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Congress strikes back over rocket cuts, lost ATK jobs

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats took some early shots Wednesday at the Obama administration's proposal this week to end NASA's Constellation program to return to the moon, which could cost hundreds of jobs at rocket manufacturer ATK in Utah.

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, ranking Republican on the House Science Committee, started to read a statement criticizing that proposal during an aerospace subcommittee hearing on NASA programs but paused and said, "I'm so damn mad I can't read this thing."

Then he said, "I cannot understand how this administration can rationalize its decision to scrap Constellation and simply start anew, especially given the strong support it has received in Congress. It is naive to assume that a do-over will somehow deliver a safer, cheaper system faster than the current path we're on."

He added, "The Ares launcher and Orion crew vehicle have been designed to be a very safe and robust system. They have undergone rigorous engineering reviews. American taxpayers have invested $9 billion — and the agency and its contractors have spent five years — working to ensure that Constellation will be flexible, affordable and safe."

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., chairwoman of the aerospace subcommittee, said, "I fear that we may soon abandon our vision" to explore the universe and attract bright minds into the space program.

She told how a century before Columbus, the Chinese had a vast fleet that explored the Indian Ocean but abandoned it because of costs and may have missed discoveries made by Columbus.

She added, "How ironic then that today we consider abandoning our space-worthy vessels, ending a half century of American leadership in space exploration just as the Chinese ramp up their own space program and aim for the moon."

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, ranking Republican on the aerospace subcommittee, read from a report issued last month by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel that said abandoning the Constellation program "for an alternative without demonstrated capability or proven superiority is unwise and probably not cost-effective."

Vice Adm. Joseph W. Dyer, chairman of that advisory panel, also testified, "If the goal is to minimize the gap between the (space) shuttle and the follow-on, the Ares I offers the safest, quickest opportunity and probably the most cost-effective one."

In a separate House Armed Forces Committee meeting, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said cancellation of Constellation may also hurt defense programs by laying off rocket scientists needed to keep several other defense rocket programs alive and viable.

"This really is rocket science, and therefore we must make every effort to preserve and continue these cutting-edge scientific advancements for future generations," Bishop said.

Under questioning by Bishop, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said no one consulted with the Defense Department about how cutting the Constellation may affect defense programs.

Bishop also said that "thousands of people in Utah … are losing good-paying, high-tech jobs. Many of the employees at ATK have been with the Minuteman program for 35 years or more and have unique experience and capability that will now be lost to our country."

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com