House panelists decry space privatization

Space exploration » ATK applauds support for the Ares program.
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Members of the House Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday questioned a government commission report that suggested the U.S. could move away from a NASA-launched space vehicle to a private, commercial conveyance.

The comments from committee members were welcomed by Alliant Techsystems. The company employs up to 5,000 people in northern Utah and is producing the solid-rocket motor that will be used on the planned Ares 1 launch vehicle that will blast humans back to the moon. ATK also is working on an emergency crew-ejection system for the Orion capsule.

The Ares 1 is scheduled to replace the space shuttle in 2015.

Committee members were "very rational," said Charlie Precourt, a former astronaut and now vice president and general manager of Space Launch Systems for ATK's Space Systems Group. "I would say that they are assessing things with a clear-headed view and the message that there's no program more viable than the Constellation-Ares-Orion program we're on."

The report by the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee says that those programs are still an option for NASA to proceed with, but it also floated the idea of the U.S. government using a commercial launch services to achieve low-Earth orbit.

The White House panel of independent space experts also estimated it will cost about $3 billion a year beyond NASA's $18 budget to use the Ares 1 for a return to the moon, perhaps rendering it unsustainable.

That aside, Science and Technology Committee Chairman Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said Congress has been working with NASA for four years on the Constellation program, and that the American people have invested billions into it so far.

"I think good public policy argues for setting the bar pretty high against making significant changes in direction at this point -- that is, there would need to be a compelling reason to scrap what we've invested our time and money in," Gordon told Norman Augustine, chairman of the White House panel, who testified before the committee.

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, even questioned the idea of looking for more options than the one the government has already poured so much money into.

"Mister chairman, in many ways it's hard for me to understand why the president is seeking new options at all when there has been an agreed upon plan for several years," Hall said. "Why don't we just fund the program we've all agreed to?"

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has said the decision on the human space launch vehicle will affect 4,000 jobs in northern Utah and has been lobbying to continue the Ares funding.

Last week, ATK successfully tested a first-stage rocket motor planned for the Ares I launch vehicle after scrubbing a test only two weeks before.

A Senate committee will hear testimony by Augustine today, as well.