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Sat, Feb 09, 2008

NASA Faces Mounting Criticism For Ares Program

Critics Recommend Dropping 'Stick' For Atlas V

NASA is coming under fire for a project that has yet to get off the ground... the Ares I rocket, intended to be NASA's primary manned launch vehicle after the space shuttle retires.

Critics encourage dropping the untested "stick" rocket, citing lack of funding and technical problems among reasons to opt for using the older, but proven, Atlas V401 instead. That opinion received a boost this week, with the announcement private space company Bigelow Aerospace  plans to use the very same Atlas rocket to launch its inflatable space station modules.

As ANN reported, the company plans to launch 12 manned and unmanned flights starting to 2012, first sending segments of the inflatable 'hotel' into orbit, then following with manned capsules carrying paying customers."I don't think anyone could deny the excellent record and pedigree of the Atlas V401 as a quality choice to be upgraded to carry human passengers," company founder Robert Bigelow said earlier this week.

That opinion is in stark contrast to NASA's prior determination the Atlas V is unsafe for modification, reports The Orlando Sentinel. It's also contrary to a 2004 study done at NASA's request by Lockheed, manufacturer of the Atlas, that showed the Atlas could be fitted with necessary safety items and other modifications needed for manned spaceflight relatively inexpensively.

The space agency also contends the Atlas booster does not currently have the capabilities to lift a future, moon-bound Orion into space.

While NASA continues its development of the Ares I at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, Congress is monitoring said progress very closely. Last month, reports surfaced the rocket may shake excessively during liftoff, due to "thrust oscillation" or a pulsing of thrust late in the burn of the rocket's first stage. Thrust oscillation is a phenomenon found in all solid rocket motors, including those used on the space shuttle -- which are also being used on Ares.

News of the oscillation problem "kind of shook the program," said one former NASA official, who asked not to be named. "It's a horrible pun, but it's true. It really didn't help the public-relations side of things."

Other NASA insiders tell the Sentinel this shaking syndrome -- and other rumored problems, yet to be discussed publicly -- leave more than a few people scratching their heads at whether NASA's Ares program is worth continuing.

Many dissenters are lobbying presidential candidates to abandon the program outright. NASA officials admit political support for the Constellation program is shaky, especially given its projected cost of $26.3 billion between 2009 and 2013, including $7.5 billion for Ares I.

John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said some criticism of Ares I is justified -- but other statements seem motivated more by greed and profit. He fears the uproar could scuttle Constellation in the long run.

"It's not a bad plan," he said, "We just need to adjust it some."

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has said before he welcomes private enterprises interested in developing economical ways to place humans in orbit. If such programs come online, he said, that would allow NASA to focus solely on reaching the moon.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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