The space shuttle Endeavour, which is scheduled to launch next week, sits… (John Raoux, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — NASA's latest plan to replace the space shuttle would cost at least $10 billion during the next six years and would utilize recycled shuttle parts, with no guarantee the rocket would be used again, according to documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
The space agency's "shuttle-derived test flight campaign" would provide a rocket to test a nascent crew capsule — and keep shuttle workers and the aerospace industry busy — while NASA figures out what it wants in a next-generation "heavy-lift" rocket that could go to the moon or beyond.
"There is a senior contingent [at NASA] coalescing around this option," said a senior manager at the agency who was not authorized to speak on the record about the plan, which NASA hopes to present to Congress by June 20.
But critics already are deriding the idea as "a rocket to nowhere" that would pay billions to the aerospace industry to perpetuate the use of 30-year-old shuttle technology while further postponing resolution of a fundamental question: What's the mission of NASA's human spaceflight program?
"What we seem to have is a desire to spend money on rockets in the hopes that we will develop a mission one day," said Jeff Greason, a member of the 2009 presidential committee that looked at the future of U.S. human spaceflight.
But for NASA, the plan has the merit of being a cheap — even at $10 billion through 2017 — and easy answer to a congressional mandate to quickly build a rocket out of parts used on the shuttle or developed for the now-defunct Constellation moon-rocket program.
As designed, the test rocket would keep the shuttle's orange fuel tank and twin white boosters and replace the plane-like orbiter with Orion, an Apollo-like crew capsule, atop the external tank.
"Shuttle-derived architecture consistently provides [an] early, highly capable solution," NASA officials wrote in a brief to Congress.
It would also provide billions more to ATK of Minnesota, which makes the solid-rocket boosters, and Lockheed Martin, which in addition to the Orion capsule would manufacture the new rocket's fuel tank. Both were prime contractors for Constellation, which was canceled by the White House and Congress last fall because it was years behind schedule and over budget.
The test rocket is similar to a design proposed three years ago by NASA engineers seeking an alternative to Constellation. But the engineers, working on their own time, were given short shrift by agency officials. NASA's former head of space exploration told Congress that the idea "defied the laws of physics."
Now, NASA is saying that test flights of Orion and this recycled shuttle stack could start as early as 2013, and one NASA document indicated they could last until as late as 2019.
In the meantime, the agency would host a competition for the rocket that NASA and Congress really want: a massive lifter that could blast 130 tons or more into orbit — about five times the payload capacity of the shuttle — and ultimately enable missions to the moon or beyond.
Industry and congressional sources said the recycled shuttle stack might seem less wasteful if NASA ultimately selects a refinement of the design for its heavy-lift rocket. But if that's the case, they ask, why hold a competition?
"It's a complete farce," said Berin Szoka, a member of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.
"This gives them [shuttle-derived supporters] an enormous advantage, and it does a real disservice to commercial companies that could jump in and compete for the [heavy-lift] services," he said.
NASA, however, says nothing is decided.
"We are not 'shopping design options,' " Karl Stehmer, a NASA legislative liaison, wrote in a recent email to Capitol Hill staff members. "No decisions have been made or briefed."
Among the other possibilities, he wrote: a revamped military rocket or a new liquid-fueled rocket.
But a shuttle-derived decision remains the favorite since lawmakers and President Obama agreed last year on a NASA blueprint requiring the agency to try to use shuttle and Constellation parts when building the heavy-lift rocket.
The intent of the law, championed by Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), was to keep shuttle contractors in business while preserving at least some of the shuttle jobs in Florida, Texas and elsewhere that are set to go away after the orbiter's last flight, now scheduled for June 28. An estimated 7,000 shuttle workers are expected to lose their jobs in Florida alone.
Nelson said Wednesday that he was unsure what design would emerge, but emphasized the need for NASA to adhere to the 2010 law.
"I can't design the rocket. I can tell you what the law is, and NASA designs the rocket," Nelson said. "But they have to do it under the direction of the law."
NASA told Congress in January that it could not complete a new rocket by a Senate-imposed deadline of 2017 while staying within its annual budget of about $18 billion to $19 billion.
This latest NASA effort to develop a design comes only after members of Congress, including Nelson and Hutchison, told the agency to go back and try again.
It is one reason this new rocket, dubbed the "Space Launch System" in the law, has been nicknamed by detractors the "Senate Launch System."
Added Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a senior member of the House committee that oversees NASA: "I think it's a wasteful compromise that is being proposed for political reasons and not for any long-term space strategy that makes sense."