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Florida Today: Our views – Orion returns

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

As NASA gropes through the fog toward its future, there are more questions than answers about where it’s headed.

However, the clouds parted just enough the other day to provide one ray of clarity:

Senior officials announced NASA plans to use the Orion crew vehicle — designed as part of the canceled Constellation moon program — as its new spacecraft to carry astronauts into deep space.

The idea had support in Congress among members trying to salvage parts of the program, and we backed it too as a smart approach to take the best of what Constellation had produced and apply it to the next generation of spaceflight.

It’s a welcome development for Kennedy Space Center because the spaceport had been picked for final Orion assembly under Constellation, and the decision is expected to save several hundred jobs.

The spacecraft will be outfitted to carry four astronauts, launch from KSC, splash down in the Pacific and is billed as 10 times safer than the shuttle.

Lockheed Martin, the capsule’s designer, will continue its development.

But that’s as far as the certainty goes.

NASA says it hopes to have test flights sometime later this decade — how’s that for vague? — and still doesn’t have a rocket to send the ship into orbit as the agency and Congress continue fighting over the launch vehicle.

Nor does NASA have a clear mission of where to send the rebooted Orion — the moon, an asteroid or Mars?

Congress last year ordered NASA to have a new heavy-lift rocket ready for liftoff from KSC in 2016, using a hybrid mix of shuttle and Constellation components. But the agency’s first attempt flopped when officials said it would be at least two years behind schedule and cost $9 billion more than authorized.

The agency is to present a new proposal to Congress soon, and the Orlando Sentinel has reported one option may be a $10 billion test rocket program to run Orion through its paces with no guarantee it would ever fly again.

That wouldn’t cut it.

The human spaceflight program must have specific definition. It cannot afford an expensive rocket that may be cast aside as NASA ponders what it really wants in a heavy-lift vehicle to send astronauts into deep space.

Still more Capitol Hill battles center on how much money the heavy-lift project and the other part of NASA’s plan — using private rockets as space taxis to ferry crews to the International Space Station — should get.

Congress wants to spend $4 billion next year on heavy lift, but the White House wants to allocate only $2.8 billion, with the difference going to get the private carriers up and rolling.

The latter makes the most sense.

It increases chances the companies will be ready to fly astronauts around 2015 and creates the best shot to create new space jobs faster.

That’s especially true as the heavy-lift program stumbles before it even gets out of the gate, and with major new NASA programs having a troubled history of falling behind schedule and over budget.

The next several months will be crucial in determining NASA’s course, and the agency and Congress had better get their acts together fast.

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