The Fight Over NASA’s Future

By | January 6, 2009

The Orion capsule used in the Constellation program looks like the capsules from the Apollo program, but it is a much bigger beast. The Apollo capsules that went to the moon carried three astronauts; Orion can hold as many as six. In this photograph, a mock-up of the Orion capsule is moved into a hangar at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

NASA has named the rocket Ares I, as in the god of war — and its life has been a battle from the start.

Ares I is part of a new system of spacecraft being designed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to replace the nation’s aging space shuttles. The Ares I and its Orion capsule, along with a companion heavy-lift rocket known as the Ares V, are meant for travel to the Moon and beyond.

Technical troubles have dogged the design process for the Ares I, the first of the rockets scheduled to be built, with attendant delays and growing costs. And in an age of always-on communication, instant messages and blogs, internal debate that once might have been part of a cloistered process has spilled into public view.

Some critics say there are profound problems with the design that render the Ares I dead on arrival, while other observers argue that technical complications crop up in any spacecraft development program of this scope. …

Orion is far heavier than the Apollo capsule and weight issues have required redesigns of both the capsule and the rocket, further complicating technical issues. Engineers have also had to come up with ways to dampen potentially dangerous vibrations along the shaft of the rocket as the solid rocket engine empties. …

Some inside the development program have complained that it is run with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude that stifles dissent and innovation. Jeffrey Finckenor, an engineer who left NASA this year, sent a goodbye letter to colleagues that expressed his frustrations with the program. “At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality,” he wrote, “followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate.” The letter was posted to the independent NASA Watch Web site.

Mr. Finckenor has refused to comment further. …via The Long Countdown – The Fight Over NASA’s Future – NYTimes.com.

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