No More Constellation

I’m a bit annoyed. 

Should I be?  I mean, it should be a normal reaction for a space exploration enthusiast.  But is it right? 

The Constellation program wasn’t the best idea in the eyes of some. There were, perhaps, quicker, less expensive ways to get to the moon and Mars…maybe

But I think that cancelling Constellation hamstrings NASA in a way that leaves it floundering. 

The Obama adminstration stated the following three reasons for cancelling the project:   

  1. It was running over budget.
  2. It was falling behind schedule.
  3. It lacked innovation.

 I’ve done some research over the past couple of days to try to find some reason to calm down and not be flaming mad over this…  

  1. It was indeed over budget.
  2. It was indeed running behind schedule.
  3. There were other ideas, suppressed by NASA, that might not have suffered this fate.
  4. Newer technology and more innovation are good things.
  5. Encouraging commercial space endeavors is definitely a good thing.
  6. Budgets are tight everywhere after the recession, so we all have to clamp down on spending.
  7. International Space Station‘s mission got extended to 2020.
  8. Earth science is very important.
  9. NASA’s budget gets an increase out of this of 6 billion dollars (spread out over 5 years).

 I read over this list several times, thought about it carefully, and then shook my head.    

The words “over budget” and “behind schedule” can walk hand-in-hand with “lack of funding” too. You see, if your car runs out of gas and you have to walk or hitch-hike to a gas-station, buy a gas can then find your way back to your car.  It makes you “late and over budget”. If you missed an important business meeting in the process then the lost opportunity makes the over-budget part even worse.   

Just something to think about—lack of funding may have been the reason Constellation fell behind schedule, and since such projects have fixed day-to-day costs those delays cost money.  Because of the ways that designers have to lock-in technologies for development of a working system, delays also serve to make old approaches even older or force redesign—with more cost  and milestone overruns.   

The administration also criticized Constellation for using the same technology that took us to the moon 40 years ago. Some at NASA had different ideas that competed with Constellation, but NASA executives threatened them with their jobs if they talked about them—united front, that sort of thing. However, since those ideas used similar quantities of old technology, I don’t know if they would have fared any better in this situation. When I discussed the Ares I-X test launch here on this blog last year, I praised the use of well-tested, tried and true technology. It was a breath of fresh air to see a launch go off without a hitch after so many years of launch delays under the highly innovative Space Shuttle program. However, the launch systems under development in Constellation are all new rockets.  Yes, designers have based them on older designs, but the technologies and paradigms have been updated with materials, componants, and technologies that are currently in use by NASA on other projects.  The point was to build a system that their current infrastructure could support as much as possible.  I really can’t share the Adminstration’s opinion that it lacked innovation—except on the surface.   

The various commercial options are very exciting. I remember subscribing to the magazine “Commercial Space” back in college and hoping for the day when private companies could get more involved in space, and now it’s happening. Trouble is, so far, I haven’t seen any announcement of privately designed, heavy-lift or extra-orbital vehicles.  Constellation is the only program that we have out there for that.   

These private companies do work fast though…maybe they’ll get us to the moon and Mars quicker than NASA would have with Constellation. However, I think they were headed there anyway, and having Constellation means having a test-bed of ideas that would not cripple NASA or the United States if something went wrong. These companies that are advancing so fast are spending very close to the vest to do it and a major failure could be unrecoverable and drive a company out of business.  NASA offers a lot of hand-holding and financial assistance to private businesses already, but when they also spend money designing and testing actual rockets it helps innovation in an important way.   

I do think that private enterprise would have filled in the low-Earth Orbit mission of the smaller Ares—Ares I—before it was ready to use.  It would probably be best to get rid of that component, to make room for Space-X and Virgin Galactic and the like to fill the gap, but I can’t say the same about Ares V—or Orion.  The Ares V has the heavy-lift abilities necessary for interplanetary missions and we will concede the leadership in heavy-lift launching if we don’t move forward with it.  Orion is a new design, built on the successful moon missions of the past.  It fully exploits the historical knowledge and experience of the only organization in the world that has ever landed humans on the moon.   

Budgets are tight, but sometimes I feel like many in government and the population willfully ignore the impact of spin-off technologies on our economy and culture.  Immediate concerns are important, but if one administration short-circuits the discovery process in a budget-cutting frenzy to solve its money problems and support it’s pet-projects, they only push long-term needs down the road to the next administration—who’ll then have to spend even more money to catch-up.   

But then France seems to get by, year after year, on a much less ambitious space program.   

Sorry, that wasn’t very nice. Bad Bill…bad, bad, bad. (slaps hand jtrmvahtry…oops, removes hands from keyboard…then slaps again).   

As for Earth science…hmmm.   

It is important…very important. However there are many, many, corporations, non-for profit organizations, and government agencies working on that. They all have (or can get) the budgets and the technical abilities to launch earth-watching satellites into orbit, especially with the lower-priced launch options which are coming available soon.  It’s also worth pondering the fact that the organizations that work on some of the less-popular angles of Earth and environmental science probably don’t benefit from or appreciate government competition with a liberal administration in power. I think NASA should help with Earth-science, don’t get me wrong, they have much to contribute, but should it be a focus? I don’t think so, not when there are so many other people focusing on it who are fully capable of designing, building, launching, and operating satellites of their own.   

NASA gets 6 billion more dollars to spend—that it now can’t use on the things that it should be doing.  The ISS is NASA’s, and the world’s, low-Earth orbit project, and I am very glad that NASA will now expand its mission to 2020.  Actually, I think they should boost its orbit so it can stay up there even longer, but what do I know.  I thought that operating it for five years and then de-orbiting it would have been a waste, and I am relieved that President Obama seems to agree with me on that.   

The exploration of the American West started out as a government sponsored project that private enterprise back-filled.  The expedition that discovered this continent was the same.  They used what was—for them—an innovative approach on old technology to push back the envelope of discovery for private enterprise.  Now that we have private companies and other countries working in low-Earth orbit, NASA should focus its manned-exploration vision outward to the solar system and the stars.  That’s what Constellation was for.  This new direction for NASA gives lip-service to that important priority, but then cancels Constellation instead of simply adjusting it, leaving behind a deep void that contradicts the spoken policy. 

Deep-space, heavy-lift, manned extra-orbital space exploration is the one thing that NASA does (ahem…excuse me…CAN do) better than anyone else. During the Space Shuttle program, we transformed that vision into a dream–in the name of innovation.  Yes, Constellation uses ideas from our moon missions that occurred 40 years ago.  But looking at it another way, it has been about 40 years since we’ve gone back.  With Constellation, we brought that dream back into focus as an actual plan.  With Constellation we even began innovating ways of extending that plan to include the planet Mars and beyond. 

However noble his intentions, President Obama has changed all of that from a plan back into a dream again. 

And yes, I am annoyed about it.  I’m annoyed because I had the audasity to hope.

(Illustration by Chelsea Conlin–


~ by Bill Housley on February 5, 2010.

4 Responses to “No More Constellation”

  1. I think it’s wonderful to dream, and a nation with a common dream tends to band together to work towards that goal. 40 years ago this nation bought into that dream, but today, while we all wonder, only a few of us still dream of space.

    Not to mention that dreams don’t, usually, put food on the table. While I can agree that a common goal can build an economy (war economics) the majority of the nation needs to buy into that to make it a fiscal reality.

    And of course – since you mentioned France – I have to point out that in France they take care of their people first. It’s hard for a generally unhealthy, terminally ill, overworked, and obese country like ours to dream of much more than just the next weekend, and the next paycheck.

    • Thank you for your reply—Lovely Daughter of Mine 🙂

      The view discussed by some in Congress during the past several weeks since I wrote this article is that this new direction for NASA is very sort-sighted in that it lacks a new goal for a Mars landing. Many both in and out of government think that is a mistake that could sacrifice our leadership in an industry which has served our country’s economy and technology base very well in the past—particularly given the comparatively small amount of money spent on it each year.

      When I was your little brother’s age, I watched the Apollo moon landings on TV—that is how long this country has been capable of manned, interplanetary space flight. The U.S. And Russia have conducted manned low Earth orbit flight even longer than that.

      For longer than you have been alive, NASA’s only manned launch vehicle has been the Space Shuttle, a highly innovative, yet very expensive, highly problematic, unsafe, spacecraft limited to low and mid Earth orbit.

      Now, several years later than planned, that vehicle will be retired. It’s mission will be fully replaced by the International Space Station and by launch vehicles owned by private companies and the governments of other countries. I think that is a good thing, as it will allow NASA to refocus it’s efforts on what others cannot yet do—manned, interplanetary flight. However, now that the Constellation program is planned to be shut down, there is no longer any plan in place for future manned space exploration.

      Constellation, with tried and true technologies and paradigms, was going to take two decades to fully develop. Now how long will it take to develop something with untested technologies? How about technologies which haven’t even been invented yet?

      What Obama has effectively told our highschool students is this, “Even though I have said that I firmly believe our young people should be encouraged to study mathematics and science to build a technology base for future generations, I will leave it to future presidents to actually do something about that. What I will do is make it so that no child currently in high school will have the opportunity to walk on Mars until they are older than I am.”

      Last year, mothers could point to the Ares test launch on TV and tell their son’s, “Jimmy, put down that toy spaceship and do your math homework and maybe, when your old enough, you can fly to Mars in a real spaceship like that one.” Today, an honest mother has to say, “Jimmy, put down that toy spaceship and forget it, the rate we’re going nobody will go to Mars until you’re too old—even though we know how to fly you there right now. But do that math homework anyway, because I told you to.”

      The good thing in all of this is that it is actually against the law for Obama and Bolden to cancel the Constellation program outright without congressional approval. So at least we get to listen to a year of political wrangling over the issue before they smash the dreams of the upcoming generation.

      As for my comments about France, I misspoke. They participate in the European Space Agency which has done amazing things, including sending a probe to study a passing comet—the first such mission ever attempted.

      The side benefits of a space program are often indirect, but they are there. President Obama seems to agree, since he increased funding for NASA in his latest budget proposal. However, the value of extending what is humanly possible in an aggressive manned space exploration program always stimulates additional discoveries that improve the health and living conditions of humans on Earth. Those who don’t see that lack a clear vision of the future of space exploration as well as a detailed understanding of its past.

      President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. President that ordered the innitiative that propelled us to the Moon, said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I hope the focus of the majority of the people of this country is not solely on their own struggles, because the things which improve the overall human condition come from teamwork, not just in space science but in everything else as well.

  2. “Even though I have said that I firmly believe our young people should be encouraged to study mathematics and science to build a technology base for future generations, I will leave it to future presidents to actually do something about that. What I will do is make it so that no child currently in high school will have the opportunity to walk on Mars until they are older than I am.”

    Saying he wants our young people to study mathematics and science to build a technology base for future generations, doesn’t necessarily mean space flight technology. A lot of jobs are opening up in fields concerning green technology, and I very much view that as a technology base for future generations – building a more sustainable future.

    I think it’s a very important point that you make when you say that technology gained through the push for space exploration also can be applied to many other areas that improve life overall. That can be said about many areas of progressing technology.

    President John F. Kennedy was an excellent president, but not only is that quote unrealistic, it’s also only used when it’s useful to the speaker – very few people apply that phrase to all areas of government.
    For example – I hear very few people in America quoting that in relation to taxes. Also – this very blog came from frustration from government not doing what you want them to do, based on your own personal interests and dreams (despite the logical arguments.)

  3. […] in Febuary, when I wrote about the cancellation of the Constallation program, I thought that President Obama had the authority to just say, “It’s over.”  I […]

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