— NASA’s exploration chief says an early 2015 debut for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher is still achievable without new money but will require postponing work geared toward returning humans to the Moon by 2020.

space agency already has deferred some Ares 1 and Orion enhancements driven by lunar mission requirements, said Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems. Those steps, along with other changes, have gone a long way toward addressing a $1.9 billion shortfall identified in an internal study released April 20, Cooke said.

“When the report came out it wasn’t totally in sync with what we were doing,” Cooke said April 24. “We’re paying attention to what they wrote but some of the solutions and some of the issues have worked themselves out.”

The “Constellation Acceleration Study Report,” a NASA Langley Research Center-led effort completed in December but withheld from the public for four months, describes how budget shortfalls have forced NASA to give up on launching the Constellation program’s Ares 1 and Orion much sooner than March 2015 even with a major cash infusion.

NASA foresees spending $44 billion on Ares 1 and Orion by the time it makes its crewed debut, with some of that money tied to enabling future lunar missions, said NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma.

According to the study, NASA’s plan to debut Orion and Ares in March 2015 is underfunded to the tune of $1.9 billion. Shaving six months off that schedule – the best NASA could realistically hope to achieve,
found – would cost $3.8 billion.

The shortfall described in the report was caused by design changes such as reconfiguring Orion to land in the water and modifying Ares 1 to address thrust oscillation concerns, the report said.

Cooke said that before the study was completed, NASA was already working to eliminate some expenses that contributed to the shortfall. He declined to say how much, if any, of that shortfall remains, citing an embargo on the details of President BarackObama’s 2010 budget request. A broad outline of the budget was released in February, but a detailed spending proposal is not expected to be released before May 4. Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in an April 17 speech here that NASA’s exploration plans appeared seriously shortchanged in a recent draft of Obama’s budget. (see story, page 16)

Cooke described the budget proposal as a work in progress.

“We’re going through the budget cycle now and we’ve re-synched a lot of those things up. We’re just kind of in the throes of piecing it all together,” Cooke said. “Of the things identified in the report, we haven’t eliminated all of them but they’re factored into our budget. … We are working toward the March 2015 date and we’re not asking for more money to cover those.”

Cooke said solving Ares 1’s thrust oscillation problem, for example, can be solved without resorting to a comparatively complex and expensive solution engineers settled on last fall – outfitting the rocket’s aft skirt with so-called active reaction mass absorbers designed to dampen vibrations that might otherwise travel up the rocket and reach unsafe levels by the time they reach the crew. Instead, Cooke said, NASA is looking at simpler solutions.

In another cost-cutting move, NASA plans to delay Orion software work geared toward lunar missions and postpone designing an extended nozzle for the five-segment solid-rocket booster that will serve as Ares 1’s core stage and be used as strap-on boosters for the heavy-lift Ares 5. The longer nozzle is not needed for Ares 1.

“We were going to do the nozzle extension earlier and it would save money. But we can’t afford to do that so we decided recently not to,” Cooke said.

The acceleration study was released on the heels of an April 16. Congressional Budget Office report casting doubt on NASA maintaining Ares and Orion’s March 2015 debut, absent a significant top-line budget increase, without delaying nearly half of its robotic science missions planned through 2015. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel recently reached a similar conclusion, saying additional money would not appreciably accelerate development at this point.