASA and its contractors considered using Atlas 5 or Delta 4 as the basis of the space agency’s next space transportation system, but in 2005 decided instead to design two new launchers that would make extensive use of space shuttle hardware and infrastructure. Although the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle and the much larger Ares 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle will not use as much space shuttle hardware as originally planned, NASA still intends to use upgraded versions of the shuttle’s solid-rocket boosters for both vehicles.


Nelson expressed concern about the cost of human-rating Atlas 5 or Delta 4 – a $500 million to $1 billion undertaking, by his estimate. “Where are we going to get the money?” he asked.


“Mr. Chairman, I would simply say that the same question of where you are going to get the money is the question if you try to accelerate Constellation,” Dickman said, referring to the program under which NASA is developing Ares, Orion and other hardware it needs to go to the Moon. “It’s the same dollars. It’s just a question of whether you use them to try to accelerate Constellation or you keep Constellation on its current path and build something that has a unique capability to haul humans to station and back.”


Gene Kranz, the former NASA flight director best known for his role in bringing the crippled Apollo 13 capsule back to Earth, told the subcommittee that previous attempts to man-rate the Titan and Atlas rockets showed that such an undertaking is always easier said than done and that NASA would be better off keeping its focus on finishing Orion and Ares.


“This question of man-rating is good from a view graph standpoint. But when you step up to the cost and schedule, then you say you are going to put a simple spacecraft on top of it, is something that at best would be something like a Mercury on steroids,” Kranz said. “Well, that took about three years to put in place. So I don’t see that this helps the gap. All I see it as is a diversion from the basic plan we’ve got.”


Kranz said Ares and Orion are “a bit over-designed” for short jaunts to the space station “but it gets the job done until something comes along, possibly later on through COTS or whatever it is, that gets the job done.”


Kranz added he believed NASA has “got the right plan” and “ought to stay with it.”


Nelson convened the hearing to gather testimony in support of a NASA authorization bill he hopes to push through the Senate this year. All five witnesses were supportive of reauthorizing NASA’s plan for going back to the Moon, although one witness, Universities Space Research Association President Frederick Tarantino, said Congress should require NASA to reverse science cuts that have occurred since President George W. Bush laid out the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004.


Joan Johnson-Freese, a space policy expert at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, R.I., said the timelines Bush established for replacing the shuttle and returning to the Moon were so optimistic as to be “bordering on fantasy and thus effectively doomed from the start” But Freese would not favor pulling the plug on the vision, which she said has laudable goals.


George Whitesides, executive director for the National Space Society, seconded Kranz’s proposal that Congress allow NASA to stay the course and made a pitch for authorizing an additional $2 billion for NASA to accelerate development of Ares and Orion and fund the COTS program’s pursuit of a crewed demonstration.