The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Ares 5 illustration
If the White House decides to cancel the Ares 1 and Ares 5 (above), expect Congress to try and reverse that decision. (credit: NASA)

If Constellation dies

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In 1992, as part of a budget cutting exercise, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced that the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey would be canceled. It was a seemingly devastating blow to the Corps, whose hopes for a new “Over the Horizon” type of amphibious warfare had been riding on the tilt-rotor assault transport. Congress disagreed with the future Vice President, and chose to continue funding the revolutionary and expensive aircraft.

The lesson is simple: when it comes to funding, Congress has the last word.

It was also an election year, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore were happy to find a defense program they could support and which the Bush Administration was planning to cut. They made the case that tilt-rotor technology could have civilian applications and would eventually provide thousands of jobs for Americans making this type of aircraft for civilian use. It has not quite worked out that way, but in the future we may yet see tilt-rotor transports flying paying customers to and from small heliports in the centers of large cities.

The lesson is simple: when it comes to funding, Congress has the last word. Senators and Representatives of both parties are not going to allow NASA’s Constellation program to go down without a fight. They will start by pointing out the contradictions between the President’s stated desire to protect jobs and the tens of thousands of jobs that this move will destroy. They could also point out the way that this hurts the goal of promoting education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field. Why should anyone be will to spend 10 or 15 years getting an advanced degree in these fields only to be told that their efforts were wasted and that they can go and drive a cab?

This decision also cuts strongly against the President’s claims during the 2008 campaign to want to support “science”. In political terms this can be described as one more broken promise. It will be difficult for him and his supporters to continue to say with a straight face that the GOP is somehow “anti-science”. If the budget increases for Earth science do materialize they will be subject to a whole new level of scrutiny. Under these circumstances the budgets for space science and particularly for planetary science will be under more pressure than ever before. After all, if we are not going to the Moon, and if future exploration programs along the lines of the so-called Flexible Path are more uncertain than ever, why bother to invest in precursor missions?

For Republicans and even for some Democrats, canceling the Moon program is yet another slap in the face to the idea of American exceptionalism. When asked about it last April, President Obama subtly dismissed the idea, saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Yet the idea that America is a special, perhaps extraordinary nation is at the core of our national identity. Last year this country celebrated the anniversary of the Apollo landing as a very specifically American triumph.

The subtitle of the Augustine Committee report was “Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation.” Killing Constellation is an act more typical of a nation that lacks the self confidence and optimism to carry out any great project. The death of what some call the “Bush Program”, which was endorsed by huge bipartisan congressional majorities in 2005 and 2008, will almost certainly ensure that, when the time comes, the next Republican President will kill the “Obama Program”.

Traditionally Presidents have respected the civil space policies put in place by their predecessors. Of course, Nixon kept the Apollo program in place, in spite of his raw detestation of the way it glorified John F. Kennedy, the man who had beaten him in 1960. Carter kept the Nixon Space Shuttle program going, and George W. Bush never hesitated to continue Clinton’s International Space Station. Since Kennedy and Johnson it has been a cliché that most administrations are happy if NASA produces a few pretty pictures and otherwise stays out of the news.

In the long term, if President Obama is lucky, he will end up like Dick Cheney in 1992, saved from the consequences of his decision by Congress and by the opposition.

Now this is going to change, and this decision is already being played overseas as an American humiliation: a sign of decline and of a lack of will, a self-inflicted defeat. The opposition will not hesitate to use this to feed the narrative of the President and his party as being weak. It will be combined with the cancellation of the European missile defense installation, the cuts to the various defense programs, and the apologies and the bows. This is a fight the Republicans are going to be eager to engage in and that the Democrats will try to avoid.

Since the overall NASA budget is, under this plan, going to be increased, it is hard to see the Democrats arguing with a straight face that they are saving money. The GOP and others will also ask why hundreds of millions of dollars of last year’s stimulus funds were wasted on a program that the President now wants to cancel?

Finally, those who hope that this decision will usher in a new era of commercial human spaceflight should temper their enthusiasm. Not only are the contenders for the systems to fly to the ISS far from ready, they have long been protected by the shadow of the main NASA program. As long as Constellation existed, it was the prime target for the budget cutters, the naysayers, and the nihilists. Now SpaceX and its competitors will face the glare of these people’s malice. They will do so with few friends in the NASA bureaucracy or in Congress. Indeed, those few leaders in the space industry who were friendly towards the idea of commercial spaceflight may find it hard to continue to support an idea that is now been used as a cover to destroy so much of what they have built.

SpaceX will now have to assume that they will be subject to the same level of hostile scrutiny faced by the major aerospace corporations. Elon Musk will be lucky if his legal and accounting bills merely double; a 300- to 400-percent increase in these overhead payments, as well as in lobbying costs, is far likelier. On a slightly different level the same holds true for his competitor, Orbital Sciences. On top of this, dealing with the added safety issues is going to be expensive. All of these extra expenses are going to play havoc with the low-cost, low-overhead business plan on which SpaceX was depending on to achieve the dramatic cost savings they promised.

In the long term, if President Obama is lucky, he will end up like Dick Cheney, saved from the consequences of his decision by Congress and by the opposition. Indeed. it is worth noting that when he got to the White House eight years later, Cheney made no effort to cancel the V-22 and allowed the program to go forward. If Elon Musk is lucky, his Falcon 9 Rocket and the Dragon capsule will end up like the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, which was originally developed as an alternative to the V-22 and is now a modest commercial success.