Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Constellation canceled in NASA's 2011 budget

With the announcement of President Obama's 2011 budget for NASA, the United States is apparently getting out of the Manned Lunar Exploration business that it has been tentatively involved in for the past 6 years. I am somewhat ambivalent about the details of this budget. First, I am terribly saddened that we are no longer going to be executing the Constellation program and my hopes to see humans walking on the Moon by 2020 have been all but ended. On the other hand, I am excited by the plans to fund new private space enterprise such as SpaceX and its Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft. Have I already seen the last humans to walk on the Moon in my lifetime - when I was 12 in December 1972?

The demise of the Constellation program really began when it started. The last time President Bush spoke about the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was when he announced it in 2004. Since work on Constellation began it has been starved for cash so it is no wonder that it was behind schedule and also expected to cost so much more than originally estimated. It has been distressing to watch the progress of the Constellation program. We've seen a great deal of progress, particularly in the last year or so with the test flight of the Ares I-X, the completion of a launch platform for the Ares I, and the test firing of the first 5 segment solid rocket motor amongst other events. But with proper funding, those events should have occurred much sooner. The public squabbles of various factions of spaceflight and funding sources have been aired all too often in the past few years. Every interest group has weighed-in on Constellation pressing their own agenda. Pro-Mars exploration wants NASA to skip straight to Mars without a stop at the Moon. Commercial heavy lift rocket companies press for the cancellation of Ares I in favor of using the Atlas V or Delta IV Heavy. NASA insiders who want to build the Ares launch vehicles make claims about how hard it would be to man-rate the Atlas and Delta. NASA wants to maintain their monopoly on launching humans into space so they make arguments against companies like SpaceX building their Dragon spacecraft. Everyone is battling everyone else over their own domain and no one really wins.

At the rate NASA was being funded for its work on Constellation, could it ever have succeeded in taking us back to the Moon? The Augustine Commission estimated that it was short by about $3 billion a year in being able to carry out its mission on time. It is almost amazing that NASA has made as much progress as it had towards the goal of landing humans on the Moon.

It isn't all bad. The most prominent part of the new budget is the addition of $6 billion over 5 years to fund private space projects. This is long overdue. The best known private space company these days is probably SpaceX run by Paypal entrepreneur Elon Musk . They are building new rockets called Falcon which use their Merlin engines to power the rocket into orbit. The Falcon 1 has flown successfully with 1 of the Merlin engines powering its first stage and the Falcon 9 is expected to launch on its first test flight this spring with a cluster of 9 Merlin engines in its first stage. The Falcon 9 is designed to lift heavier payloads such as the Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX is already building the cargo version of the Dragon and will send a mockup of it on its first Falcon 9 launch with later cargo flights to the International Space Station. The Dragon was designed from the start to carry humans into orbit and Musk tells us that it will take about 3 years from the day he gets funding to launch humans into space on the Dragon. The launch escape system used to pull the Dragon safely away from an errant Falcon 9 rocket is the pacing item on the combo launching humans into space. Recent estimates for Orion making its first trip to ISS was as late as 2017! If the manned Dragon gets funding in the next year or so, it could be ferrying astronauts to ISS by 2014. But Dragon will also be able to take other passengers into space and to other destinations besides ISS. And their estimated price tag is just $20 million a seat. Other companies are also designing and building manned spacecraft. For example, Bigelow Aereospace is designing and building the first private space station based on inflatable habitats which could be an alternate destination for the Dragon. This could be the start of a new round of competative space travel and could open up the solar system eventually with trips not just to orbit, but to the Moon and beyond.

NASAs new budget also includes funding for increased scientific exploration as well as for advanced propulsion techniques. Imagine a new engine that would make travel to Mars take only weeks instead of months. And a heavy lift launch vehicle along the lines of the canceled Ares V is also apparently in the plan. There are also hints that a manned mission to an Asteroid and ultimately Mars is on the drawing board. But these are only rumors.

Besides the disappointment of the canceled Lunar program, I am also concerned that this new budget lacks a clear goal for NASA to pursue. There is no space station or moon base or space solar power project to drive the near term work in space. NASA needs a clear goal to justify building a large rocket. Keeping the ISS in operation until 2020 is probably a good thing despite the lack of a focused goal for ISS. Much of the research done there could be done much more cheaply with temporary platforms that could be visited or with long duration flights aboard smaller spacecraft. ISS is in the wrong orbit to serve as a waystation or launching platform for flights beyond low Earth orbit.

I am concerned for the future of manned spaceflight in this country. I am optimistic about the future progress of commercial spaceflight. I am pleased at the apparent support basic research and robotic missions into the solar system is getting. But I wonder if I will see humans reach beyond low Earth orbit again in my lifetime. I remember back to December 1972 as this 12 year old budding astronomer watched Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt working on the Moon during the last Apollo moonlanding thinking that I was going to be too young to be the first human to set foot on Mars - it was supposed to happen by some plans as early as the mid 1980s! Now, I wonder if I will even be around to see such an event.

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