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Closing lunar program a tough mission for NASA

With Obama wanting the agency to turn its attention to Mars, and Congress yet to issue a decision, officials are trying to determine how much it would cost to pay off contractors.

February 28, 2010|By Robert Block

Reporting from Cape Canaveral, Fla. — NASA is discovering that perhaps the only thing harder than starting up a program to send humans to the moon is closing one down.

President Obama has announced he wants the agency to end its lunar ambitions and begin developing "game-changing" technologies that could one day take humans to Mars. If Congress agrees, NASA must turn off the Constellation program that was supposed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

But terminating Constellation is no easy feat. To do it, NASA has to navigate a political and financial maze largely of its own making.

Obama's 2011 budget proposal provides $2.5 billion to pay contractors whatever NASA owes them so the agency can stop work on Constellation's Ares rockets, Orion capsule and Altair lunar lander. But administration officials acknowledge that this amount is, at best, an educated guess.

"I think we took what was an estimate from what industry said, what our analysts said," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said last week when asked how the administration came up with the $2.5-billion price tag. "It's a ballpark figure. Hopefully, it's something that's extreme."

Many inside and outside of the space agency, however, think the number is too low.

The agency has signed more than $10 billion worth of contracts to design, test and build the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule, which were the heart of Constellation.

But government auditors said last year that the costs of some of those contracts had swelled by $3 billion since 2007 because of design changes, technical problems and schedule slips. How much NASA will owe on all of those contracts if the plug gets pulled is unclear.

Many of the deals are called "undefinitized contracts," meaning that the terms, conditions -- and price -- had not been set before NASA ordered the work to start. That means the agency will need to negotiate a buyout with the contractor -- and that can be a long and painful process, according to government officials familiar with the cancellation procedure.

"It can be messy, and it's going to take at least a year after the project is closed to get a final price tag assigned to many of these contracts," said one congressional investigator not authorized to talk publicly about his work.

NASA is trying to collect information about what it owes, but that's also become a tricky exercise.

Letters have gone out to Constellation contractors asking how much it would cost to shut down their work. On Monday, NASA wrote to ATK Launch Systems Inc., which is building the first stage of the Ares I, requesting estimates of termination costs "as of the end of this and each of the next three [financial] quarters."

The agency was careful to point out that the letter "is in no way to be construed as direction to cease [work]." Congress has forbidden NASA from canceling any part of Constellation without its permission, which so far it shows no signs of giving.

Indeed, about 30 members of Congress wrote Bolden recently to warn that his efforts to prepare for termination without permission from Congress -- including gathering information about closeout costs -- could be viewed as illegal.

Then, at a hearing Thursday, some of those same members berated Bolden for not having a cost figure.

"You really don't have a handle on what the cancellation cost will be," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) in disbelief. "To me, it's somewhat of a backward approach. It would be nice for a congressman or somebody making policy decisions if we knew what the costs would be before you actually make that decision."

The last time NASA canceled a program this big was in 1970, when it stopped building Saturn V rockets, and in 1973, when it shut down the entire Apollo program. According to government officials, only about a dozen multibillion-dollar programs have been terminated in the last 30 years.

rblock @orlandosentinel.com

Mark K. Matthews of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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