— With NASA facing questions from the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect BarackObama about possibly canceling development of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle, one influential
lawmaker is stressing the importance of keeping this key component of the space shuttle replacement system on track.

“Without the Ares 1 and the heavy-lift capability of the Ares 5 rockets, humans will not be able to explore space any further than we can today,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a Dec. 1 statement. “The ability of NASA to achieve our goals for future space exploration has always been and always will be through Marshall Space Flight Center.”

As the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, Shelby holds considerable sway over NASA’s annual budget and doggedly defends programs important to
, the
, NASA field center in charge of Ares development. Ares 1 will be used to loft NASA’s planned Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle starting around 2015.

engineers have been working on Ares 1 since 2005, taking the rocket from concept through preliminary design review in roughly three years. All major elements of the rocket are under contract and an early flight test, dubbed Ares 1-X, is planned for summer 2009.

Buoyed by Obama’s campaign pledge to inject $2 billion into the space agency’s budget to narrow the gap between the space shuttle’s scheduled 2010 retirement and the first flight of Ares 1-Orion, NASA has been studying options for shifting the new system’s planned 2015 debut to 2014 or possibly even 2013.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told reporters following the launch of the agency’s most recent space shuttle mission that NASA had identified a number of options for speeding development of Orion and Ares 1, whose core stage will be a five-segmented variant of the solid-rocket motors used to boost the space shuttle. The options being looked at include adding a test flight called Ares 1-X Prime that would feature a five-segment solid rocket booster – the Ares 1-X test will be a four-segment version – and a high-altitude test of the vehicle’s launch abort system.

“If we could get the high-altitude abort [and] the five-segment test out of the way early, then [on] the first flight of the actual Ares 1, when an engine actually became available for it, we might be able to take an uncrewed vehicle all the way to orbit,”
said. “So we could really make some ground up.”

NASA transition team has requested information about accelerating Ares and Orion development and postponing the space shuttle’s retirement by adding at least three flights to its manifest. But a greater number of the written questions the transition team gave NASA in late November concerned canceling Ares 1 during the second half of 2009 and taking steps to develop a scaled-back version of the Orion capsule – one light enough to launch to the international space station atop a U.S. Air Force Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rocket or aboard the European Ariane 5. The questionnaire also sought data on canceling the Ares 1-X flight as soon as February.

How seriously the Obama transition team is considering dropping Ares
1 in
favor of some alternative is not clear. Lori Garver, the space consultant and former NASA associate administrator for policy and plans who is leading Obama’s NASA transition effort, did not respond to a Dec. 2 request from Space News for an interview.

Executives at Ares 1 main-stage prime contractor AlliantTechsystems, along with some NASA officials, have said they are not alarmed by the questions the Obama transition team is raising about the rocket.

One former NASA official, who believes Ares 1 will miss its promised March 2015 debut by at least a year, said the vehicle nonetheless is NASA’s best bet for minimizing the time during which the
United States
will not be able to place astronauts in orbit.

“The available data suggests [Ares 1] won’t fly before September 2016 with 60 percent confidence, but that is still sooner than anything else,” the former NASA official said, adding that getting Ares 1 through its preliminary design review took three years and cost more than $10 billion.

“We’d have to spend that much again to get back to where we are today” with a different launch vehicle option, the former NASA official said.