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

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; A01

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."

Lawmakers in Congress in both parties, particularly those in districts with space jobs, have given the Obama plan a cold reception. Congress still must approve Obama's budget. Until that happens, Constellation maintains a ghostly existence as "the program of record."

Which means that, every day, workers are still adding elements to the mobile launcher. Across the country, work continues on Ares and the new crew capsule, Orion. The Orion launchpad abort system will be tested later this spring in New Mexico. Even if Congress sanctions Obama's plan, the administration expects to spend $2.5 billion just closing out contracts and shutting down Constellation.

NASA employees and contractors on the Cape say they were caught off guard by the new strategy.

"We just pulled the rug out from human space flight," said Jim Bolton, a NASA manager for shuttle processing. The morning of the announcement, Bolton said, "People were just truly shocked. 'How can that be? Cancel Constellation? What are you talking about?' "

Bolton spoke as he stood directly beneath the shuttle Atlantis, which was jacked up in its processing bay and completely shrouded in scaffolding and fuel lines. The orbiter is being prepped for its 32nd, and most likely final, journey to and from orbit. From below, some of the gray thermal tiles that keep it from burning up upon reentry are slightly scuffed, but it's still a pretty spiffy spaceship.

"It's such an awesome machine," said Tim Keyser, a mechanical lead in another orbiter bay. "It's not old. I go in the midbody, it's pristine. It looks like it rolled off the assembly line."

People here talk of the orbiters -- Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour -- as if they are beloved members of the family. There are only four shuttle flights left, with the last scheduled for September, though the timetable could slip a few months. Some lawmakers are scrambling to keep the shuttle flying, perhaps with a drawn-out flight manifest.

Howard DeCastro, shuttle program manager for United Space Alliance, the primary shuttle contractor, said the shuttle is flying better than ever. The main challenge for shuttle extension is restarting supply contracts that have already shut down. It would take two years, for example, to produce a new external fuel tank for an additional shuttle flight. Still, DeCastro said, "there are no showstoppers in flying the shuttle longer."

What will really hurt, workers say, is the disappearance of the know-how accumulated over decades here at the Cape.

"We lose that knowledge base, it's very hard to get that back," adds Chris Loines, 43, a United Space Alliance contractor who has been launching rockets his entire adult life.

Soon, a taxi to space

The administration has promised to spend $2 billion upgrading the Kennedy Space Center. But workers here said they don't know what that means, exactly. They don't want to work on facilities, they want to work on spaceships. Terry White, a United Space Alliance worker who supervises the thermal protection system on the orbiters, said that putting money into KSC without a spaceship is like having a fancy showroom with no cars to sell.

Ketcham said the decision to retire the shuttle has only recently hit home.

"There was this communal epiphany -- 'Oh my God, they're going to cancel the shuttle.' And then we plunged into the classic five stages of grief. And rational thought is not one of the stages of grief," Ketcham said.

NASA isn't the only game in town. The Cape is shared by NASA, the Air Force and commercial rocket companies. On the Air Force-controlled side of the Cape, one will find the commercial rockets named the Delta IV and the Atlas V, each with a dedicated launch complex. And there's a newcomer on the block: the Falcon 9.

This is the rocket built by SpaceX, a private company founded by Internet tycoon Elon Musk. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to launch cargo to the space station. The Falcon 9 has never flown. Framed by lightning towers, the 143-foot rocket is poised on an old Titan rocket pad, having been raised to the vertical position by two hydraulic jacks.

The scene is rather calmer than what you'd find at a NASA site. A low building holds cubicles and a couple of dozen workers. A few technicians in hardhats can be seen poking around the base of the rocket. In a hangar where the rocket is built, a lone figure sits at a desk. The commercial route figures to be cheaper than the traditional government route to space.

SpaceX would like a modified version of the Falcon 9 to become the commercial taxi to space. The first test flight could be mid-April, right about the time Obama visits the Space Coast. Musk has estimated the chance of success on the first try at between 70 and 80 percent. The final preparations include the installation of an auto-destruct system, said Scott Henderson, mission assurance director for SpaceX.

If it blows up, Henderson said, "It's not going to get outside the fence here."

From the SpaceX pad, looking west across the scrub of the Cape, the visitor can see the new NASA mobile launcher, parked for now near the huge Vehicle Assembly Building. Could SpaceX use that launch tower? Conceivably, Henderson said. But it's not really designed for a rocket like the Falcon 9, he said. SpaceX certainly doesn't need it at the moment.

NASA officials insist that they could still find a use for the half-billion-dollar tower even if the Ares 1 never materializes. But space technology tends to be highly customized. A worker on his way to the cafeteria the other day was overhead saying he wanted to climb the mobile launcher "before it becomes an artificial reef."

DeCastro, the United Space Alliance executive, said he doubted the mobile launcher could be useful without the Ares 1.

"It's just a big old tower now," DeCastro said. "I guess you could sell it to SeaWorld or something and put a big ol' slide on it."

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