The Constellation hallucination is almost over, and the flight of the Falcon 9 is the first wake-up call for those lost in its magic Kool-Aid trance. The thunderous roar and blazing light of the Space Exploration Technologies () rocket completely belied the promises of doom foretold by the cult of cost-plus and the priesthood of the PowerPoint pioneer.
While those who truly share the dream of an open frontier and have simply been misled saw it for what it was and begin to stir and question, others may take more time to awaken to the new reality. Some may never acknowledge they have been caught in a mythology of their own making, especially those with their hands in the collection basket, but this sad last chapter of the holy church of government rocketry is sputtering to a close. The only questions now are how long before the faithful who protect and fund it open their eyes and realize the future is coming with or without them — and how much damage they will do before they acquiesce to the reality of history.
The big rocket-to-nowhere fetish really is its own religion in the space community, replete with a priesthood of vision-spewing agency and aerospace managers toting illustrations of shiny spaceships and chariots of the astronaut gods ascending to space on plumes of burning tax money. And as flocks of adoring space fans ooh and aah, their pockets are picked clean and their memories are wiped of the previous incarnations of failed systems. Meanwhile, cadres of the church’s soldiers are created in the form of wannabe astronauts and teams set to work on small-budget projects that will “someday” fly, tying their hopes and dreams to the program’s success — real or imagined.
This tradition creates its own supporters and protectors of the faith in high places by pouring the greatest numbers of jobs and money into established space parishes, doing so at maximum cost and stretching out the gravy train as long as possible. Other articles of faith are assuring an ever-growing budget and ongoing costs to keep the cash flowing by designing a system that has limited purpose — though sold as multipurpose, it is expensive to modify, and yet must be modified countless times to achieve an ever-shifting set of goals and mission mandates.
Constellation represents both the climax of this cult’s crusade and, one hopes, its nadir. It is a better horse-drawn wagon in an age of automobiles, a dinosaur in an age of mammals, but like a dinosaur, although it may be based on minimal brain mass, it is big and very hard to kill. When threatened, it turns into a fire-breathing dragon, wings spread across a large constituency of very powerful players in the political game, and surrounded by a cloud of myth and fiction that would do the writers of holy texts proud.
Constellation’s mission to low Earth orbit —although, according to many experts in the field, it could never perform as promised; although it is being developed using a cost-plus system that rewards waste and fraud over success; although it is already over budget and beginning to eat the very programs it was promoted as carrying; and although it will actually delay the time needed to get us anywhere if it ever flies at all — is not just still alive but, thanks to political machinations on the part of its puppets, may well thrive.
It is defended by such a ring of traditionalist zealots, money-hungry acolytes and heroes of the past who hunger for the glories of their crusades that unless someone can put a stake in its heart, it will be kept alive and at best delay and at worst destroy any chance we have to build a new path to the stars that all of us can eventually travel. (Example: Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., unable to keep the program alive and the cash flowing to his state’s feeding trough based on its merits, has shamelessly resorted to attaching its budget to a vital national defense bill as an earmark.)
And therein lies the real tragedy of the Constellation hallucination. Frankly, if it were simply a case of a group of true believers going off using their own funds and failing to reach their own dream worlds, I would say fine, let them go and try. Even if they were using our taxes to do this and doing it well and efficiently, I would be supportive. But they are doing neither.
In “new space,” many firms are using private funds to reach for the stars their own way. The companies have been founded and the large majority of early risk has been carried by the founders and investors. Even those who stand to benefit from contracts to carry government payloads and employees as revenue streams are willing to do so on a pay-for-success basis, which in the end helps us all. Also, they are viable even without the kick-start offered by the huge government market, but they will have a much harder time of it in a market where the government is in essence their competitor.
And if the government managers of Constellation feel threatened once they are rolling ahead, as has happened so often in the past when other government space projects faced competition from commercial not-invented-here technologies or systems, it will be the end for private-sector space development one way or another.
But NASA’s rocket church is not some private project. It is our money they are going to waste yet again not going into space. It is our dreams they are going to dash when their fantasy rocket eats the budgets of those they would carry into space to do the science and exploration they use to justify their ill-conceived project. It is our chance to go into space that will be denied when they kill off the commercial firms that threaten them by offering to do the same jobs better, cheaper and faster, and to use their capacity to carry us into space when not flying astronauts. It is our children’s futures they will jeopardize by their greed, their narrow vision and their hunger to control and to monopolize.
Constellation’s priests will argue that we cannot trust the commercial firms, that they aresimply propping up bad business plans with taxpayers’ funds. They ask us why we should put our faith in these untried systems.
Well, one answer was provided by the June 4 launch of the Space X Falcon 9 rocket. As it rose to orbit, even the most devoted of the old space church must have questioned their faith, for at least a moment. Yet reading the pronouncements of the old school leaders after the flight, it is clear they don’t get it, and like the heads of other cults who find themselves facing realities that don’t jibe with their prophecies, their words slip and slide around the unfortunate reality of a rocket lighting up the Florida sky and doing what they say it can’t do. Well, yes, they say, this one flight did seem to be a success, but why should we bet on such unknowns?
Let me make two points that they won’t and can’t understand:
å The “new space” side now has a 100 percent higher launch-to-orbit success rate than Constellation’s Ares system.
å Based on past performance, the sure bet is the traditionalist approach that has failed repeatedly at a cost of billions of dollars will fail again. The litany is long and includes the X-33, X-34, National Launch System, Space Launch Initiative, Orbital Space Plane, space shuttle (sold to Congress as being able to fly 50 times a year) and, yes, Ares 1 (they flew something but proved nothing, except that NASA can spend $400 million of our tax dollars on a smoke-and-mirrors scam designed to get support for the program to send a rocket a little higher than the world skydiving record, while a commercial company can spend much less — a lot of it their own money — and actually deliver a payload to orbit).
So now perhaps a few more eyes are clearing from the haze of a dream world that never was and will begin to see the true hope of what can be — if we exercise common sense and implement the plan before us. Yes, they have a few more tricks and poison pills up their sleeves (anyone want to buy an Orion lifeboat?), but they will lose this revolution in the end — if we do not give up — no matter what the fates send against us. The false idols of our space mythology can at last be supplanted by real accomplishments. The hallucination that the church of space is meant for an elite few who should be worshiped and funded with our taxes and dreams can begin to end. And the chance will be there for us to throw open the doors of the heavens to the people, to let our explorers get back to exploring and turn what for so long has been an unreachable dream into the our children’s reality.
Rick Tumlinson is co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.