NASA's plan to replace the Space Shuttle and return astronauts to the Moon and possibly Mars has been controversial right from the start. And now there's a strong hint that the Obama administration will directly intervene and redirect how NASA spends its billions of federal dollars.
This news comes via reports from the Orlando Sentinel, which learned details of the impending review from several administration and industry sources. Earlier this year the White House hinted that it might examine NASA's plans.
The key worry for the administration is the Ares I rocket, one of the two principle components of the Constellation program. It's a two-stage space vehicle designed to launch astronauts in an Orion space module—superficially like an enlarged Apollo capsule—and it's based on technology from the Space Shuttle program. Its first stage is a five-segment solid rocket booster developed from the Shuttle's four-segment SRB, and may cause some concern. Throughout the program this SRB stage has caused one issue after another. Initial concerns that the rocket would create unacceptable shuddering for the crew were overcome with a new vibration-damper. Then scientists became concerned the rocket would drift into its own launch tower at the point of lift-off, requiring a tower redesign and strict weather monitoring at launch. Since the engine can't be extinguished, the escape rocket that would pull the astronaut's capsule free has also had to be redesigned to be extremely powerful, significantly increasing the Orion's mass.
All in all the rocket's weight has skyrocketed to a point where NASA recently cut the number of crew the vehicle would carry from six down to four. That radically affects the plans for the entire Moon program, as well as impacting plans to ferry crew to the International Space Station in the years after the Shuttle program is retired.
But it's the cost implication that concerns the government, as much as potential delays to the proposed moon landings: Ares I's cost has spiralled from $28 billion in 2006 to over $40 billion. Obama simply wants to guarantee more bang for his buck, as well as to protect thousands of jobs in the space industry.
And there are alternatives available. The Ares V rocket also under development is significantly larger, and is being designed to haul the main Constellation hardware into space—it'll also serve as a satellite launcher, and most likely the platform used to send people to Mars in the future. In an alternative to the Constellation's current design, an Ares V variant could be man-rated earlier, and used to carry astronauts aloft. There are also the existing cargo Delta and Atlas rockets—both are successful heavy launch vehicles, and it should be possible to man-rate them for use as alternative rides for Orion.
What happens will depend on whether the review actually occurs, and what its findings say about the most efficient way to proceed. Ex-NASA boss Michael Griffin knows what he wants to happen: "Any proposed [alternative] approach would need to be enormously better to justify wiping out four years' worth of solid progress."