Monday, May 31, 2010

NASA May Open Competition for Space Station Crew Lifeboat

NASA officials are quietly assessing whether to hold a new competition to build an emergency lifeboat for international space station crews, a move that would scuttle current plans to use the Lockheed Martin-designed Orion capsule for that purpose under an existing contract that would only have to be modified, NASA and congressional sources said.

“Continuing on the current contract is the option being assessed, but there is forward work to verify that it is contractually appropriate and the best approach for the emergency return module acquisition,” Orion program executive Thomas Rathjen said in a May 27 e-mail to Space News.

The White House in February unveiled a NASA 2011 budget proposal featuring plans to cancel the Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to replace the retiring space shuttle with new rockets and spacecraft that would transport crews to the space station and eventually to the Moon. That hardware includes the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, being developed by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver.

In an April 15 speech, however, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a modified plan retaining a slimmed-down version of Orion that could serve as a rescue vehicle for astronauts inhabiting the space station. Since then, NASA officials have scrambled to shoehorn Orion into the administration’s plan to scrap Constellation by the end of the year — which requires congressional approval — to make way for a new strategic direction in human space exploration that would bypass the Moon.

During a House Science and Technology Committee hearing May 26, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency’s cost estimate for developing the Orion lifeboat is still being refined, but that it could run in the neighborhood of $4.5 billion over five years. Privately, NASA and congressional sources say Bolden’s estimate is optimistic, and that the likely cost is somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion, a range that the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), cited during the hearing.

“I understand that NASA’s preliminary estimates indicate that it could cost $5 billion to $7 billion to develop such a vehicle, and that number doesn’t include the annual cost to launch it and rotate the vehicles once it is operational,” Gordon said in opening remarks.


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