By Dave Ahearn

The planned Ares I rocket to launch the future Orion space capsule into orbit would be twice as safe and more affordable than a military rocket that some are touting as a cheaper option, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said, in what may be his final summation of U.S. space exploration plans before he leaves the space agency.

In an exhaustive summation of his four years in office, Griffin also said that aside from the issue of safeguarding astronauts’ lives, veering now into using the competing military rocket, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), would require modifying the EELV first stage to carry a heavier load, and the EELV also would need to obtain a human-flight rating for the second stage.

In other words, if President-elect Obama orders NASA to dump the Ares I program that is now years into development, the space agency would have to begin from scratch doing the same work to transform the EELV military rocket into a spacecraft lifter, wasting time and billions of dollars already spent on the Ares program to, essentially, reinvent the wheel, Griffin observed. He spoke before the Space Transportation Association at a breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill.

And then, when EELV was ready, it only would be able to go to low Earth orbit, not to the moon, Mars and beyond as NASA now is charged with achieving, Griffin noted. That would mean the huge Ares V rocket, companion to Ares I, would have to be upgraded and human-rated. Griffin caustically asked how likely it is that Congress would agree to fund two human-rated rockets instead of one. Answer: not likely.

And when all is considered, the development costs for the Ares I and Ares V family of rockets would be about 25 percent less than the cost of changing course now and developing an EELV for human space flight and, separately, the Ares V rocket, Griffin said.

“Cost savings for the Ares family are huge,” versus trying to make the EELV military rocket system into a space lifter, he said. The EELV would be provided by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] (the Atlas V rocket) and Boeing [BA] (the Delta IV).

While Lockheed Martin is developing the Orion space capsule, or crew exploration vehicle, that would carry astronauts into space, Lockheed Martin doesn’t have a piece of the Ares I rocket.

Rather, different segments of he rocket would be developed by Boeing, Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK], and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp. [UTX].

A Lockheed Martin official said at an Aerospace Industries Association media briefing this week that it is worth President-elect Obama examining whether to drop the Ares I in favor of the EELV, while also agreeing with Griffin that adapting the military EELV to human space work would be an extensive undertaking.

In his speech, Griffin said that decisions as to what hardware NASA buys should be made by unbiased space professionals at NASA, not by contractors motivated by the bottom line.

Noting that NASA “ought to be willing to pay more for a safer vehicle” by procuring the Ares I, he demanded to know what right contractors have to make that decision, rather than NASA experts.

“In what world is that decision anyone’s but NASA’s?” Griffin asked.

Yes, he said, it’s true that the U.S. commercial launch industry, such as ULA and its member firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing, aren’t enjoying robust times, but that doesn’t mean that NASA is obligated to hand them money to help bail them out.

“While I’m truly concerned about the moribund state of the U.S. commercial launch industry, and about the rising cost of the EELV to NASA as a result, our task was to develop a plan for human space exploration, not to buttress the EELV industrial base,” Griffin declared. NASA can’t both run a competent space program and at the same time provide an industry prop-up program, he said. “We absolutely don’t have the resources to do both. I wish we did.”

But even if NASA had unlimited cash, why would ULA and its member companies be more deserving of support than the companies now working on Ares I? he asked. “Exactly what is it that makes the EELV industrial base more important to support than the shuttle industrial base?” he demanded. “I remind everyone that with the Ares family, we are retiring the shuttle orbiter [vehicle], but we’re preserving many other segments of the shuttle industrial base. Why is it, exactly, that in this time of transition at NASA, in our space flight systems, we ought to be making decisions to augment [the] existing Atlas and Delta workforce, while completely decimating the shuttle workforce? Why is that?”

Many policymakers already are fearful of the loss of thousands of space shuttle jobs in central Florida, even if the Ares I rocket based on the shuttle is fully developed and begins flying in 2015.

Further, Griffin noted that NASA already is supporting ULA and the EELVs, lifters used to launch NASA robotic spacecraft. “EELV will continue to be the foundation [to] launch NASA’s robotic missions, and we’ll use it to the maximum extent possible,” he said.

NASA also is supporting an emergent commercial space transport capability, providing seed money and then contracts for missions to the International Space Station to two firms, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, and its Falcon 9 rocket, and Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB] and its Taurus II lifter.

What the NASA space exploration program needs now is competent constancy and stability in both funding and direction of the Constellation program, not wasteful indecision and vacillation, he said.

At this point, what NASA can’t afford is to waste money, Griffin stressed, noting that the space agency over the past four years has suffered a total $12 billion in multi-year spending cuts.

On other points, Griffin said:

  • NASA can’t depend on commercial space transport providers and their unproven lifters to guarantee the space agency access to the International Space Station, which was built with billions of U.S. taxpayers’ funds. There also can’t be a guaranteed set-aside of money and contracts for those firms, though he strongly supports commercial orbital transportation services, rather than seeing them as competition to NASA. He once was an official with Orbital.
  • NASA could depend solely on Ares V giant lifters, with two launches for a lunar mission, and benefit from a far greater payload capacity, but that would be far more expensive–not possible unless Congress provides the $2.7 billion extra funds. NASA last week announced the request for proposals from contractors.
  • Rather, Congress over the years has opted to stop flying space shuttles next year to free up funds to develop the Orion-Ares system, leaving a half-decade gap where NASA won’t be able to take a single astronaut even to low Earth orbit, much less the moon. Instead, American astronauts will have to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at major expense to U.S. taxpayers. What an “unseemly” decision, Griffin said. “Let’s not do it again,” he warned.
  • “America’s international standing will suffer as a result of demonstrated inability to provide transportation to the space station.”
  • Continuing to fly the space shuttle fleet to help shrink the five-year gap would cost $3 billion annually and carry a one-in-eight chance of a fatal accident over 10 flights (two launches per year).
  • Contrary to rumors being shopped around to the press, Ares I isn’t overweight or in design changes, because there is no final design yet, and in fact it’s within a razor-thin few hundred pounds of meeting weight goals.
  • Thrust oscillation, the intense vibration that a rocket may transmit to astronauts, is being resolved.
  • No congressional commitment has been provided to continue operating the space station beyond 2015.
  • Climate-measuring sensors dropped from the planned National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, should perhaps go on other space platforms.

Griffin concluded his valedictory presentation by quoting two presidents, one a Republican, the other a Democrat.

President Eisenhower, in his parting remarks, warned against “unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.” Griffin found those words to live by.

And President Kennedy cautioned against having a faint heart and lack of will, saying the day before he was assassinated that the space program would have “setbacks and frustrations and disappointments” that Americans must overcome with stout hearts and unyielding determination, with the young president concluding that “the conquest of space must and will go ahead,” Griffin recalled.

His lengthy remarks were greeted by lengthy applause from the audience.