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NASA, White House still working details of space plan

Posted: February 2, 2010

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NASA and senior White House officials are still tweaking the new U.S. space policy unveiled Monday, and it could be months before the agency can announce a definitive plan for procuring commercial rockets and space capsules for human voyages to low Earth orbit.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said discussions are still ongoing to refine the specific objectives and timetable of NASA's new plans for exploration, which focus on commercial involvement and research into advanced technologies.

"It [will be] more than a couple of weeks, but it's less than years," Bolden said.

John Holden, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said he is "convinced" the new direction is the "right approach for these times, these challenges and these opportunities."

NASA may plan a relationship with commercial crew transportation providers similar to the the partnership for cargo services for the International Space Station, according to Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's exploration division.

The cargo services program includes a series of contractor schedule and development milestones that are met with funding rewards.

"We have a fairly good set of ideas on how to do this in a way similar to what we've done for commercial cargo, which in my view has been very successful," Cooke said.

Bolden and the White House will ultimately decide how to frame and time future commercial crew competitions.

"We're building programs based on the budget, not on dreams," Bolden said. "I dream, but I want to be a realistic dreamer and the president has laid out a pretty healthy budget and we feel we can plan on that budget and keep to it."

President Obama's budget leaves NASA's exploration program without a single near-term destination. The Constellation program taking aim on the moon will be scrapped under the White House budget proposal.

"Anybody that talks about exploration beyond low Earth orbit, there are certain destinations that come in mind, [like] the moon, Mars, near Earth asteroids," Bolden said.

The plan is similar to the "flexible path" alternative discussed by the Augustine commission, the blue-ribbon presidential committee that found the Constellation program was "unsustainable."

"We are not drifting," Bolden said. "I have friends in Houston that write me when I talk about flexible path. I admit, flexible path is hard to grasp, but let me help you. They sent me a thing that says this is like Alice in Wonderland, when you're going everywhere, you're going nowhere. We're not going everywhere. We [are defining] specific destinations that we want to go, and we will go there incrementally. And through our technology development, that will determine where we go first."

Refining the long-term goals of space exploration will take input from NASA leaders, the White House science and budget teams, and Congress. The debate may be heated, especially in Congress.

"I'm not trying to fool anybody that this is going to be easy," Bolden said. "I've still got to go to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but I'm excited about the opportunity to do that. I now have the budget that will allow me to walk to that end of Pennsylvania Avenue and say this is the program that I want all of us to work on together."

Lawmakers representing states with key NASA centers have issued statements opposing the new space plan, fearing it would cede U.S. leadership in space and trigger the loss of thousands of jobs.

"For any of you who think we're abandoning human spaceflight, I just respectfully disagree," Bolden said. "I will think we're going to get there perhaps quicker than we would have done before. If you look at flights to Mars, for example, game-changing technologies allow us to get to Mars in days, not months."

Doug Cooke said the about-face will be tough on the workforce, especially employees assigned to the Constellation program.

"Its end will create an angst among the workers who have been working it, and the immediate affect it will have on jobs," Cooke said.

"To people working on these programs, this is like a death in the family. We need to give them time to grieve," Bolden said.

The Constellation program will continue planned work for the next few months. The program remains funded through the end of fiscal year 2010 in September, Cooke said.

"That means that they're continuing to work on Constellation jobs and work toward milestones that are there with that program until there are agreements made between the Administration and Congress," Cooke said.

More Constellation testing and design work are on tap for this year.

NASA is committed to preserving Constellation accomplishments for the future, in case they are useful to new government or commercial operators.

"We have worked extensively in understanding the development of exploration systems and human systems," Cooke said. "That will not be lost. We will be building on those things that we have learned."

NASA is directing employees to document and save all work on the Constellation program.

"It's not a wasted effort," said Robert Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center. "A lot of what we've designed is going to be used by future [systems]."