PROMONTORY, Utah — With a large crowd of NASA officials, aerospace executives, congressional aides and reporters here to witness an Aug. 31 static-fire test of the Ares 1 rocket, it is easy to forget the U.S. space agency’s next-generation launch vehicle could be canceled in the coming weeks.

Doug Cooke, head of exploration systems at NASA headquarters in Washington, says the agency is working with U.S. lawmakers to forge a compromise between White House plans to abandon the Ares rockets in favor of commercially developed space taxis and congressional concern that the private sector is not up to the task.

“Obviously, we’re in an uncertain environment at this point,” Cooke said in a press conference here following the two-minute stationary test of the rocket’s first stage, which NASA conducted to comply with a 2010 law that continues Ares development through Sept. 30 despite agency plans to kill it.

At roughly 47 meters in length, the Ares 1 first stage is a longer, more powerful version of the four-segment solid rocket boosters NASA uses to launch the space shuttle into low Earth orbit. Developed by Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the engine is capable of producing about 3.6 million pounds of thrust at launch. The Aug. 31 test firing of the rocket’s development motor, dubbed DM-2, was the second in a series of four demonstrations intended to prove the five-segment booster can function at varying temperatures. For DM-2, the engine was cooled to 4.4 degrees Celsius to better understand how it will perform in cold weather.

During the press conference, Alex Priskos, first stage manager for Ares Projects at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said production of the third demonstration motor is well under way at ATK’s Promontory facility, though funding for development beyond that milestone awaits congressional direction. With lawmakers unlikely to pass a NASA spending bill before the current budget year ends Sept. 30, Ares and other NASA programs may end up operating under a continuing resolution that sets funding at or near 2010 levels, a likelihood that could delay development milestones in the pipeline for the coming year.

Cooke said he sees a silver lining in what has become a contentious political debate: a keen interest among Washington policymakers in shaping a future that includes manned spaceflight. Regardless of whether the Ares program continues, he said, data gathered from its development and testing will inform NASA’s evolving space exploration plans.

“The work done here, and the capabilities that are being developed, certainly contribute to that understanding of that future,” he said. “It’s all contributing to our understanding of what it takes to make those decisions.”


Political Oscillation

Milling around in a viewing area located about a kilometer from the DM-2 test stand, Cooke was among a number of VIPs seen chatting with Richard Obermann, a senior staff member on the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee that oversees NASA programs, and one of a handful of congressional aides who attended the static-fire test.

In July, the committee approved legislation that calls for funding a government-owned rocket and space capsule as a backup to commercial crew systems. Although the House bill does not specify hardware needed to develop the capability, it leaves open the door for continued development of Ares 1 and the Orion crew vehicle the rocket is designed to launch. While it recommends fully funding NASA’s space technology development proposals and boosts science and education spending, it also recommends gutting the agency’s funding request for commercial crew initiatives, exploration flagship technology demonstrations and robotic precursor missions.

Although companion legislation in the Senate is less austere, it too directs NASA to develop a government-owned capability that could serve as a backup to commercial crew systems in the near-term while providing a heavy-lift capability for deep space exploration by mid-decade. In tandem, a spending bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in July would fund $3 billion for a heavy-lift vehicle and space capsule development next year.

ATK’s Utah Footprint

With Congress reluctant to abandon NASA’s $10 billion investment in Ares and Orion, ATK is poised for a reprieve that could postpone further consolidation of excess capacity at its sprawling solid-rocket motor manufacturing facilities here. But even if the program continues, an interim Defense Department study delivered to lawmakers in June suggests the nation’s demand for solid rocket motors — also used for missiles — will never be as large as it was.

Charles Precourt, ATK vice president and general manager for space launch systems, said the company has been consolidating internally for years in anticipation of space shuttle retirement.

“The industrial base changes that people have spoken about are something that is not new for us, it’s a continuing evolution,” he said following the test. “Certainly with the departure of a large program like shuttle, it does engender some questions about large or incremental changes, but that’s what we’re working every day.”

The company has shed some 1,700 employees in the past two years and mothballed or razed “a couple hundred buildings” since 2003, an effort to right-size its solid rocket motor business that Precourt says is ongoing.

“We’ve become very efficient on the scale of what was the traditional shuttle legacy from the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he said, adding that under the right conditions, the company could maintain its Utah facilities and produce at least two large solid-rocket motors annually for around $400 million a year. Those costs could be further reduced if NASA streamlines contract oversight. “There are a number of other things that we have to do in terms of the acquisition strategy of the agency — the government-industrial base interface — that can achieve even greater savings,” he said.

But Precourt suggested it would take time for ATK and its government customers to navigate the larger issue of facility consolidation. “I would not see major single-step moves in that direction because of the cost concerns or the qualification concerns, but rather adjustments that make the most sense from a cost and schedule standpoint,” he said.

Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet’s vice president for space programs, said robust competition and continued innovation are key to producing affordable solid rocket motors for Pentagon and NASA customers.

“We need to start with NASA and [Defense Department] requirements in terms of cost and capability and then size our industry to competitively meet those needs,” she said in a Sept. 2 interview.

The Sacramento, Calif.-based company went through a rapid and severe downsizing in the 1990s as a result of several Pentagon and NASA program cancellations. Although it emerged a leaner company, it retained its solid rocket motor development and manufacturing capabilities.

“We’re glad to offer those lessons learned as we all work to create a sustainable U.S. solid rocket motor industrial base,” Van Kleeck said, adding that Aerojet sees a future in which government customers can support at least two solid rocket motor providers. “In a word, competition is key,” she said.