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Obama Pushes NASA to Kill Moon Program

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A NASA move to cut spending on the nation's moon program was being regarded Thursday as a backdoor effort to kill Project Constellation and also as a congressional call to action.

Saying NASA is bound by law to save money to cover President Barack Obama's plan to cancel Constellation, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Congress the agency intends to cut off $1 billion that otherwise would be spent on the program by the end of the year.

No more money will be directed to NASA's Ares rocket project this year, progress on the Orion spacecraft will be deferred and the agency will slash ground operations at Kennedy Space Center by $89 million.

Some 2,500 to 5,000 jobs nationwide will be axed by the end of the year. Contractors in Utah and Colorado would bear the brunt of the cuts.

Reaction was particularly harsh in Utah, where Ares contractor ATK stands to lose $500 million.

"This is an effort of this administration to close the program even without congressional approval, and coming up with a pretty sleazy way of doing it," Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told KSL Newsradio in Salt Lake City.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was more temperate.

The White House is "locked in a stalemate with members of Congress who want to continue or restructure the Constellation program," Nelson said. "That leaves NASA in limbo."

Now "it's time for Congress to step up with a plan that can lay out a path forward and get us moving again," Nelson said. "I am working with my colleagues to make that happen."

The House and Senate appropriations committees reached an agreement last December on a bill that requires congressional approval of any changes to Project Constellation. That covers "any program termination or elimination or the creation of any new program, project or activity."

In a letter sent to Nelson and other key legislators, Bolden said a 140-year-old law is forcing NASA into action.

Enacted in 1870, the Anti-Deficiency Act says the federal government cannot spend money in excess of appropriations made by Congress.

The law also requires contractors to set aside money to cover termination costs in case a government contract is canceled.

Bolden told legislators the current estimate for "potential termination liability" for Constellation contracts is $994 million. Once those estimates are accounted for, Bolden said, the Constellation program is facing a shortfall of $991 million for the remainder of the year.

"Given this estimated shortfall, the Constellation program cannot continue all of its planned 2010 activities within the resources available. Under the Anti-Deficiency Act, NASA has no choice but to correct this situation," Bolden wrote.

KSC spokeswoman Amber Philman said NASA and its contractors are gauging the local impact.

It's unclear whether Constellation work planned during the remainder of the year will continue.

Project Constellation had been expected to create about 2,000 to 3,000 jobs for Kennedy Space Center workers after the shuttle fleet is retired. But Obama's budget proposal for NASA called for canceling the program, meaning those jobs would never materialize.

The NASA move might accelerate layoffs.

Bolden said NASA still will have about $445 million remaining in Constellation coffers for work in 2010 after accounting for potential project termination liability.

Bishop said NASA is trying to circumvent the will of Congress.

"This is a backdoor way of trying to end this program," Bishop said.

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