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A big rocket is still a US priority - Bolden

Jonathan Amos | 20:16 UK time, Sunday, 7 February 2010

Well, we didn't get a shuttle launch on Sunday but we got something almost as interesting this weekend: Nasa chief Charlie Bolden holding forth on the future of human spaceflight.

He called the media to a conference here at the Kennedy Space Center and invited all and any questions. If you haven't seen it, you can catch it here on the Nasa YouTube Channel.

He didn't expound a fully formed vision of how humans could push out beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO). Indeed, he was quite open in saying the solutions that would fill the void left by President Obama's cancellation of the Constellation programme this past week were up for discussion.

We did get some nuggets though on what he thought might be the most productive directions in which to take US policy.

boldengetty.jpgThe first that caught my eye was his insistence that America still needed a big rocket, a heavy-lift vehicle (HLV).

As you know, in Constellation this would have been the Ares 5 launcher, capable of putting more than 100 tonnes in LEO, including the hardware needed for Earth departure.

What I think many within Constellation will seize on is his commitment still to pick up and run with some of their work:

"We need [HLV] for science, we need it for intelligence, we need for Department of Defense, and Nasa definitely needs it if we're going to talk about sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit. So, the need for a heavy-lift launch vehicle - I don't think there's any disagreement on the part of anybody. How do we evolve there? We take the lessons learned from Constellation. If I'm able to negotiate with Congress appropriately, we may actually end up carving out some sub-systems that are in the Constellation programme because they are advanced technology, and they are things we will need to develop any heavy-lift launch system."

His desire not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" will be a starting point for his budget discussions with what looks like being a hostile Congress.

There are many on Capitol Hill who're dismayed that America has "stepped back" from the "programme of record" and are determined to reinstate it.

General Bolden had no settled ideas on what his HLV would look like - what its architecture should be - saying only that it must employ the most advanced technologies.

He's been making great play in recent days of "game-changing technologies", although again it's not really clear what these might be.

There are references to new propulsion systems and in-orbit re-fuelling [PDF], but that's about it.

What he did say for the first time, however, was when he wanted to see this HLV rocket fly - in the "2020-2030 timeframe".

General Bolden also said he would "put international partners in the critical path". I don't think this means necessarily that they would help build an HLV, but simply that they would be integral to any exploration strategy.

The likes of Europe, Japan and Russia ought to be part of the discussions of where humans should be going and what they should do once they get there.

What the partners can provide is key technologies that the US does not currently possess.

Speaking to European journalists here, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the boss of Esa, highlighted the automatic rendezvous and docking capability developed for Europe's robotic space freighter ATV as the sort of contribution that could be made in this area.

If in-orbit refuelling, which could reduce the size of the biggest rockets because they wouldn't need to carry all their mission propellant, is going to become a reality then automatic rendezvous and docking will be one of those essential technologies.

When you speak to people around Kennedy it's clear there is a lot of confusion, a lot of uncertainty about what their role might be in the Obama vision. Remember, thousands stand to lose their jobs once the shuttle is stood down at the end of the year.

On Friday, the shuttle launch managers were frank in telling journalists how some people in their teams were handling the cancellation of Constellation - not well.

Mike Moses, the shuttle launch integration manager, said some were "reeling from the shock". Mike Leinbach, the launch director for the latest shuttle mission, talked of the "angst" that was out there.

General Bolden himself apologised for the way the announcement of the cancellation of Constellation was handled, and blamed himself for not briefing staff better about the changes that would be implemented. "Was it screwed up? Yes it was," he said.

But he won't apologise for the decision that has been made.

"The President has given us the money to expand the International Space Station to 2020. That's five more years of human space exploration in low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station than we were going to have under Constellation. The President has given me an additional $6bn over the next five years to try to enhance and speed the development of a commercial spaceflight capability, to get humans to low-Earth orbit. That is not killing human spaceflight."

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