NASA's $500 million launcher missing just one thing: the rocket it was made for

A $500 million mobile launch tower for NASA's Constellation program. The rocket it's meant to launch might never be built.
A $500 million mobile launch tower for NASA's Constellation program. The rocket it's meant to launch might never be built. (Red Huber/orlando Sentinel)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. -- Anyone need a $500 million, 355-foot steel tower for launching rockets into space?

There's one available at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Brand new, never been used.

The mobile launcher has been built for a rocket called the Ares 1. The problem is, there is not yet any such thing as an Ares 1 rocket -- and if the Obama administration has its way, there never will be.

President Obama's 2011 budget kills that rocket, along with the rest of NASA's Constellation program, the ambitious back-to-the-moon effort initiated under President George W. Bush.

People here were shocked when they heard the news last month. They were already facing the imminent retirement of the aging space shuttle, and the likelihood of thousands of layoffs in the contracting corps but many hoped to find a Constellation job, stay on site and essentially just switch badges.

Now suddenly, they're looking at no shuttle, no Ares 1, no NASA-owned spaceship of any kind in the near future. American astronauts for years to come will hitch rides to space on Russian rockets.

"It's almost like losing manned space flight," said Michele Kosiba, 44, a quality inspector for United Space Alliance.

The space center is a unique place, built on a flat expanse of marsh and scrub that knuckles into the Atlantic. Long, straight, government roads are lined with ditches patrolled by alligators. Launch towers stand sentinel on the horizon. From here, the United States launched some of its most spectacular national achievements. But the decision to kill Constellation has shrouded this part of the world in an unfamiliar gloom.

People are dismayed and bewildered. Obama has gotten the message and will fly to the Kennedy Space Center on April 15 to hold a space conference and a town hall meeting. He is certain to point out that his budget actually boosts funding for NASA. The new NASA strategy shifts the task of launching astronauts to low Earth orbit from traditional government contracts to commercial contracts. If the private sector can create a taxi to space, NASA can focus on new technologies and longer journeys in the solar system.

"We think it's exciting," NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former astronaut, said in an e-mailed response to questions. "It will enable us to do things we can only dream about today. It will foster new industries, spur innovation, create jobs and lead to more missions, to more destinations, sooner, safer and faster."

'Cancel Constellation?'

A presidential commission, led by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine, reported to Obama last September that the Ares 1 would have limited use and that the heavy-lift rocket necessary for a moon mission probably wouldn't be ready until 2028. At that point, the panel said, there'd be no money left in the program for a moon lander or moon habitat. In effect, the Augustine committee said Constellation, which has already cost $9.4 billion, was destined for a (metaphorical) crash landing.

"We could get to the moon and do what?" said Dale Ketcham, a University of Central Florida professor who runs a think tank called the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute. "The taxpayers would really be ticked off: Sixty years later we go back and plant the flag and go home."

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