Congressional delegation pleased that Orion space vehicle spared from budget axe

By Marianne Goodland

A planned cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program, which could have cost Colorado 4,000 jobs, was at the heart of concerns expressed by Colorado legislators this week in a meeting with members of the state’s congressional delegation and a flurry of letters to the White House.

However, President Obama said Thursday that while Constellation was being defunded, the Orion space vehicle that is being built in Jefferson County would be re-tasked into a rescue craft “so we are not forced to rely on foreign providers if we have to bring people home from the space station… No one is more committed to manned space flight than I.”

In February, as part of his 2011 budget proposal, President Obama proposed scrapping the Constellation program, which would replace the current space shuttle program and would return people to the moon by 2020. The program has long been on President Obama’s radar; as a presidential candidate he proposed cutting Constellation to pay for education. Since becoming president he has suggested eliminating Constellation to reduce the deficit and instead supports commercialization of the program. Between 2007 and 2010, NASA budgeted about $10.8 billion on Constellation; its total estimated cost through 2030 is estimated at $200 billion, according to a 2008 NASA document. Its cost for continuation in 2011 was estimated at $6 billion; the Obama budget instead recommended $2.5 billion in shut-down costs and to support its privatization. Obama announced Thursday NASA’s budget would be increased by $6 billion to support Orion and other NASA priorities.

The Constellation project is broken into three parts: the Ares launch vehicle, the Altair lunar lander and the Orion crew vehicle, which is being built by Lockheed Martin in Jefferson County. The Orion program carried a total estimated cost of $12.9 billion, according to NASA documents, directly employs 1,000 people at Lockheed Martin and provides approximately 3,000 subcontractor jobs.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-CD 6, said he believed all the jobs associated with Orion would stay in Colorado, although Udall said he believed “many” of the Lockheed Martin jobs would be preserved. “We still have a lot of unanswered questions about the details” of President Obama’s plan, Udall said.

“As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the former chairman of the House Space Subcommittee, I know that access to space is critical to our national security, and that Orion is a vital part of that mission,” Udall said later that day in a statement. “The Colorado delegation fought hard to ensure NASA and the President understood that — and I’m very pleased that the White House listened. The restructuring of Orion is positive news for Colorado, the workers who build the Orion space capsule, and our nation’s leadership in space.”

Coffman said the Orion space vehicle, originally designed as a 6-person craft, would be redesigned into a 4-person, lighter and more versatile vehicle that would handle emergency trips from the space station.

The kerfuffle over cancelling Orion at the state capitol started Monday with a visit from five of Colorado’s seven members of the U.S. House, representatives of Colorado’s two U.S. senators, and about 70 members of the Colorado General Assembly.

Legislators also asked the congressional delegation to work with them on an issue related to Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and to support a balanced budget amendment.

But the greatest concern expressed by lawmakers on Monday was over the potential cancellation of Orion. In the past week, according to Republican legislators, Florida economic development officials had been lobbying Congress to save the Constellation program and move the Orion jobs to Florida.

Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, whose district includes Lockheed Martin, asked the delegation how the General Assembly could work with them to save the Orion project and keep the jobs in Colorado. “We were blindsided on the issue of moving the jobs to Florida,” said Coffman. Saving the jobs “will be a tough fight,” but Coffman also said the delegation had already sent a letter to the president asking that the Constellation program be preserved. U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CD 7, said he was in conversations with the White House about preserving the program. “We have a lot of say in the appropriations process,” he said, and that the entire delegation will be focused on Orion. “The space program is bigger than any one of us. Americans are explorers and like to reach beyond ourselves.” Alan Salazar, representing U.S. Senator Mark Udall, noted that Udall chairs the space subcommittee in the Senate and explained that at that very moment Udall and Bennet were meeting with NASA Administrator General Charlie Bolden. “This is the beginning of the conversation on saving 4,000 jobs,” Salazar said.

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, drew a rebuke from Perlmutter when he told the delegation Colorado had been “outhustled” by Florida. “You’re outnumbered by the Florida delegation” and it will come down to the two senators, said McNulty.

“We weren’t outhustled by anyone,” responded Perlmutter. “We were the first to act. Don’t be talking like that.”

McNulty quickly backed down, saying that it wasn’t the members of Congress who had been outhustled but that it was Colorado’s economic development people who were caught off-guard. When Florida’s economic development people were lobbying on the hill, McNulty said, Colorado’s counterparts were nowhere to be found. “It is not that you weren’t doing your job,” McNulty said.

Salazar also disputed that Colorado had been outhustled. “Colorado has no NASA center” and if the decision to cancel Constellation happens, it will happen in the Senate. “If there’s anywhere things can get stopped, it’s in the Senate,” Salazar quipped, to laughter from the audience.

Also on Monday, Udall and Bennet sent a letter to Obama urging him to reconsider his decision, both to cancel Constellation and to support commercialization of the program. “…a reliance on unproved commercial providers for U.S. access to low Earth orbit (LEO) compromises America’s leadership position in space. It is also unclear what, if anything, will become of the significant investment in Constellation to date,” the senators wrote. “We strongly support development of commercial launch capabilities and space services…and look forward to the day when the commercial sector can provide these services, freeing NASA to focus on development of new exploration technologies and human missions beyond LEO. However, the proposed NASA budget presumes that day is close at hand even though the commercial sector has yet to prove it can safely put a human into orbit. Should they fail to deliver, America will be reliant on Russian-procured launch services … for the foreseeable future. This is an unacceptable position for the security of the nation.”

Gov. Bill Ritter is under fire from Republican legislators who claimed he and his economic development team were caught off-guard by the Feb. 1 decision. Kerr and Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, wrote to Ritter Monday, asking what he had done since Feb. 1 to save the jobs associated with the project. “In your December 2008 newsletter you indicated that retaining existing jobs and companies was a top priority for your administration, but here it seems that Colorado was caught asleep at the wheel while other states quickly mobilized to protect NASA’s investment in their states,” they wrote.

Kerr and Gerou pointed to efforts to save Constellation that took place within weeks of the announcement in Florida, Alabama and Texas. “While we understand that there is no way to tell whether such efforts by Colorado would have been successful, we can certainly assume that by doing nothing Colorado was placed at a significant disadvantage,” they wrote, and asked how the Ritter administration would address the issue.

Ritter also put pen to paper on Monday, with a letter to President Obama expressing his concerns about the potential job losses. While the state is making “significant progress” rebounding from the recession, terminating Constellation “would be a major setback to our collective progress, resulting in devastating job losses impacting dozens of Colorado companies and thousands of Colorado families,” Ritter wrote. Orion “is the centerpiece of Colorado’s aerospace sector…[and aerospace] is an industry of the future that drives innovation and economic growth” and critical to national security. “Colorado companies and their employees have, in good faith, worked hard with NASA to implement its plans, missions and visions. To abruptly change direction like this will lead to significant dislocation and distress at a precarious time for the economies of our nation and our state,” Ritter wrote.

Kerr, McNulty and Gerou were among 18 bi-partisan signatories to a letter sent Wednesday to President Obama and the congressional delegation urging the president to reconsider his decision on Orion and expressing support for the program. The letter was authored by Rep. Sara Gagliardi, D-Arvada. “It is important for our society to set and meet scientific goals,” according to the letter. “Human spaceflight… require an immense commitment of time and resources…to succeed in great human endeavors we must plan for the future. When you create new technology, you create new jobs, new markets, and new possibilities. We believe that committing to important scientific goals is in the interest of humanity at large,” the letter stated. “By changing course mid-stream on this program, we are concerned that the impetus for scientific innovation will suffer… To undertake bold and ambitious projects of this sort, private industry needs the assurance that their programs will be supported throughout… Ultimately, defunding the Orion program will signal to the aerospace industry that small goals are all that can be relied upon.”