constellation tries to rise from the grave
Yes, Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley got the memo that the rockets were getting the axe and that there would be a rather lackluster shift in NASA’s overall strategy to send humans into space. However, as someone tied to a project slated for termination, he’s trying to save his job and that of his subordinates with an interesting loophole left by the administration. For some reason, Obama is willing to spare the Orion capsule instead of trying to advance the advantages of reusable orbiters, and asked NASA to build a heavy lift rocket to carry it and a massive payload into space. Seeing an opening for some maneuvering, Hanley is asking those below him to “use all the resources at their disposal” to keep working on the program, arguing that having to launch Orion into orbit is consistent with Constellation’s goals. It’s a tricky piece of political theater in which the Ares rockets are being recast as the vehicles which could be used to carry out Obama’s new strategy.
Hanley still has money and sway to get some big things done by the end of the year, probably to use the gains to keep either the Ares I or the Ares V as the launch vehicle for Orion or a heavy lifter. Maybe the top brass isn’t going to call them Constellation anymore and rebrand this technological lunge backwards in space travel. So what? The important part is that Hanley and his people get to keep their jobs working on new rockets. And the lucrative, prestigious jobs involved are precisely why some members of Congress have been trying to paint Obama’s vague, but mostly forward-looking plan as a huge step back for NASA, complete with Cold War era propaganda so unabashed, I had to check if I was in the right time period. Did the Soviet Union suddenly fuse back years after I left? Granted, the idea of using Roscosmos to send NASA’s astronauts to the ISS would be a rather painful political setback for a number of reasons, but that’s not what Obama was suggesting. He’s actually trying to enlist ambitious space tourism startups that want to build a new generation of technology for space travel, new space stations, and make the whole thing a profitable enterprise.
One would think that the Republicans, who favor handing over government duties to corporations, would be all over this idea. But there’s a big difference between what politicians say and do. When it comes to NASA, they would much rather send jobs to Alabama, Texas and Florida, and to major donors like Boeing and Lockheed instead of small companies like Navada’s Bigelow, California’s SpaceX, and New Mexico’s Virgin Galactic. All of a sudden, giving work to the supposedly always more efficient and nimble private enterprise is taking a big gamble on “unproven commercial companies.” Funny how that works, isn’t it? Lawmakers who care about the prestige of space exploration jobs, nostalgia about the Apollo days, and good public relations want to keep on pursuing a strategy that was a bad idea from the beginning regardless of cost or final outcome, instead of just letting space exploration slowly mature into an industry by the efforts of people with the know how and drive to make it happen. They may was well tie a giant anchor to the next rocket NASA will test because this is exactly what they’re doing to the agency in the long term.
From a technical standpoint, yes, we will need a heavy lift rocket because even when we’ll be able to launch a space plane into orbit, the first generation of SSTO vehicles could only carry their propellant and their crew. A big payload couldn’t be sent into orbit by such vehicles for quite a while and we’d need a rocket that could use the space normally reserved for crew capsules to carry even more supplies. Travel to other planets, as called for by virtually all agendas for NASA, with just one huge space plane taking off from an extra long runway is out of the question entirely. But all this could be made faster and cheaper by aerospace companies working with experienced and extremely knowledgeable agency engineers who could be set loose to try amazing ideas for the next wave of space exploration vehicles. Simply chaining them down for the sake of politics is a disservice not only to the science involved, and not just to the nation, but to human progress in general. But of course, if politicians actually allowed scientists to do amazing things, we could all be living in a very different world by now, a world where discussions like this wouldn’t even have to happen.