In the president's proposed budget, the Obama administration zeroed out funding for NASA’s Constellation launch vehicle program. I think this decision is both irresponsible and short-sighted. “We certainly don't need to go back to the moon,” one administration official is quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as saying, but without explaining why this is a valid value judgment. Another stated that the budget is intended to “send a message that it's time members of Congress recognize that NASA can't design space programs to create jobs in their districts. That's the view of the president.”
So, the entire argument for canning the Constellation appears to be a tired re-run of the Luddite lambasting of the Apollo missions. A complete waste, we were told back then. A useless exercise to collect moon rocks, hit golf balls in space, and funnel money to fat-cat aerospace companies. Obama’s advisers seem to forget the endless list of consumer items we now use every day of our lives that have their genesis in the technologies developed for the Apollo program.
Three simple facts are being ignored: a) The Constellation program is not just about going to the moon, b) the U.S. has a commitment to the International Space Station (ISS), and c) with the Space Shuttle being retired this September, the Constellation is the only system under development that will give NASA the future capability to launch and retrieve crews to and from the ISS.
Only one of the four Constellation program vehicles is dedicated to supporting missions to the moon. The entire system is composed of the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, the Orion crew capsule and the Altair Lunar Lander. These spacecraft were designed to be used in different combinations for numerous missions, from resupplying the ISS to a new generation of lunar landings. This is a modular design approach that intelligently gives NASA a cost-effective “buy one system, get multiple mission capabilities” that should be applauded and not denigrated.
The retirement of the Space Shuttle this year will leave the United States depending on Russia to put U.S. astronauts in orbit until Constellation would come on-line in 2015. Not surprisingly, in May of last year when it became clear the U.S. had no one else to turn to, Russia raised its prices from $48 to $51 million per launch for each astronaut. “Washington, we have a problem…” could be the message from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) if, as has been proposed, Constellation is scrapped and NASA goes back to the proverbial drawing board to design a low-earth orbit-only launch vehicle. “We could well go a decade without having the ability to launch human beings into space,” said a source at KSC.
Given its history of invading its neighbors (Georgia), extorting huge sums from other neighbors with threats of turning off the gas valve (Ukraine), gruesomely assassinating its critics abroad using exotic, multi-million dollar nuclear materials (Aleksandr Litvinenko), supplying arms to some of the world’s most despotic regimes, and just plain dangerous and reckless behavior, one wonders why the original decision to pour millions into Russia’s state coffers by retiring the Shuttle before there was an alternate launch platform available was ever made in the first place. Continuing the Constellation program – even accelerating it – and curtailing that open checkbook to Moscow could be justified on national security grounds alone. Extending that Russian gravy train to 10 years or more by canceling it (plus the U.S. jobs that will be lost) is incomprehensible.
India is planning on putting manned missions in low earth orbit by 2016, and in Beijing they are planning a moon mission by 2020. Imagine the international embarrassment of India and China being able to launch human beings into space, but the U.S. having no option but to fly astronauts to Kazakhstan to hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket.