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NASA works on ‘Plan B’ for future spaceflight

NASA chief Charles Bolden is expected to discuss changes to President Barack Obama's plan to scrap the agency's Constellation program with at least one top lawmaker this week, according to an internal agency e-mail.
/ Source: Space.com

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is expected to discuss changes to President Barack Obama's plan to scrap the agency's Constellation program with at least one top lawmaker this week, according to an internal agency e-mail shared with Space News.

In Tuesday's document, Michael Coats, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, wrote to the manned spaceflight center's chief engineer, Stephen Altemus, instructing him to establish a "'Plan B' team" to consider "a potential compromise," including a series of talking points for Bolden regarding development of a crewed spacecraft, heavy-lift launch vehicle and launch vehicle test program.

The e-mail indicates Bolden is to discuss the compromise with House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., "in a couple days."

Bolden, however, said on Thursday that he did not ask NASA human spaceflight officials to come up with an alternative to Obama's plan.

"The president's budget for NASA is my budget. I strongly support the priorities and the direction for NASA that he has put forward," Bolden said in a written statement. "I'm open to hearing ideas from any member of the NASA team, but I did not ask anybody for an alternative to the president's plan and budget. We have to be forward-thinking and aggressive in our pursuit of new technologies to take us beyond low-Earth orbit, and the president's plan does this. After years of underinvestment in new technology and unrealistic budgeting, we finally have an ambitious plan for NASA that sets the agency on a reinvigorated path of space exploration."

Resistance in Congress
Obama's plan to terminate Constellation, including the Orion crew exploration vehicle and Ares family of rockets, encountered bipartisan resistance from House and Senate lawmakers during budget hearings held in February.

On Wednesday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, proposed a new bill that, if passed, would extend the space shuttle program for two years beyond its planned 2010 retirement.

Hutchison's bill would also require the space agency to study options for a new launcher that could be ready to deliver U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2013 and beyond low Earth orbit by the end of 2018.

The bill, dubbed the Human Space Flight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act, calls for spending an additional $3.4 billion between 2010 and 2012 to keep the space shuttle flying. It would require NASA to spread out its four remaining shuttle missions, now slated to wrap up by October, and potentially add additional flights.

Companion legislation is expected to be introduced in the House next week by U.S. Reps. Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., and Bill Posey, R-Fla.

Alternative under discussion
In this week's e-mail, Coats said Bolden agreed to the creation of a team to examine changes to the president's plan. He added that Bolden requested "talking points" in advance of his meeting with Gordon, and instructed Altemus to "flesh this out, then report to Charlie through Doug Cooke," who heads NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

Cooke was not listed as a recipient of the e-mail, though Coats sent copies to his deputy, Ellen Ochoa; to Robert Lightfoot, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.; to Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida; and to Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley, Orion program manager Mark Geyer and Edward Mango, launch director for Constellation's Ares 1-X flight test program.

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NASA's Johnson, Kennedy and Marshall space centers all play central roles in Constellation's development.

"Steve[,] Robert and I talked to Charlie and he agreed to let us set up a 'Plan B' team (my term, since Chairman Gordon asked Charlie about his 'plan B' at the hearing) to look at what a potential compromise might look like," Coats wrote, referring to a Feb. 25 hearing before the House Science and Technology Committee in which Gordon urged Bolden to be open to compromise in order to achieve consensus in Congress.

In the e-mail, Coats told Altemus to contact Mango, Geyer and Gary Lyles, NASA's associate director for technical management at Marshall, "to develop that one pager quickly, and set up a team (you can name it anything you want — I don't recommend Constellation or Orion)."

In addition, while Obama's budget proposal calls for a $6 billion increase to NASA's top-line spending over the next five years, Coats urged Altemus to keep the alternate proposal's cost estimates in mind.

"Living within the budget is a huge issue, since it's doubtful we'll get more funding," he wrote.

to read the entire e-mail. This report incorporates information from an earlier Space News story on Space.com,