The last few decades haven’t been very kind to NASA. Ever since their heyday back in the 60’s and 70’s they have been the target of budget cuts, over-budget under delivering programs and constant congress involvement that has made innovation on their part extremely hard. Whilst I believe that their budget of 0.5% of GDP (as it was back in the Apollo program) is a small price to pay for phenomenally inspirational activities it has become apparent that it is easy to write off the benefits of space travel when there are many other things requiring attention back here on earth. You can then imagine my surprise when NASA announced, in essence, they were going to attempt to do Apollo again, albeit with modern technology and decades of experience in low earth orbit. They called this teh Constellation Program and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were taking their inspiration from the past.
Constellation was born out of the former president’s vision for space exploration which at the time seemed like a boon for NASA and its cohorts. Realistically it was a political ploy for him to try and win votes from the scientific community as if he was not to be reelected how could we guarantee that the next president would share his vision? I can’t comment on how much of the vote swung his way because of this but he did manage to get reelected. However additional funding that would be required to ensure NASA’s continued presence in space as well as developing a completely new set of space vehicles never materialized. This then lead to the current situation whereby NASA has a large gap in its ability to keep a manned presence in space, currently relying on private industry and Russia to support them.
The vehicles themselves are a pretty big step up in terms of delivery payloads into space. The Ares I is a straight up replacement for the shuttle, with a slightly larger payload capability with the added bonus of having better safety features like a launch abort system. The Ares V is where the real changes are occurring, as it can deliver a phenomenal 188 tons into low earth orbit. Compared with the Saturn V it can deliver almost double the payload into lunar orbit at 71 tons. The lander vehicles and crew capsules follow the same route, basically being bigger brothers of their Apollo counterparts. Whilst they are a significant step up in NASA’s payload capability (and really nothing comes close to the Ares V) they are still many years away from being flight ready.
And here is where we get to the crux of the matter: should NASA really be creating a new space fleet? With companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace stepping up their presence and showing that they are capable of providing many of these technologies at a small percentage of the costs that NASA is incurring it doesn’t seem beneficial to have NASA be in the business of building new space craft. Realistically they could get so much more done by utilizing the services these new private space companies are providing as they are footing the research and development costs. This would then allow them to shift their focus away from the routine activities like maintaining the International Space Station and focus on the revolutionary things like lunar bases and a Mars shot.
It’s also entirely possible that because these private companies are doing so well that eventually they will overtake NASA in their ability to deliver those kinds of awe inspiring moments. Once some mega-billionaire gets a taste for the idea of being the first man to land on another planet you can be assured that the private space companies would be more than happy to step up and provide a means for them to achieve that dream. Whilst it would be a significant blow to NASA it would allow them to refocus back onto pure science based missions, something which is not politically palatable right now.
Constellation is one of those projects that I’m sure will bring many positive benefits to humanity. It’s just unfortunate that I can’t see what they are right now. With the barrier to space dropping at an increasing rate I’m sure that the industry will hit a critical point where a combination of private and government activities will lead NASA and its cohorts to inspire humanity once again.