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NASA grieves over canceled program

Image: Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden pauses during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday.Luis Alvarez / AP
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NASA and President Barack Obama's administration expect to spend months working out the specifics for their new plan for U.S. space exploration, even as some within the space agency mourn the loss of its current effort to send astronauts back to the moon.

President Obama's 2011 budget request for NASA cut the agency's Constellation program completely, effectively canceling a five-year, $9 billion effort to build new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets.

The new space vehicles were slated to replace NASA's three aging space shuttles (due to retire this year) and launch astronauts into orbit and on to the moon.

"To people who are working on these programs, this is like a death in the family," an emotional NASA chief Charles Bolden told reporters Tuesday, choking up at times. "Everybody needs to understand that and we need to give them time to grieve and then we need to give them time to recover."

Bolden spoke during a presentation at the National Press Club in Washington, where he presented the winners of NASA's $50 million commercial crew development competition.

The winners, five companies ranging from aerospace juggernauts to upstarts, will receive different amounts of funding to develop a variety of products, ranging from full-up commercial spaceships to the launch abort and life support systems needed to make them work.

Bolden said that he and senior White House officials expect to spend the upcoming months crafting a new overarching goal for NASA, one which is focused on developing the technologies and capabilities for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit once more. Under Obama's proposed budget request, NASA would receive $6 billion a year for five years to support commercial spacecraft development.

"I'm not trying to fool anybody that this is going to be easy," Bolden said.

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Setting out a new long-range plan for NASA, he added, will take some time, but should not be drawn out. "It is more than a couple of weeks, but less than years," Bolden said.

The NASA chief did not set specific deadlines or destinations, but hinted that the Earth's moon, the asteroids and Mars and its two moons were on the list as targets for human space exploration.

"Anybody who talks about exploration beyond low Earth orbit, there are some places that just naturally come to mind: the moon, Mars, asteroids and other near-Earth objects. So those are some of the definite destinations," Bolden said.

But that list does not rule out other potential targets, he added.

"We hope very soon to be able to give you a very definitive time schedule that we hope to reach some of these destinations," Bolden said.

Doug Cooke, NASA's associate administrator for space exploration, said NASA must remain focused as the Constellation program closes down and shifts into a new phase of human spaceflight.

"It is difficult, to be perfectly honest," Cooke said. "It is difficult for those of us who have worked on it for a number of years and made sacrifices in order to make it successful."

NASA's Constellation program workers will continue their efforts under the space agency's current 2010 budget, Cooke said. The shutdowns will come only after the 2011 budget proposal is enacted into law.

But until then, NASA engineers are taking a close look at the lessons learned from their five years pursuing the moon with the Constellation program. Cooke said he is optimistic that many of those lessons, and possibly some of the hardware developed, can be carried over onto the new path.

"We will look at everything that's been developed, both in terms of studies and designed, and hardware, to see where it might be used in the future," Cooke said.

Those knowledge capture exercises, he added, include things like new computer models developed after NASA's October 2008 test launch of Ares I-X, a prototype of its Ares I rocket designed to launch the now-shelved Orion crew vehicle.

"We will learn from every aspect of this," Cooke said.