NASA unveiled plans for a long-awaited $35 billion new rocket program designed to dwarf the storied boosters of the Apollo era and powerful enough to launch astronauts to asteroids and eventually to Mars. Andy Pasztor has details on The News Hub.
The ambitious project caps months of disputes between NASA and lawmakers, and follows internal White House debates over its price tag. The heavy-lift rocket will be the cornerstone of the U.S.'s efforts to explore deep space, taking "humans to places no one has gone before," said Charles Bolden, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
But huge budget hurdles loom. Mr. Bolden's upbeat announcement Wednesday—surrounded by a clutch of lawmakers on Capitol Hill—kicked off what is likely to be the Obama administration's uphill battle to sell the concept of building, testing and eventually deploying the largest, most capable fleet of rockets ever at a time of escalating deficit worries. Some design details leaked out previously, along with preliminary cost estimates.
With the first unmanned test flight slated for 2017, followed by a manned flight four years later, NASA seeks to control costs by initially relying on solid rocket-motor technology and engines derived from the retired space shuttles. Later, the plan foresees shifting to next-generation liquid-fueled boosters in a gradual, building-block approach.
The ultimate goal, according to industry and government officials, is to launch 140 tons or more, including a capsule already under development and able to carry at least four astronauts, far beyond Earth's orbit in future decades.
Current unmanned Pentagon rockets can blast about 25 tons into orbit, and the Saturn V boosters that sent astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and '70s had a capacity of 130 tons. But unlike the Saturn V, the new rocket is intended to carry self-propelled spacecraft that will separate from the rocket after leaving Earth's orbit and continue into deeper space. The plans call for these spacecraft to land on an asteroid as early as 2025, followed by missions to moons of distant planets and, after 2030, perhaps the Martian surface.
This artist's conception released by NASA on Sept. 14 shows the Space Launch System.
Funding remains uncertain even in the near term. NASA officials stressed that getting to the maiden launch of the unmanned rocket will cost roughly $18 billion, but that doesn't include the subsequent additional cost of building a fleet of rockets, modernizing launch facilities, upgrading manned capsules and providing astronauts with spacecraft able to land on future destinations.
Inside the White House, budget and science officials worried about the overall cost of the new family of rockets, dubbed the Space Launch System. Some accelerated schedules, which called for earlier manned missions than in the final plan and more-frequent flights through 2025, carried price tags exceeding $60 billion.
In the end, NASA and the White House opted to kick off a pared-down program, which may not produce the most-powerful manned versions of the new boosters for roughly two decades. Like most other domestic agencies, NASA already faces pressure on Capitol Hill to reduce spending levels from previous years.
For some critics, the announcement's lack of detailed destinations or long-term launch schedules showed a lack of vision. NASA left out the program's "compelling rationale," needed "to help it avoid becoming the contested, overly expensive, late and ultimately canceled program so many fear it is doomed to be," said Mark Albrecht, an industry consultant who was a top White House space official in the late 1980s.
NASA envisions contractors competing for work on the rockets before and after the first manned flight in 2021, opening up potentially lucrative new business for the U.S. aerospace industry.
President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big," Mr. Bolden, the NASA chief and a former astronaut, said in a statement. "Tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars."
Over the next few years, a separate fleet of privately developed rockets is intended to replace the space shuttles, serving as taxis and trucks to service the international space station.
By contrast, NASA's planned rocket, eventually slated to be 400 feet tall with a lift capability roughly five times that of a single shuttle or current unmanned Pentagon booster, aims to push human exploration deeper in the solar system.
Wednesday's bipartisan show of support contrasted with the intense policy and budget battles that preceded the announcement, with lawmakers taking the extreme step of issuing subpoenas to force NASA to turn over certain planning documents.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas), one of the rocket's staunchest supporters, said NASA, the White House and Congress finally ended up "on the same page." She said the design and timetable released Wednesday indicate a commitment that "we really are going forward now, all as one, with one goal."
NASA and White House officials had balked at congressional efforts to steer work on the new rocket to contractors and states hurt by July's retirement of the shuttle fleet. At the same time, Mr. Obama has sought to channel substantial NASA funding to spur development of commercially developed rockets and vehicles to transport cargo and astronauts to the international space station.
Sensitive to NASA's history of kicking off new rocket programs only to have them stall due to budget pressures, this time NASA officials have tried to hedge their bets. From an engineering perspective, the design is intended to be flexible and more affordable than in the past.
Such a strategy also has political advantages because it complies with previously approved congressional language to maximize use of contracts and factories associated with earlier rocket-development initiatives killed by the Obama administration.
A smaller, 70-ton version of the rocket will be the first to lift off, and NASA is betting that initial milestone will help shore up public and congressional support. Follow-on plans also seek to insulate the agency somewhat from sudden budget shifts.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA's top manned exploration official, told reporters Wednesday that engineers intend to fashion a common core and then strap on different types and sizes of external boosters—presumably supplied by rival contractors—to create a range of more-powerful variants.
That sets up "a pretty agile or flexible" development path, Mr. Gerstenmaier said, allowing the agency "to deal with changes in annual budgets and it's not going to mean the end of the program."
Describing NASA's long-term view of the role of entrepreneurs and privately developed rockets in exploring the solar system, Mr. Gerstenmaier said they should compete for future work and "we will enable them as much as we can." But he added, "We will let the future determine how they fit" into NASA's ultimate rocket program.