Private Companies Claim Better, Cheaper Options for New NASA Rocket
United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket carrying a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office successfully lifted off from Space Launch Complex 37 at CCAFS at 9:47 p.m. EST on Jan. 17, 2009.
Credit: ULA/Pat Corkery

WASHINGTON -- Executives from several private space companies said Wednesday that they could provide cheaper, more reliable launch systems than those of NASA's Constellation program.

The executives made their comments about alternatives to NASA's plan for sending astronauts to the moon and on to Mars during the first meeting of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee created by President Barack Obama.

After the daylong meeting, committee Chairman Norm Augustine, a former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., said some commercial launch efforts appear "further along than I thought."

Michael Gass, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, told the committee that the company could use an existing Delta rocket to launch the Constellation project's Orion capsule into space sooner and at a lower cost than NASA's planned Ares I rocket.

And Gary Pulliam at Aerospace Corp., which was hired to look at other ways to launch Orion, said a modified Delta IV Heavy rocket could save between $3 billion and $6 billion compared with the Ares I.

But Pulliam also noted that NASA has said canceling the Ares I project would add $14.1 billion to $16.6 billion to the cost of developing the larger Ares V rocket, which NASA hopes to use to take the Orion capsule farther into space, including to Mars.

Executives with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences told committee members that they could help NASA ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, filling the gap between the end of the shuttle program in 2010 and the start of Constellation.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also said that using private firms to service the space station -- both for supplies and people -- would free up NASA to spend its funds on more ambitious space exploration. NASA has contracted with both firms for a total of 20 missions to service the station.

Steve Metschan, part of a group called Direct, offered the most provocative presentation, which proposed using existing shuttle components to create a new launch system that would be cheaper and already tested.

He added some drama by imploring panel members to allow people working on the Ares I rocket to talk to the panel anonymously about problems with the project.

Earlier in the day, NASA officials told the committee that they're dealing with concerns about the lift capacity of the Ares I rocket, its ability to safely clear the launch tower and potential vibration issues during launch.

Augustine cited the vibration problem as among the most striking issues brought up on the first day. Others, he said, included the availability of commercial rockets as an alternative way to launch the Orion and the concept of reusing the shuttle launch system.

He said the committee is developing a set of criteria -- including cost, risks involved and the impact on jobs -- to evaluate options. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson told the group that its

recommendations could be "the significant influence for the White House and the Congress for where the space program is going."

The committee's report is due by the end of August. The panel also includes former astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Lester Lyle, a retired Air Force general who was on Obama's short list for NASA administrator.

  • Video - Back to the Moon with NASA's Constellation
  • Video - Mock Orion Capsule Crashes to Earth
  • Video - NASA's Constellation Journey Begins: Part 1, Part 2

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