NASA still needs a big rocket, administrator says

ORLANDO — NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said at Kennedy Space Center Saturday he expects NASA to launch a big rocket in the 2020s that would pave the way for human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit.

“The nation needs a heavy-lift launch vehicle capability,” said Bolden, speaking on the eve of today’s launch of Endeavour, the fifth-to-last shuttle mission. “Ideally, I would like to be flying a heavy-lift capability between 2020 and 2030.”

That milestone begins filling in the blanks of a broad new policy — outlined by the White House earlier this week — which cancels NASA’s Constellation moon program and relies on commercial spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station after the shuttle is retired this year.

Left vague were plans as to how the new NASA would meet President Barack Obama’s goal of sending astronauts back to the moon or to nearby asteroids. Bolden said it was “critical” to keep plans for heavy-lift rockets.

Bolden also left open the possibility that NASA would find ways to still use pieces of Constellation, which aimed to return astronauts to the station by 2015 and the moon by 2020 but was killed by the Obama administration because technical and financial problems made those goals impossible.

“We may actually end up carve out some sub-systems that are in the current Constellation program,” said Bolden, specifically naming a group designing surface rovers called Desert RATS. “While we will phase out the Constellation per se, I don’t want to throw away the baby with the bathwater.”

The White House plans have sapped morale at the Kennedy Space Center, where 7,000 workers already expect to lose their jobs when the space shuttle retires later this year. Many were hoping to find work with the Constellation moon program.

Bolden said he hoped private rockets, which the Obama administration wants to replace the shuttle with, will keep jobs in Florida.

“We’re trying to work with commercial entities to come to Space Coast to identify the kinds of jobs you all have and the kinds of jobs they need and see if we can marry them up as soon as possible,” he said. “We can get to where we want to be a lot quicker if we use what’s here, rather than build all new.”

Bolden said NASA’s success depends on the ability of the agency to help the commercial industry step in to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

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