KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden again sought to deflect mounting criticism of the Obama administration's decision to fundamentally change the course of U.S. human spaceflight, saying the space agency is not abandoning development of a "heavy lift" launcher but is seeking to develop new capabilities while reaching out to international partners.
Speaking here Saturday (Feb. 6) on the eve of the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavor, Bolden defended the decision last week to end further development of the next-generation Constellation system that would have been used to return to the moon. The decision was prompted largely by the recommenndations of a presidential commission on the future of U.S. manned spaceflight.
Acknowledging that the space agency mishandled the politics of the Constellation announcement, which touched off a firestorm of criticism among lawmakers, Bolden said, "I'll take the heat," adding, "Was it screwed up? Yes it was."
Bolden said NASA would still seek to make use of technology "nuggets" from the Constellation program, which includes the ARES V heavy lifter designed to launch payloads beyond Earth orbit and modules that would take humans back to the moon sometime after 2020. "The need for a heavy lift capability is critical," said Bolden. "I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water."
Saying NASA's new strategy seeks "redundant, reliable access to space," Bolden added that "Constellation was going to be putting all our eggs in one basket." NASA now wants to reach out to commercial launch developers so it won't be forced to rely solely on a Russian Soyuz ferry service to the International Space station once the Shuttle program ends.
With Constellation relegated for now to a technology development program unless is it revived by congressional backers, the NASA chief said the focus of U.S. manned spaceflight will shift to developing new capabilities like advanced propulsion systems, orbital tankers that would allow in-flight refueling, (thereby cutting launch weight and costs) along with automated rendezvous and docking in Earth orbit.
The space agency also will expand its international efforts with current partners in Russia, Japan, the European Space Agency and perhaps India. "We're going to put international partners on the critical path" to develop future launch capabilities, Bolden said.
Asked whether that meant NASA would press partners to contribute more funding for technology development and future manned spaceflights, Bolden told EE Times he expected the partnerships to result in "proportional" funding based on the nature of future technology projects.
"It means they would put up an appropriate proportion of funding for what they do." For example, Bolden continued, Japan wants to land a two-legged robot on the lunar surface by 2020. "Do I think I can do that? Probably not. Can I facilitate the Japanese putting a two-legged robot on the surface of the moon by 2020? You bet we can."
Observers, including former astronauts, have complained that some international partners, especially Russia, have benefitted disproportionately from projects like the International Space Station while contributing relatively little funding. Backers of the Constellation program want the U.S. to go it alone on developing a future heavy launcher that would be operated by NASA.
Said one contractor, "An international partnership is one thing; international dependency is another."
Critics are also complaining that the U.S. will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz system to reach the Space Station after Shuttle flights end this year. NASA has contracted with Russia's space agency to use Soyuz through 2013, Bolden said. After that, NASA is betting that commercial carriers will be able to deliver cargo to the space station. Some space veterans question whether commercial contractors will be able to development safe manned spacecraft anytime soon, or even develop the capability to perform unmanned cargo missions in Earth orbit.
The NASA chief argued that upcoming negotiations with Congress on the ultimate fate of Constellation technologies will allow a "second look" at the program since it was authorized by Congress.
Pressed on when he thinks the U.S. will be ready to fly a heavy launcher that could take humans back to the moon, asteroids or Mars, Bolden said it was "not impossible to imagine development and flights [beginning] in the decade of 2020 to 2030."