PWR Chief Spells Out the Cost of NASA Uncertainty

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. space industrial base has waited more than a year for the White House, Congress and NASA to settle on plans for human spaceflight, and unless a new program is initiated in the coming months, key suppliers may begin to exit the market, said Jim Maser, president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR).

The final space shuttle flight is planned for June, and for the first time since the beginning of the United States’ space program, there are no firm plans for what comes next, said Maser, whose Canoga Park, Calif.-based firm built and maintains the liquid-fueled rocket engines that power the shuttle.

“We used to talk about how bad it would be to have a gap in launch capability,” Maser said during a March 7 media briefing here. “We don’t have a gap in launch capability. We have a gap in what we’re doing next. As I watch the shuttle come to an end in June, and I try to talk to my people about what the future holds for our organization, it’s a very challenging argument.

“As an American taxpayer and person who is heavily involved in space, I’m really concerned. Our capability is at stake.”

The U.S. human spaceflight program has been mired in uncertainty since President Barack Obama chartered a blue-ribbon panel in 2009 to assess NASA’s Constellation program and propose alternatives to the $100 billion effort to replace the space shuttle and return astronauts to the Moon by 2020. In February 2010, the Obama administration canceled Constellation and directed NASA to chart a course for sending astronauts to asteroids and other deep space destinations while nurturing commercial firms to ferry astronauts to the international space station.

Congress enacted legislation last year that endorsed NASA’s new direction but also ordered the agency to move faster on development of a new heavy-lift rocket and fund a government backup for commercial crew systems. Lawmakers, however, failed to pass new appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began in October, and have since been funding the federal government with a series of short-term funding measures, the latest of which expires March 18. NASA, meanwhile, has said it cannot build the exact heavy-lift rocket Congress wants by 2016 within the authorized budget and has proposed spending this year and next continuing to define a more affordable heavy-lift development plan.

Maser was one of a number of industry executives who met March 7 with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver.

“Part of what I was telling NASA is, ‘Listen, we’ve got to pick something. We’ve got to move on. I don’t care what you pick,’” Maser said. “A year ago I was arguing to continue cost-plus contracts. I don’t even care about that anymore. Let me run a competition. I think I’ll win. Pick winners and losers and let’s move on. We’re out of time. I’m personally shocked at where we are.

“I told Charlie, ‘You called me 13 months ago and personally told me Constellation was canceled, and we’ve been running in place for 13 months.’”

NASA’s primary human spaceflight prime contractors are sufficiently diversified to weather the uncertainty, but some of the smaller suppliers the primes depend on could either go out of business by the end of the year or decide to exit the market, Maser said. “I think with this uncertainty, I would think there’s a fair number of second- and third-tier suppliers who are starting to think maybe this just isn’t worth it,” he said. “In the absence of a decision in the next four to eight months, I think companies will be making decisions about space.”

NASA’s lack of clear direction is also having an impact on the Defense Department, which relies on the same industrial base to produce the rockets that launch essential national security satellites to orbit. The Pentagon is renegotiating contracts with its primary space launch provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver, for the first time in years.

Because Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne does not know to what extent NASA will be a customer in the years ahead, the prices it has recently quoted ULA for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 engines have been incredibly high, Maser said.

“Our industrial base has been largely subsidized by NASA business,” he said. “People are seeing sticker shock. This is exactly the wrong time to try to procure on a low-volume, fixed-price buy, and that’s exactly what we’ve been asked. The number turns out to be shocking.”