Five years ago the successor to the Space Shuttle Program was shelved by the US Government. The Constellation Program was an ambitious NASA project to restart manned missions to the Moon and ultimately begin manned exploration of Mars. The name “Constellation” was chosen in honor of the US Navy’s first ship.
Representatives and Senators opposed to maintaining or increasing NASA’s operating budget put the space agency’s and Constellation’s survival at risk. Since funds were not forthcoming from Congress, the President’s review committee announced that the Constellation Program’s schedule was unrealistic. The Obama administration was forced between a rock and a hard place and cancelled Constellation.
NASA has been left to concentrate on coordination of commercial flights to the International Space Station and studies to reduce the high costs of manned Space exploration. In the spring of 2010 President Obama announced work would continue on the Orion portion of the program. Unfortunately, Orion’s purpose has been severely scaled back. The capsule is now being developed only as an escape vehicle for astronauts to exit ISS in case of a dire emergency.
The Constellation Program seemed to be doomed to failure when the administration of George W. Bush requested NASA resume lunar missions and plan to go to Mars. Funding was to be partially supplied by retiring the Space Shuttle program. However, the Federal Budget was already being stretched because of major military actions taking place in the Middle East. As one NASA official said, “It was a classic matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Two main projects of Constellation, the Orion crew exploration vehicle and the Ares launch rocket were underway in anticipation of Constellation. The development costs were forecast at an urealistically low price. As is usually the case with major projects there are large cost overruns. The contractors had failed to allow for these overruns. Furthermore, studies were not made about how all the various components would be integrated. These oversights led to expensive contract changes later on.
Past space programs, like Apollo and the Space Shuttle had used about 10-percent to 15-percent of their budgets for project integration. Constellation was unrealistically lean with only 5-percent to 7.5-percent planned for project integration. The retroactive requests for additional funding were opposed by the anti-NASA block in Congress. The conflict was not to be resolved soon enough to continue work.
The first schedule requirements for Constellation were to develop Orion in time to transport astronauts to and from ISS by last year. This would have enabled phased-in work to return human exploration of the Moon by 2020. It was already apparent that serious Constellation budget deficits were projected for the year 2011. Conservative forces in Congress had already stymied most domestic spending, let alone on an already spartan NASA budget. There was no realistic way to continue with the main Constellation Program.
So what was put on hold? Importantly, two new launch vehicles, Ares I, to carry the manned spacecraft and Ares V, to carry the lunar lander and other heavy material. Development of the lunar lander was put on hold. The Orion capsule was scaled back, too. Originally, Orion was designed to carry six people to the ISS and four to the Moon. Budget cutbacks forced NASA to concentrate mainly on the four-person vehicle.
The only test launch of Ares I was on October 8, 2009. The first integrated flight, with crew members aboard, to rendezvous with ISS, was supposed to have happened earlier this year.
The original plan of a renewed Moon mission called for an Ares V to carry the lunar lander into Earth orbit. Next, an Ares I would carry the Orion to dock with the lunar lander. The second stage of the Ares V would then propel the Orion and lander to the Moon. The rest of the mission would be reminiscent of the old Apollo missions.
Once the lander arrived on the Moon, exploration would go on for about a week. The descent stage of the lander would serve as the launch platform for the remainder of the lander to take off and rendezvous with the Orion. The pair would then depart for home. Just as with Apollo, the service module would be jettisoned, the main capsule would go through the atmosphere, ditch the heat shield and deploy parachutes for landing. In the case of Orion, the landing could be at sea or onto the continental United States.
It will be interesting to see if and when Constellation ever resumes. Will it ever restart under its original name or will the completed components be integrated into an, as yet, future program under a different name?