CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The aerospace giants contracted to help build NASA's next-generation spaceships, including Utah's ATK Space Systems, are quietly hedging their bets and stepping back from the Ares rockets that the agency has staked its future on after the shuttle retires next year.
In recent weeks, Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Boeing Company have reached out to NASA officials, lawmakers and a presidentially appointed panel reviewing America's human spaceflight plan, expressing a willingness to change plans or offering alternatives to the rockets that until recently they strongly advocated.
With contractors distancing themselves, the future of the Constellation program of rockets and capsules to return astronauts to the moon looks bleak, especially if the panel endorses alternatives.
NASA's rockets -- Ares I for crew and Ares V for cargo -- have been under fire from critics in and out of the agency for being too expensive and technically challenged.
Originally slated to launch by 2013, Ares I is now scheduled to make its first flight with crew in 2015, though that date increasingly looks optimistic given its technical and budget problems.
The prospect of further delays in America's ability to blast astronauts into space after the shuttle is mothballed in 2010 prompted the White House to order a re-examination of the program by a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine. Its report is due in August.
Before the panel began work on June 16, the contractors were lobbying hard for Constellation and its billions in contracts.
Early last month, top executives from the major Constellation contractors -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, solid-rocket builder ATK and rocket-engine manufacturer Pratt Whitney -- were in Washington, vowing to oppose any alternatives.
According to industry officials present, former astronaut and Boeing vice president Brewster Shaw, Lockheed vice president John Karas and other executives met with the staff of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby to discuss creating a media campaign to counter Ares I critics and alternative ideas. Shelby, R-Ala., is a fierce protector of NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center, which is designing the Ares rockets.
But the campaign never materialized. Instead, Lockheed and Boeing have softened their positions, and even indicated some support for looking at alternatives.
Lockheed, which has a $4.5 billion contract to design and build the Orion crew capsule that is supposed to ride on top of Ares I, now says it is "neutral" on which rocket takes its capsule into orbit.
In addition, it allowed United Launch Alliance, the company that Lockheed jointly owns with Boeing, to make a presentation to the Augustine Committee advocating its Delta IV rocket -- now used to launch military and commercial payloads -- as a cheaper, better alternative to Ares I.
When asked this week which rocket his company supports, spokesman Stephen Tatum replied: "Lockheed Martin is focused on building the best Orion crew exploration vehicle possible."
Boeing has gone even further. At a meeting of the Augustine panel two weeks ago in Huntsville, Ala., Boeing officials presented at least three alternative designs. Boeing has a $514 million contract to build the Ares I's upper stage.
Boeing spokesman Dean Acosta confirmed that Boeing presented the alternative designs, which mount cargo and crew capsules either atop or on the side of the giant external fuel tank now used by the shuttle and use versions of the shuttle's main engines and solid-rocket boosters for power.
Acosta said that the presentations were made at the request of the Augustine committee and that Boeing was still committed to the Constellation program.
Lockheed and Boeing may not be the only companies hedging their bets. According to a well-placed industry official, a top executive from ATK, which has a nearly $2 billion contract to design Ares I's solid-rocket first stage, told an industry teleconference last month that ATK would not oppose a switch to another design that used ATK's solid-rocket boosters.
ATK spokesman George Torres denied the report, saying that Ares I is safer and more efficient than any of the other alternatives.
ATK also does contract work on the Delta IV, though not as much as it does with Ares I. The company's Box Elder County facilities designed and produced the current nozzle for the rocket's engine, while its Magna facilities built some components for a satellite that recently launched aboard a Delta IV.
Some experts suspect that the companies are simply trying to position themselves for change, if it comes. Others say they are abandoning a sinking ship. Historian Roger Launius said it's not the first time that NASA contractors have been willing to abandon designs.
"They have said in the past, 'If you want something other than this, we will try to satisfy your needs,'AC/AC/" he said. "But there has never been anything to this level before. They are hedging their bets."
For its part, NASA says it welcomes the shifts.
"NASA encourages open and vigorous discussions from our employees, contract partners and the American public on what our future space exploration strategy should be," spokeswoman Ashley Edwards said. "It is a matter of significant national importance, and we are confident that with all ideas and facts on the table, the committee and the administration will be able to make an informed decision on our exploration plans."
Standard-Examiner reporter Jeff DeMoss contributed to this story.