Those who have been following NASA’s exploration architecture know there’s been a long-running debate about whether the Ares 1 launch vehicle under development is really a better alternative than a derivative of the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 EELVs. That discussion has become more prominent in recent weeks, given the pending change in administrations, continuing technical questions about the Ares 1, and questions President-elect Obama’s NASA transition team has been asking on this topic. This has included articles earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal and, just today, an extended piece in the New York Times
Also today, the Orlando Sentinel weighs in on the debate, and adds an interesting little bit of information about one event that generated additional friction between NASA and United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture responsible for the EELV program:
Matters came to a head Oct. 22, when ULA made a presentation to the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, an industry show in New Mexico. Bob Walker, Brevard County’s lobbyist in Washington, who saw ULA’s presentation on its human space program, concluded that it meant that Ares I was in trouble. On Oct. 27, Walker told county commissioners; U.S. Reps. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, and Dave Weldon, R-Indialantic; and representatives of the local aerospace community that the word at the conferences was “that Ares I could be on the chopping block.”
Industry officials say that a few days later, Griffin called Robert Stevens, the CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., which jointly owns ULA together with Boeing Co., and demanded that Stevens stop what Griffin called the subsidiary’s efforts to “kill Ares I” by promoting versions of its own rockets that could carry humans to space.
I was at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in October, where Jeff Patton of ULA appeared on a panel about commercial human orbital spaceflight along with representatives of Arianespace, Orbital Sciences, and SpaceX. Reviewing my notes of the presentation, it’s hard to see what about that presentation would have raised a red flag with Walker. Patton talked briefly about the work ULA has been doing with companies like Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceDev to study how the Atlas 5 in particular could be used to launch crewed spacecraft, and some of the history of that work (which predates the Vision for Space Exploration back to the Orbital Space Plane concept of the early 2000s). The presentation, though, was entirely focused on commercial access to LEO: there was no mention of Ares 1 or Orion in the talk, which focused as much on what generic attributes a commercial crew transfer spacecraft needed as it did on ULA’s work on using EELVs for human missions.
It’s possible, I suppose, that one could read between the lines and conclude that ULA was using its commercial work as a means of keeping active any ambitions to replace the Ares 1 with an EELV-derived alternative. If true, though, that’s something that’s been clear for months: there were no new revelations or other statements in ULA’s ISPCS presentation that would have alarmed anyone who has been following the topic.