Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Death of the Constellation Program

Orion Crew Capsule Parachute Test, 31 July 2008. The chute failed to open properly.

Obama’s 2010 budget proposal is a radical document. Not because it runs the biggest federal deficit in American history ($1.53 trillion). Posting record deficits has become commonplace since Reagan started doing it in the 1980s. No, it is radical because it tries something new: killing off a multi-billion dollar NASA program that has strong support in Congress.

Constellation grew out of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, which he announced shortly after the Columbia Shuttle disaster of 2003. Bush’s plan was visionary: a plan to design and build boosters and spacecraft capable of returning astronauts to the Moon and, ultimately, Mars.

But visionary does not equal smart. The Constellation Program failed because it fell into the same trap that Apollo did in the 1970s: it was a massively expensive public program that, while symbolically impressive, lacked practical, real-world benefits that could match its $97 billion price tag (GAO-estimated cost through 2020).

Launch of Apollo 11. 16 July 1969

Indeed, the Constellation Program was so colossal that it stood poised to suck the life out of every other NASA initiative, particularly space science projects that did not require humans, crew modules, or moon buggies to conduct research.

The technology of the Constellation Program may have been new but the arguments were old, a list of reasons for pursuing human space flight that have been used to justify missions for the past forty years:

1. Human space flight is an extension of humanity’s quest to explore and therefore cannot, and should not, be stopped. To do so would be to blunt human curiosity and deny human nature. In truth, exploration has been pursued for many reasons, of which curiosity has usually ranked low on the list. Even if we accepted, for the sake of argument, that an exploration impulse that is part of human nature, it still does not mean that we should obey this impulse. This is a classic “naturalistic fallacy” which says something is good because it is natural. Social Darwinists used this line of reasoning to justify poor treatment of workers and colonial subjects on the idea that survival of the fittest was natural and therefore should be allowed to run its course.

2. Human space flight will offer unforeseen benefits to science and technology. This may be true. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say really because proponents admit that any benefits are unforeseen. Still it seems an odd toss-of-the-dice way to spend public money. Would we trust a general who defended his plan of attack on the unforeseen possibilities of victory? Would shareholders trust a company selling products with unforeseen potentials of profit?

3. If we abandon human space flight, we will soon be outpaced by the China, Russia, India, [insert developing industrial nation] in the space race. The United States did gain prestige from landing astronauts on the moon in 1969, showing up our Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. But how much did that prestige, or “soft power” actually benefit the United States? Prestige did not stop the Vietnam War, or the Arab Oil Embargo, or the onset of stagflation. How much, then, is this type of prestige worth in the post-Cold War Age, a time when the United States is, arguably, supposed to reap the benefits of belonging to a multilateral world? What does the United States gain in winning the space race against China when they are losing the economic race to China back on Earth?

4. Human space flight is the first step in the human settlement of space, a process vital to continuation of the species. The idea that astronauts are really 21st century pioneers is a romantic one, but unrealistic. Going to the moon (or Mars) is a lot easier than settling there. Perhaps the real question here is why proponents of space settlement are so willing to give up on planet Earth? Global warming? Nuclear war? Overpopulation? This begs the question: if we cannot take care of a 197 million square mile habitat that’s free, self-regulating, and self-sustaining, what makes us think that we’re going to do any better on multi-billion dollar artificial habitats on other planets?

Settlements on Mars

It’s time for NASA to think differently about space exploration. The Obama budget requests $18 billion for the agency over the next five years, an increase from the current budget. Now NASA has the time and the money to think about new ways of moving forward. Bravo to the Obama Administration for forcing the issue.


  EL wrote @

I tend to think this is more about changing the direction of the agency (away from boondoggle programs of the Bush Admin, which as you say had the support from members of Congress) and towards something more earthly, innovation, and science based. Ares I had more than it’s share of problems (vibrations and violent shaking had not yet been worked out). And it’s confusing to me why a single shot rocket would be an adequate replacement for a multiple use cargo type vehicle (the Space Shuttle). Certainly, knowing Bush and Cheney, the military probably had their sights on new technologies coming out of the rocket program. While the Constellation program is being put on ice, the overall budget for NASA will be increased (but not by as much as anticipated or recommended). Advances in green tech probably yields us more strategic long-term benefits than a race to the moon, and it would be nice to know that NASA could join in the effort, and help regain our much needed competitive advantage. I don’t follow issue closely, but thanks for the post. I would be interested to hear your reply?

  Michael Robinson wrote @

EL: I feel pretty comfortable saying that Constellation was the wrong path. I am less comfortable declaring that the new focus on commercial space flight, green tech, etc will be the right one. I hope so. My feeling is that the work for NASA is not just about retooling objectives and mission metrics, but in reconceiving the meaning of exploration itself. I think we need to honor the extraordinary successes of robotic exploration by seeing it as central to a human exploring mission. Remote sensing, indeed remote experience, has never been so powerful. (Indeed, the whole concept of Avatar is based upon the power of remote sensing and vicarious experience). But as long as we cling to ‘Neil Armstrong moments’ as the vision of real exploration, I think we are doomed to create Apollo-like knock offs that are outrageously expensive and, in the end, very limited in what they can achieve.

Still, I understand how painful the cancellation of Constellation must be within the engineering community of NASA. (see http://spacetweepsociety.org/). That I disagree with the direction of Constellation doesn’t take away from the visionary ideas of program or the creativity of its people.

  EL wrote @

Thanks for that reply. There is a pretty detailed op-ed by Buzz Aldrin circling the web today on the “new path” of NASA (and what Obama has in mind). It’s a pretty laudatory piece, and Aldrin calls the challenge monumental (and JFK like in its sense of vision). In short, the argument is that the Constellation program was a misguided effort and was a draw on vital funds for other more substantive programs (having to do with deep space exploration). By canceling the program, and expending the budget for NASA, this frees up intellectual and financial resources to be focused on the broader goals hand, and the likely multiple paths of getting there, in Aldrin’s words: “developing the capability of voyaging to more distant locations in space, such as rendezvous with possibly threatening asteroids, or comets, or even flying by Mars to land on its moons.” For Aldrin (and others), deep space exploration is the goal, and the Constellation program was a single path in the wrong direction and was eating up too many resources (drawing away from vital productive efforts elsewhere). He discusses the review panel established by Obama to look into issue, chaired by former head of Lockheed Martin, and the so called “flexible path” described in it’s report (the Augustine Report, PDF, and website). Once again, I’m fairly impressed by the process (turning to the experts in the room), and the broad vision and good sense of real budgeting that is being proposed. But these things are never easy standing up to popular programs of individual and powerful members of Congress. We’ll see how strong the backlash is going to be, and whether good sense (or at a minimum, allocating actual funds for the goals you want to accomplish, rather then extending unfunded and unfocused mandates from the Bush years) will be the result.

  EL wrote @

How fun, even James Cameron is applauding and dreaming of far away worlds in Obama’s new NASA budget.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Yes, fun! Its good to see such a spirited public debate.

  Spaceboy wrote @

James Cameron was paid to make that Op Ed. It is obvious by the continual use of all the same buzz words that Bolden keeps using.

BTW: Avatar was one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

  pr wrote @

One of the most important lessons of the Apollo program was that sending people into space is expensive and of little use. That proposition was debatable in 1959, but it certainly was true by 1969. The mass that has to be carried to support the meat (food, oxygen, return propellants, reentry systems, massive redundancy) is much better spend on instruments than can do useful work and don’t have to be brought home.

The relative utility has only gotten wider since 1969, with much more capable electronics coupled with increased risk aversion.

Take a look at who supports the program: it’s only the pols from the districts where the money is going to be spent. We’ve spent mountains of money on Shuttle and Space Station since 1970 not for what they produce, but as a jobs program. The people working on it don’t like to think about it, but they’re on welfare.

Despite what the unknowing think, there’s no new technology produced. Technology is knowing how to do things. Nothing gets learned form manned space because it’s not allowed. There’s so much fear of failure that doing something that hasn’t been done before is strongly discouraged.

So how do they spend all that money doing nothing new? Easy, you treat every bolt and electrical connector as though no one has ever made one before, and subject it to the same scrutiny that you would to something completely novel. So that’s what the taxpayers get for their money: a lot of highly trained (some even competent) people standing around doing the equivalent of analyzing their navel lint.

[…] or Stag-nation? I read a blog article yesterday on Time to Eat the Dogs (great blog BTW) that argued against the benefits of human […]

  John wrote @

The Constellation program failed because a bad hardware design and overall concept. It did not fall into the so-called Apollo trap. Ares 1 was a death trap and Orion was only good for one month of deep space operations. Constellation failed because of ATK’s greed to monopolize and to please its shareholders.

  Anonymous wrote @

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