If you happen to be a regular reader of Tech (or this blog if you don’t read the Student), you may have noticed we have been keepign a close eye on the Constellation Project; NASA’s construction of a new fleet of rockets to replace the ageing space shuttles, with the eventual prospect of maybe, perhaps, if you’re really good and eat all your vegetables and go to bed when you’re supposed to, returning to the moon. However, should Barrack Obama’s 2011 budget request pass through Congress without any hitches, the entire program will be cancelled.
Obama’s reasoning for scrapping the program is that it is massively over budget and massively behind schedule, now posited for completion in 2013 with the space shuttles due for retirement at the end of this year. His decision has brought considerable criticism, one Republican Senator claiming “NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science, it will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales.”
Frankly though, Constellation was a dubious concept from the start, especially in terms of innovation.The program began back in 2004 under the supervision of George W. Bush, which is hardly the most auspicious of starts for anything more technologically advanced than a paper aeroplane. Of course, such a statement would be misplaced if the Ares I was going to change the face of space travel. It wasn’t. The design of Ares I was based (read: almost identical to) the Saturn V rocket which shot Neil Armstrong & co into orbit in 1969. So this sparkling new interstellar technology was forty years old before it had even been built.
This design decision may appear odd, but it doesn’t seem so strange when you look at events prior to the announcement. In 2003 the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The Constellation program was a knee-jerk reaction to this unfortunate event, a quick fix to replace the shuttles and prevent any further disasters. Six years on with the program nowhere near complete and the fix no longer seems so quick.
Obama’s proposed alternative to the Constellation program involves a $500 million incentive for the private sector to create a more efficient means of space travel than strapping seven men and women to an enormous and highly temperamental bomb. Concepts include placing fuel depots in space ahead of the rocket and so reduce the size of rockets on lift off, or putting further research into ion engines, which eject positive ions to gradually propel a spacecraft forward. Additionally, significant sums will be put into creating robotic probes, which are the most effective (if least exciting) method of exploring the solar system at present.
However, in terms of actual objectives Obama’s budget request is rather vague, and while I agree that a rerun of the sixties’ Moon landings is not the best way forward, a more permanent residence on the moon is the next sensible step towards humans traversing the solar system. Furthermore, after so long, a return to the Moon in any form will almost certainly provide a huge boost in popular interest for NASA.
Perhaps though, the future of human space explorations lies not with the US. China put their first human into space in 2003, and India plan to do the same in 2016. While both are a long way off overtaking NASA as the dominant space exploration agency, they could well be on their way by the time NASA have another coherent program of events. On the other hand, Obama’s decision could well be the kick up the backside that NASA needed, and we’ll be zipping around the Moon on space-skis in no time.