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White House Puts NASA’s Future in Limbo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Just one day after a White House panel called for its cancellation, NASA's Ares I rocket program got a "go" for its first test flight.

Tuesday morning, if the weather cooperates, NASA aims to launch the first - and possibly last - model of the Ares I rocket from Kennedy Space Center.

Managers emerged from a flight readiness review Friday and were hit with the big question facing their project, "What now?"

"No decisions have been made at this point so it's really premature to comment," said Doug Cooke, the head of NASA's exploration program.

Ares I is the closest NASA has gotten to fielding a replacement for the space shuttle. Several past efforts were killed for technical or funding reasons, but never has the "almost there" feeling been quite as palpable as this time, when the first version of the new rocket sits out on the launch ready to fly within days.

The chances that Ares will be part of the program ultimately chosen by the president dimmed Thursday with the release of the final report of the Human Space Flight Plans Committee, which President Barack Obama charged with identifying practical and affordable future paths for NASA.

"The timing is what it is, but the test is significant and it's one that we fully back," Cooke said Friday.

Asked if it felt like a cloud was hanging over the Ares team, Cooke said, "There's no clouds over them except for the weather next week, possibly. They are totally committed, and they're living on adrenaline, almost. It's a very tight team, and they're doing a great job."

The White House committee found Ares I was a good idea when NASA came up with it back in 2005. The report also said there are no insurmountable technical hurdles to Ares I safely flying American astronauts to space.

However, the committee determined circumstances have changed so much that Ares I is no longer the smartest choice for launching astronauts.

Technical problems and NASA budget cuts mean Ares I is unlikely to be ready to launch crews until at least 2017. That's a year after the planned retirement of the International Space Station. So, NASA would have a new launcher and crew exploration vehicle, but nowhere for them to go. If NASA extended the space station to 2020, it would sap funds from Ares and likely delay the rocket's availability until near the end of the decade.

While NASA says Ares I will be many times safer than the shuttles, the committee said computer and statistical analyses historically do not capture all the risks that show up in real flight experience. Also, Ares I would fly twice a year, a low rate "raising questions about the sustainability of safe operations," the report said.

The biggest change since NASA first chose Ares is financial. The economic crisis prompted severe cuts in NASA's expected long-range budget.

Ares I is estimated to cost $6 billion to develop and $1 billion per flight to operate, the panel found. As NASA dealt with shrinking budgets, work on the heavy-lift Ares V got pushed back. The bigger rocket, which is needed for moon missions, likely won't be ready until the mid-to-late 2020s, a decade later than first planned.

The panel said the Ares I and Orion would prove to be too expensive for a crew taxi, when NASA might be able to buy that service from a private firm sooner and cheaper.

Another big change the panel noted was progress made in NASA's commercial cargo program. NASA incentives have helped two companies make progress toward new rockets and spaceships capable of taking cargo to the space station. Those companies and others told the panel they could fly astronauts to space station by 2016.

"The use of commercial vehicles to transport crews to low Earth orbit is much more of an option today than it might have been in 2005," when Ares was conceived, the report said.

The committee's final analysis was NASA could save time and money by investing $5 billion in a private crew taxi and end up with a system that costs less to operate per mission once it's flying.

The savings could allow NASA to extend the life of the space station and accelerate development of a heavy-lift rocket needed for human missions deeper into the solar system. That same heavy-lift rocket could serve as a "fallback" to launch crews to Earth orbit if private firms fail, the report said.

Ares I, and Tuesday's test flight, will continue to have an impact on NASA's future regardless. How much impact is unclear.

However, the panel recommended NASA keep developing a heavy-lift rocket, possibly the Ares V, which will build upon work done on Ares I.

The panel and NASA officials said lessons learned in fielding a new rocket from scratch are worthwhile to whatever development projects come next.

And there's one last twist that could result in Ares I, or a variation of it, ending up being the vehicle that launches astronauts to low Earth orbit anyway.

The committee called for open competition for the commercial astronaut taxi system, one that would let any company with a viable launcher bid. Might one of those bidders be ATK Launch Systems and its partners, transforming the substantial work they've done on Ares I into some form of commercial crew transport?

Maybe, says former NASA Chief Astronaut Charlie Precourt, who is now the vice president and general manager of ATK.

"There's still some development work to go but I think our industry team is very favorably thinking that whatever method delivers the product is something we'd be willing to consider. So we're talking about that with NASA. It's all about how you get to the end state for less cost and improved schedule, so we're brainstorming all kinds of things."

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