If the rumors of Obama’s NASA budget request are true, then Obama is asking Congress for what I and several other aerospace leaders have asked for. Unfortunately, not everyone is as thrilled about the rumored budget. I am firmly convinced that the rumored budget request is the best thing for NASA, human spaceflight, and the nation as a whole. This is the best approach to achieving the objectives of the former President’s Vision for Space Exploration, which outlines the objectives to reach the one goal that really matters for spaceflight – spread humanity beyond Earth.
Here is the heart of the Vision for Space Exploration from the Goal and Objectives:
The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.
• Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond;
• Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations;
• Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and
• Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.
How do Constellation and the rumored budget proposal stack up? I will take a little risk here and assume that the new direction is the Flexible Path with commercial crew and ISS 2020 option from the Augustine committee report.
Sustained and Affordable
According to the Augustine committee, for Constellation to have any chance of getting to the Moon, we need to terminate all other HSF activities and significantly increase the budget. Even then, this is no sure thing. Constellation has already gutted critical NASA research in other areas. Jeff Greason pointed out during one of the public hearings that if Santa brought us the fully developed Constellation vehicles right now, we could not afford to fly them.
Not only can we not afford Constellation now, but also what happens in say 2030? Constellation is described as Apollo on steroids, so can we expect Congressional cuts on steroids? This seems very likely. What do we do then? Like Apollo, there will be no space faring infrastructure, and the only next step will be too expensive to consider. Constellation is not sustainable or affordable.
Flexible Path combined with new R&D and commercial LEO capability should give us a leg up. Flexible Path encourages and possibly requires the building of space infrastructure. With new (ahem, restored!) R&D money NASA can investigate the use of propellant depots and other on orbit facilities to base beyond LEO capabilities. The ability to do a number of missions to many places and not just the Moon allow NASA to investigate the concerns of long term living beyond the Earth’s influence. The balance of evidence indicates that sustainable and affordable means it must be done by commercial interests expecting to make a profit. With NASA as an anchor tenant, commercial crew providers can expand their offerings to other people, including non-NASA researchers, industry or just tourists. The commercial crew option closes the business case for commercial providers to open up LEO to people beyond NASA astronauts.
Extend Human Presence, Moon by 2020
Constellation, created as the response to this objective, cannot achieve this goal. The Augustine committee determined that by doing nothing else NASA might get back to the moon in the late 2020s. More likely it would be the 2030’s or even later, if ever. Moreover, Constellation does little or nothing for actually extending our reach through the solar system. It can only go to the Moon. Constellation was nominally designed to lead to a Mars system, but it is not clear to this aerospace professional that it does any such thing.
Flexible Path on the other hand explicitly extends our presence throughout the solar system. While it does not return us to the Moon by 2020, Flexible Path gives us the option to land on the Moon and eventually Mars when we are ready to do more than just leave flags and footprints.
Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures
Constellation was according to its lead architect Mike Griffin, not going to do this at all. It was a return to Apollo era capabilities. The only knowledge development was for NASA to regain its ability to design a launch system.
This leads to a little rant – How is Ares I considered the gold standard of safety? Ares I is being designed by a group of people who have not designed and built a launch system. Ares I has no demonstrated reliability or safety. SpaceX, ULA, and Orbital are full of people who have designed, built and successfully flown orbital launch vehicles in the very recent past. ULA’s Atlas V has a better-demonstrated record than the shuttle. The cold, hard facts are that a ULA, SpaceX, or Orbital launcher is going to be safer than Ares I.
In order to do more than just leave flags and footprints on other worlds we need a space faring infrastructure. Depots and stations strategically located in various orbits around Earth, Luna, Mars and the Sun are necessary to long term exploration and eventual settlement. The Flexible Path is more likely to provide these. Commercial crew development adds the benefit that the commercial providers can get industrial concerns off the Earth and possibly into in situ resource extraction.
Promote international and commercial participation
Constellation effectively slams the door shut on international cooperation. The ISS is the basis of international cooperation in space, yet in order to do Constellation we must de-orbit the ISS in 2015, 5 years prior to the desires of international collaborators. De-orbiting ISS in 2015 will sour our partners on any new partnerships. Besides, there is little or no room for international collaboration within the Constellation architecture. Under Constellation, there is no commercial participation beyond highly directed cost-plus contracts.
Under Flexible Path with commercial crew to LEO, commercial participation is a given. With the extension of ISS to 2020 and possibly beyond, we can continue to work with our international partners, and encourage them to help out with future projects. The Flexible Path is as its name implies, flexible. International partners can help out in ways that make the most sense for both them and us.
Constellation not only fails to deliver on every single goal of the VSE, it fails to advance the state of Human Spaceflight. If the rumors of the President’s NASA budget request are true, and the President is willing to fight for it in Congress, then our spaceflight future has a reasonable chance of not only surviving, but also growing and becoming much greater than we can now imagine.