WASHINGTON — NASA expects to keep its Constellation program procurements on schedule this year despite receiving $500 million less in its 2007 budget than the agency had requested. However, the U.S. space agency says the shortfall will prevent the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 rocket from entering service by the 2014 deadline set by the White House.

By the end of 2007, NASA expects to have all major elements of the Ares 1 rocket under contract through a series of awards totaling more than $3 billion. Orion, meanwhile, is already under contract following a $3.9 billion award to Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems in August 2006.

While NASA has ample cash to keep working on Orion and start in earnest on Ares 1, this year’s cash crunch —- the result of a congressional decision to give NASA and many other U.S. agencies the same amount of funding in 2007 that they had received in 2006 — is expected to hit home in 2009 and 2010. Instead of shifting Ares and Orion development and testing into high gear then, NASA says it will have to tap the brakes to keep from burning through a budget that is expected to remain extremely tight until the space shuttle conducts its last flight. The net result, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin recently warned Congress, is a four- to six-month delay likely to push Orion’s first crewed flight into 2015.

As Scott Horowitz, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, explained to reporters during a March 2 briefing on the agency’s shuttle-to-Orion transition plans, “somewhere that $500 million [has] to come out. So you have to stretch out the program.”

To understand why a smaller-than-expected increase for 2007 translates into a work slowdown in 2009 and 2010, it helps to know that NASA has been setting aside a portion of its Constellation budget since 2006 for later use. Griffin defended the practice in a letter sent to all of NASA’s key congressional committees and subcommittees in May, saying it was necessary “to avoid untenable spikes in the budget” when Orion and Ares start to ramp up even as the agency remains busy completing the international space station with the shuttle.

A NASA official said the agency is taking a “multi year [management] approach” on Orion and Ares to avoid repeating the mistakes made on the international space station program in the 1990s when managing with an eye towards “making it through the year” produced a $5 billion overrun that came to light just as President George W. Bush took office in 2001. The Bush administration refused to cover the overrun and instead forced NASA to scale back the space station.

Several U.S. lawmakers have expressed anguish over the prospects of a bigger gap between the last flight of the shuttle and the first flight of Orion and have vowed to find additional money for the agency. NASA officials, including Horowitz, said a cash infusion administered before the end of the year would help the agency keep Orion and Ares on track for 2014. “That would have a big effect because it’s soon enough in the development of the program, because we’re still in the design stage,” he said. “The longer you wait to infuse money back into the program, the less of an effect it will have.”

While NASA waits to see if the White House or Congress comes through with extra cash, the agency is pressing ahead with several planned procurements.

According the Avascent Group, a consulting firm based here, NASA has a total of $3.6 billion available to contractors for Ares 1 work, including $2 billion for the Ares 1 main stage, $1 billion for the J-2X upper-stage engine, $900 million for the upper-stage production contract, and $400 million for the rocket’s avionics system. An additional $300 million is being held in reserve.

NASA expects to complete negotiations soon with Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems and Canoga Park, Calif.-based Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne on long-term contracts for the Ares 1 main stage and J-2X respectively. Both are sole source awards.

The biggest contract up for grabs this year is the Ares 1 upper-stage production. While NASA is taking the lead on designing the rocket’s cryogenic upper stage, it wants industry to build it. The competition is pitting Boeing and its unannounced list of teammates against an Alliant Techsystems team that includes Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Final proposal are due in April with a contract award slated for August.

NASA expects a wider field of competitors for the Ares 1 avionics unit contract. BAE Systems, Ball Aerospace and Technologies, Boeing, General Dynamics, Harris Corp., Honeywell, and Raytheon are all awaiting the solicitation due out this spring. A contract award is planned by the end of the year.

NASA also plans to make an award this spring for an Ares 1 abort test booster and initiate the competition for a new spacesuit for Orion astronauts. The draft solicitation for the space suit is due out this summer; contract award is slated for early 2008.