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Obama banks on NASA's big launcher

Ares I set for scrap heap, says report

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US President Barack Obama will ask Congress to jettison NASA's plans to develop its next-generation Ares I crew launch vehicle and increase funds for the "simpler" Ares V heavy lift rocket to replace the space shuttle fleet.

The revised direction for US human space flight was decided Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA administrator Charles Bolden, according to Science Insider, citing "officials familiar with the discussion." NASA would receive an extra $1bn in 2011 under the plan towards developing the heavy lift launcher as well as creating more robotic Earth-snooping spacecraft, the publication reports.

Under NASA's current plans for human spaceflight to the moon and beyond, the two-stage Ares I rocket is designed to be topped by the Orion crew vehicle and its launch abort system. The vehicle's primary intent would be to carry crews of four to six astronauts to Earth orbit or to use its 25-ton payload capacity to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

Ares V is planned to be NASA's primary vessel for delivering large-scale hardware to space, such as lunar landers, materials for a moon base, or supplies needed for extended missions beyond Earth's orbit. Ares V can carry about 188 metric tons to low-Earth orbit.

The lighter Ares I rocket, however, has faced major delays and technical problems, and was excluded from recommendations provided by an outside committee tasked earlier this year by president Obama with reviewing the future of the US human space flight program. One option was to develop two separate "lite" versions of Ares V, providing for more robust mission mass and volume margins.

According to Science Insider, the White House believes NASA funding is better spent on the heavy-lift vehicle, which could be ready as soon as 2018. European countries, Japan, and Canada would be asked to work on a lunar lander and modules for a moon base and commercial companies would take the job of launching supplies to the ISS, the site reports.

But several questions about NASA's future remain, such as whether the shuttle program will be retired in 2010 as planned and whether a future mission to Mars is even still on the agenda.

The report claims there's no indication when the new policy will be announced, but speculates it could land as early as next week or be on hold for Obama's State of the Union address in January. ®

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