NASA's Moon-Mars Chief Blasts 'False Claims'
For the first time in more than a quarter-century, a new space vehicle stands ready in NASA Kennedy Space Center's 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building in Florida. The final segments of the Ares I-X rocket, including the simulated crew module and launch abort system, were stacked on Aug. 13 on a mobile launcher platform, completing the 327-foot launch vehicle and providing the first entire look of Ares I-X's distinctive shape. The Ares I-X flight test is targeted for Oct. 31.
Credit: NASA

The director of NASA's embattled moon-Mars program says President Barack Obama's human spaceflight commission is making false claims about the advantages of alternatives and ignoring "anything positive" about the program NASA already has spent $9 billion on over the past five years.

In an e-mail obtained by FLORIDA TODAY, NASA Project Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley also says the committee is "dismissive" of the recommendations of Columbia accident investigators.

To treat astronaut crew safety as a 'sine qua non' -- a given -- "is a cop out. . .plain and simple," Hanley said in a candid, 3,376-word e-mail to Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats.

The panel was created to review NASA's ongoing moon-Mars program and consider other options for the agency after the shuttle's retirement. The panel decided NASA's Constellation program is on "an unsustainable trajectory" and Obama should consider canceling NASA's Ares I crew launcher and instead fly astronauts on commercial rockets.

Hanley said that idea raises significant legal issues and would put at risk future U.S. human space exploration.

"We are betting the farm on severe speculation," Hanley told Coats, a veteran shuttle pilot and mission commander.

The blunt assessment of the commission's executive summary, which was delivered to the White House on Sept. 8, comes to light as the panel holds a final public hearing today. A full report by the 10-member committee, led by Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, is due at the White House by the end of the month.

Efforts by e-mail and telephone seeking comment from Augustine, executive director and chief spokesman, were unsuccessful.

Hanley's comments "reflect the informed engineering judgment of someone who's been living with these issues for years," said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and a former NASA associate administrator.

"Where I might differ is that I think the Augustine Committee was clear in saying it was not making recommendations. Further, the document being discussed was an executive summary so it's hard to say that evidence is lacking for various assertions as we just don't know without the final report," Pace said.

NASA since 2004 has been on course to complete the International Space Station and retire its shuttle fleet by the end of 2010; develop a new U.S. crew transportation system by 2014 and then return American astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Project Constellation is developing Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft as part of that mission, but the presidential panel said it doubted NASA could meet those goals on time. And the panel suggested the commercial industry might be able to deliver crew transportation services faster and cheaper.

"This group of smart people has looked at the riskiness of the commercial providers compared to the riskiness of NASA, and apparently come to the conclusion that the risks are comparable," John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, told FLORIDA TODAY earlier this year.

"They've looked closely at this and seem to have come to the conclusion that we are at a point in the evolution of space transportation where a commercial provider could balance risk, cost and profit and make a business - with, it should be added, significant help from the government."

Hanley is not so sure.

In the e-mail and telephone interviews Wednesday, Hanley said U.S. commercial launch services have not demonstrated they can to fly astronauts safely and reliably.

It's unclear whether the companies have the intellectual capital to develop complex crew escape systems -- a job not undertaken since the Apollo project, he said.

And it's unclear whether the U.S. government or a commercial crew transportation company would be legally liable for property damage or loss of life in the event of a Challenger- or Columbia-like disaster.

"How could NASA blindly 'trust' them to 'get it right' and then indemnify them for any loss of life?" Hanley said in the e-mail to Coats.

Hanley raised other concerns.

  • On the development of a heavy-lift launcher:

The committee noted that the Ares I launcher "has the advantage of projected very high ascent crew safety" but claimed its development would delay the Saturn V-class Ares V.

"Great heavy sigh," Hanley wrote. "This paragraph demonstrates either an intentional mischaracterization of the facts or a clear lack of understanding of Constellation."

The Ares I first-stage -- a five-segment version of the shuttle's solid rocket booster -- also will be used on the Ares V.

The Ares I second stage engine -- an upgraded version of a Saturn V engine -- will propel the upper stage of the Ares V.

  • On the potential use of upgraded versions of existing Atlas 5 or Delta 4 Heavy rockets for crew or cargo transport:

The committee claimed the use of these rockets could potentially lower development and operations costs.

"This is a claim unsupported and unsubstantiated with any assessment or data," Hanley wrote.

  • Video - NASA's Ares I-X Test Flight Unveiled
  • Video - Back to the Moon with NASA's Constellation 
  • Video Show - NASA's Vision for Humans in Space

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