By Dave Ahearn

If NASA shifts even partially from its Constellation Program plan for building the new Ares rocket family, and decides instead to convert and adapt the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) family, that would cost money, not save funds.

That was the view, in a teleconference with journalists Wednesday, of NASA leaders: Doug Cooke, deputy associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate; Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager; Steve Cook, Ares projects manager; and Mark Geyer, Orion project manager.

While NASA hasn’t worked up numbers on such a switch, specifically, it is clear that regardless of what rocket might be substituted for Ares, developing another system for space exploration is going to require money, the leaders explained.

It also is clear that the space shuttle fleet must be retired to save money that can be used for the Constellation Program that is developing the Orion space capsule, the crew- carrying vehicle, and the Ares I rocket that will lift Orion to space, and the Ares V heavy lifter rocket, they said.

It also is clear that Ares I and Ares V are linked, sharing a J2X engine, solid rocket booster design, ground facilities, hardware and a workforce that must continue to be paid, and if an Ares lifter isn’t built as planned because some other booster would be substituted, then that also would mean lost time to develop that other asset, costing NASA time in getting back to space, they said.

All that would add cost to the program, so it would be more expensive, not a savings, to use some other rocket than the Ares family, while increasing the five-year gap between President Bush’s mandate to retire shuttles by October 2010 and the first manned flight of Orion in 2015, according to the NASA leaders.

In that half a decade, NASA won’t have a spacecraft system to lift a single astronaut to space.

The EELV is provided by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing [BA] (Delta IV) and Lockheed Martin [LMT] (Atlas V). EELV provides access to space for government and military payloads.

As for Ares, Boeing is building just one segment of the lifter, while Lockheed Martin isn’t building the rocket. (Lockheed Martin is, however, building Orion.) Rather, Ares is being developed and built by Boeing, Alliant Techsystems [ATK], and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies [UTX].