Wednesday, March 24, 2010

House panel warns against dropping Constellation

This in from Bart Jansen, our Washington correspondent:

A House panel explored ways Wednesday to keep NASA's Constellation program intact instead of dumping it, as President Barack Obama has proposed.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, chairman of the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Space, chided a NASA official for already abandoning contracts to develop pieces of the program such as the Ares V heavy-lift rocket, the Altair lunar lander and launch services at Kennedy Space Center.

But Douglas Cooke, head of NASA's exploration directorate, denied that the space agency had already begun closing out the return-to-the-moon program. He said work on Constellation continues, despite spending shortfalls.

"We actually are continuing the major work on the contracts," Cooke said.

He said the agency decided last year not to move forward on the Altair and Ares V contracts because a presidential panel was still preparing recommendations on NASA’s future. The panel's report was completed in October.

"We thought we should hold those at that time, so we have been holding those for a year," Cooke said.

Such decisions are contentious because in the spending bill that finances NASA this fiscal year, Congress prohibited the agency from terminating the Constellation program without congressional authorization. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has told lawmakers he's obeying that law.

In proposing the cancellation of Constellation, the Obama administration declared that the program was underfunded and unrealistic, with no hope of returning to the moon before 2030. A presidential panel convened by Obama also concluded that Constellation was significantly behind its goal of being able to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station by 2015.

Cooke told Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, that the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule had been on pace to reach the space station by March 2015 — until budget cuts in the current fiscal year.

"At this point, March 2015 is probably not possible," Cooke said.

Obama has proposed giving NASA an additional $6 billion over five years to finance using commercial rockets to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, arguing that they were better positioned to shorten the gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability.

Obama's proposal has provoked bipartisan opposition in Congress, where there is broad support for Constellation.

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