Unfortunately, due to the horribly managed Federal budget the Constellation program is on the chopping block. President Obama, in an effort to decrease costs by refocusing NASA and trimming fat, has proposed cutting the entire Constellation program but appears now to have been talked down to just the crew launch vehicle, Ares I. This sounds horrible but I’m not sure it’s the death knell for manned space exploration that it sounds.
First, listening to congressional budget appropriation hearings on the matter on C-SPAN Radio (watch), I get the impression that there’s strong bi-partisan support to keep the program. They may have to find the funding from somewhere but Congress might just be willing to do that. NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden was subjected to a grilling by senators of both parties as to how cancelling Constellation would benefit anyone. In particular, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), delivered a passionate address in defense of the Constellation program. Sure, he’s a bellicose under-educated buffoon with a penchant for hyperbole and partisan politics, but he totally came out in support of a program that many of us, more scientifically-minded Americans, would like to see continue. He’s probably doing it to try to preserve jobs at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and to some extent, out of a Cold War era mentality of American Exceptionalism and fear-driven military posturing (he made a point that Ares and our ICBM’s are the only solid-fuel systems we have). I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt though because, in this one instance, he’s advocating expenditure I’m in favor of, though for totally different reasons. I almost pulled a “W” and choked on my pretzel when he declaimed against “faith-based” space policy though. Yes, do tell Sen. Shelby, what is wrong with faith as a method for setting government policy? You seem to be in favor of it when determining reproductive rights, for example.
Second, assuming Ares I is really a goner, there are a couple of available operational launch systems developed by other space agencies that appear to have the lifting capacity to get Constellation’s crew vehicle, Orion, to the moon. Ares I’s payload to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) is 25,400 kg. That’s how much it could lift up to the International Space Station, for example. The European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 has a payload to LEO of 21,000 kg, the Russians have a launch system called Proton that has a payload to LEO of 21,600 kg, and NASA itself still has the Delta IV with a payload to LEO of 22,950 kg. I suspect each of these systems could be used as a launch vehicle for the Orion crew capsule, although I don’t have any idea how expensive a project it would be to make that happen. Hell, revive the Saturn V program; it had a perfect safety record of 11 successful launches, and has more than enough thrust to do the job. It’s already proven it can get to the Moon after all. It may be 60 year old technology but it works.
While the Ares program may represent a much needed update of solid-fuel rocket systems that provide the heavy-lift capabilities we need to explore beyond LEO, its possible cancellation doesn’t appear to be the absolute dead-end that many people are representing it as. Besides the “new” mission of NASA does have some nifty stuff in it that will stand a better chance of success if it gets properly funded and not starved out by the larger, sexier manned spaceflight program.