Cancellation of NASA’s Constellation Program
It is sometimes said that if a decision has a nearly equal number of proponents and critics, it must have been a pretty good decision. Such is not the case with President Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s Constellation program. [The Constellation program is a human spaceflight program which involves the development of spacecraft and booster vehicles to replace the Space Shuttle, with the Ares I vehicle for sending astronauts to the International Space Station and other low earth orbit missions, and the Ares V vehicle to send astronauts to the Moon and possibly to Mars as well.] The proponents say that Constellation’s demise is a good thing, because it will allow NASA to focus more of its efforts and resources on science…something that should have been at the core of its direction all along. Critics of the decision say that the cancellation is another sign of United States abrogation of its role as technological and exploration leader of the world. Both sides of the argument in this case have valid points to make, but there is far more at stake in this decision than merely the focus of NASA’s direction for the future.
There is no question that the cancellation of the Constellation program will result in the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs around the country. Not only will major suppliers feel the impact, but so will second and third tier suppliers, not to mention other collateral business fallout. The magnitude of the job loss is catastrophic enough, particularly when the nation is experiencing an unemployment rate of nearly 10%, but compounding the effect is the fact that jobs being lost are exactly the types we would like to retain if we are serious about remaining in a position of world leadership…highly technical design, engineering, and manufacturing jobs, most of which are fairly high paying. There is also a significant negative impact on the United States aerospace industrial base. As an example, we currently have but one or two companies in this country that can reliably produce large scale solid rocket boosters. The elimination of Constellation eliminates the need to produce those boosters, and as a result, the capability to do so will likely wither away. There is money in the NASA budget for research on large rockets, but there is a huge difference between R&D capability and production capability. Let us also not forget that our Armed Forces depend on these same companies to produce large missiles and boosters for our national defense. The DOD is not currently procuring enough large missile or booster systems to keep these companies afloat, either. In fact, it was the combination of military and NASA business that enabled a booster production capability to be maintained in this country. Since the NASA aerospace industrial base and the DOD aerospace industrial base are inherently intertwined, a significant negative impact on one has the same impact on the other.
One can argue the scientific merit of manned exploration of the moon, asteroids, and perhaps Mars. There are certainly other ways of doing at least some of that exploration. But what cannot be argued is the intangible value of demonstrating a technological capability that is a part of a portfolio of capabilities that translate into a position of leadership around the world. We know that the U.S. is not the only country that has (or had, in our case) aspirations of manned exploration missions on the moon. What is clear from President Obama’s decision is that the next human to set foot there will not be American.
The Constellation cancellation also means that, once the Shuttle is retired this year, we will no longer have a governmental capability to place astronauts in orbit around the earth or beyond. Instead, we will rely on the Russians to provide transportation to the International Space Station (ISS.) By agreement, that is a U.S. responsibility, which means we will be paying the Russians for that service. Relying on another country for this service, particularly one with which we do not always see eye-to-eye, carries a degree of risk. NASA also has plans to fund commercial U.S. firms to develop the capability to safely transport cargo and humans to and from the ISS. Whether that can actually be achieved and when it can be achieved are subjects of debate at this point, and the costs of those services are highly speculative at best. The bottom line is that there is no shortage of risk with either the Russian or the commercial option.
NASA has been long looked to as the entity that can inspire our young people to become excited about technologies of the future and to pursue education in science, engineering and math…areas in which our youth are currently lagging the youth of other countries, particularly in Asia. Those of us old enough to remember the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo remember the excitement that was generated by those manned missions as we continually did things that had never been done before. That we were in a race to achieve those incredible things before anyone else only added to the excitement. In some sense, we believed that our very future as a world leader was at stake, and in many ways, it was. Thousands and thousands of young people were inspired to pursue technical fields, and we have reaped the benefits as a nation ever since. Not only were we successful in our manned space exploration pursuits, but the technical backgrounds of a significant portion of the workforce enabled us to make tremendous strides in quality of life and other benefits to society. The NASA website has a short slide presentation on the 2011 budget and the direction it plans to pursue consistent with that budget. Its concluding slide has a line that says, “NASA’s new strategic approach will … inspire a new generation of Americans.” Unfortunately, there is nothing in the approach that is very inspirational at all, except to perhaps a few who are already in the “choir.” With no human exploration program defined, there simply is nothing in NASA’s approach that inspires in the way that NASA inspired in the 1960s.
There are so many unintended consequences, primarily negative, tied to President Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation program that one wonders if the decision was one that received sufficient thought prior to announcement. If the Administration believes it did, that may be cause for even more alarm