Ares, Orion, commercial, and broken promises

A few items of interest for those catching up from the holidays:

Regular readers know that Congress’s inability this month to pass either an omnibus spending bill or a full-year continuing resolution means that provisions in the FY10 appropriations bill remain in effect, including one that prevents NASA from terminating any elements of Constellation. An Orlando Sentinel article Monday puts that into perspective: it means NASA will spend nearly $500 million until March on Ares 1 in fiscal year 2011, even though the program was effectively killed by the NASA authorization act signed into law in October. NASA officials say while it might look like the money is being wasted, much of it is “directly applicable” to the heavy-lift vehicle included in the authorization act–provided a shuttle-derived architecture for the system is selected.

In a separate article, the Sentinel wonders if NASA can afford to continue business as usual for Orion given the successes in the past year by SpaceX. One passage indicates that SpaceX has some supporters within NASA who are seeking to cut down on the layers of bureaucracy and get things done cheaper:

> Inside NASA, some employees have taken to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the letters “WWED,” which stands for “What Would Elon Do?” — a reference to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, the Internet tycoon who invested his own fortune in pursuit of his dream of sending humans into space at affordable prices.

In the article, NASA Orion project manager Mark Geyer said the agency is getting the message and is “scaling back layers of supervision and looking at other ways to cut costs.” The article also notes, though, that under current plans, Orion would not be ready to transport astronauts to the ISS until 2018. By comparison, NASA officials involved with CCDev stated this month that commercial vehicles could be ready to begin service by late 2016; commercial advocates would no doubt argue that such vehicles could enter service even sooner.

The commercial option is looking attractive to agencies outside the US as well. Canadian Space Agency president Steve MacLean told the Canadian Press that he would be open to buying seats on an American commercial vehicle to allow Canadian astronauts to visit the ISS. “If everything goes well, and if it shows that to our satisfaction everything is OK, everything is safe and secure, yes, it’s possible,” he said.

All of these policy changes in the last year, though, represent a significant change from Obama’s 2008 campaign white paper on space policy, which included an endorsement of the Vision for Space Exploration’s central goal of a human return to the Moon by 2020 and plans to “expedite the development of the Shuttle’s successor systems”. Salon has flagged that change as an example of one of the “promises Obama wants you to keep forgetting”. Salon cites this and other examples to disprove a statement by the president: “There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do.”


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