NASA’s new rocket looks a lot like its old one

WASHINGTON — As soon as next week, NASA will announce the design for its next big rocket, and anyone who has seen the space shuttle should recognize the key pieces — as the vehicle includes much of the same 30-year-old technology.

Like the shuttle, the new rocket will use a giant

fuel tank and a pair of booster rockets. The major difference is that the airplane-like orbiter is gone, replaced by a new Apollo-like crew capsule atop the fuel tank, according to industry sources and internal NASA documents.

That NASA selected this model is not a complete surprise: a 2010 law all but requires agency engineers to reuse shuttle parts or remnants from the now-defunct Constellation moon program, and the design does that. But it also commits the agency’s future to hardware — like the main engines taken from the space shuttle — that was designed in the 1970s.

Officially, NASA officials said that the design still was under review. An administration source, not authorized to speak on the record, said that NASA chief Charlie Bolden had approved the design but that the White House had yet to approve the plan as of Friday afternoon.

The decision finally enables NASA to move forward with its manned-space program, ending a period of limbo since President Barack Obama moved in February 2010 to cancel the troubled Constellation moon-rocket project that was over budget and years behind schedule.

“I think it means NASA’s human spaceflight program is taking a step in the right direction, but I haven’t seen the details of what NASA is proposing,” said Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla.

What the decision doesn’t do, though, is answer broader questions about where NASA plans to fly next, whether the agency will have enough money to actually build the rocket and when it might fly.

NASA’s long-term goal is Mars, but the agency acknowledges that sending a human to the Red Planet won’t happen for decades. It hasn’t settled on an interim destination — the moon and a nearby asteroid are mentioned — and the estimated $14 billion set aside over the next five years may not be enough to build the rocket, let alone the related equipment needed to actually land somewhere.

Cost estimates for the new rocket were not immediately available, although NASA warned in January that it would not have enough money to build it by a congressionally imposed deadline of 2017.

“It (the budget) is a very valid concern,” said John Logsdon, a space expert at George Washington University. “Even using existing elements (of the shuttle), the design is new enough that the most reasonable prediction is that there will be some development problems and it will cost more than what is now forecast.”

Adding further uncertainty is that NASA intends to ultimately compete one major piece — but only one — of the so-called Space Launch System.

Under the current plan, NASA would launch a smaller version of the Space Launch System using the same solid-rocket boosters — made by Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota — that powered the shuttle. Then the agency would hold a competition for boosters that would power a larger model of the rocket.

The decision follows heavy pressure in recent weeks from California and Alabama lawmakers, who have written Bolden asking that he compete this part of the rocket.

“Our national space program is already under public scrutiny as a result of delays and cost overruns; new noncompetitive billion-dollar contracts will only further inflame those who question the need to make these investments,” wrote Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California.

Their letter was followed by a similar missive from U.S. Rep. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. — not a coincidence as the aerospace companies Aerojet of California and Teledyne Brown Engineering of Alabama recently announced a “strategic alliance” that is expected to compete for the booster contract.

However, a major chunk of development costs would continue to go to aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, which has already been paid $5.3 billion to design and build a crew capsule; and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which would make the main engines.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one architect of the 2010 NASA law, did not take a position on the competition angle, noting only that “those senators are advocating for their constituent corporations.”

He also did not comment on the design because he wanted to “let NASA announce it.”

Getting NASA flying again soon is critical for Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, which faces an estimated 7,000 lost jobs once the 30-year shuttle era ends with the planned July 8 launch of Atlantis.

Boeing is a prime contractor for the shuttle program.

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