WASHINGTON AND CAPE CANAVERAL — In a major turnaround, the Obama administration intends this week to order a review of the spacecraft program that NASA had hoped would replace the space shuttle, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.
According to administration officials and industry insiders, the review would examine whether the Ares 1 rocket and Orion capsule are the best option to send astronauts into orbit by 2015. The review of the so-called Constellation program could be finished by fall.
The decision follows months of critical reports that have questioned whether Ares and Orion can overcome major financial and technical hurdles that threaten to delay a scheduled 2015 launch to the International Space Station and a return to the moon by 2020.
The outcome is crucial for Kennedy Space Center, which could lose as many as 10,000 jobs if the shuttle is retired in 2010 as scheduled. That would leave a five-year gap before the first Ares launch. Proponents of alternative rocket designs say they could be launched sooner and save many jobs.
"I don't think they [White House officials] are completely convinced that the Constellation program, as designed, is the best way to go," said Vincent G. Sabathier, a space expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Sabathier said that the White House had wanted to name a new administrator before announcing the study, but that the difficulty in finding a leader and the shuttle's looming retirement forced the administration's hand.
"They want to mitigate the gap," between programs, Sabathier said.
The announcement is planned for Thursday to coincide with the release of President Obama's $18.7-billion spending plan for NASA.
Obama has said little about NASA since taking office, other than noting this spring that the agency was afflicted by a "sense of drift." NASA has not had a permanent administrator since January, when former chief Michael Griffin resigned.
Obama's budget summary released in February backed President George W. Bush's plan to retire the shuttle in 2010. But it did not specifically support Constellation.
Ares' woes are well known. It requires re-engineering to deal with violent shaking caused by vibrations in its solid-rocket first stage. In addition, engineers are concerned that the rocket could drift into its launch tower on takeoff. And Ares' estimated costs through 2015 have risen from $28 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today.
Recently, NASA announced that it would cut the Orion capsule's passenger capacity from six astronauts to four. Originally, Orion was to fly six astronauts to the space station and four to the moon. But because Ares I is less powerful and more expensive than originally planned, NASA has had to cut weight and costs from Orion.
The study that set NASA on its current course was ordered by Griffin in 2005. But many contractors and rocket companies complained that the study was not fairly conducted.
"I think the people who are going to oversee this want to take another hard look at this," said Roger Launius, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. "And there are people in some quarters, not all, who say that the study done in 2005 might have been shaded in such a way to lead you to the current architecture" and the administration now wants to take a look at whether Constellation is the right answer.