U.S. President Barack Obama’s much anticipated NASA speech April 15 clearly was designed to quell the firestorm that greeted his 2011 budget request, which proposes to scuttle Constellation, the collection of hardware development programs intended to replace the space shuttle and return astronauts to the Moon, in favor of commercializing crew transport to low Earth orbit and taking a technology-first approach to deep space exploration. Speaking at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to an invitation-only crowd that included industry executives, NASA officials, lawmakers and others, the president stressed his commitment to human spaceflight and outlined — in very broad terms — his vision for exploration featuring a crewed mission to an asteroid around 2025.
Mr. Obama stuck to his guns on most of his controversial proposals, including handing the task of transporting astronauts to and from the international space station to private industry and abandoning the Moon as the next target for astronaut landings. But he backpedaled in one key area, saying he has directed NASA to proceed with a stripped-down version of the Orion crew capsule that under Constellation was to carry astronauts not only to the space station but eventually to the Moon. Mr. Obama’s version of Orion will launch unmanned to the space station as a crew rescue vehicle and also will serve as the foundational building block for vehicles that eventually could carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin has in fact charted an evolutionary path for a restructured Orion program in which a so-called Block 0 capsule could make its first flight by 2013, with upgraded versions capable of carrying crews beyond low Earth orbit coming on line later in the decade.
Unlike the budget proposal unveiled in February, the president’s latest plan offers a destination for human explorers and the outlines of a pathway for getting there that takes advantage of at least some of the nearly $10 billion U.S. taxpayers have invested in Constellation. By keeping Orion alive, the president also has bought some insurance in case his commercial gambit doesn’t pan out: It’s not a big leap from an Orion crew rescue vehicle to a variant that can launch with astronauts on board. Given the work already done on Orion, and continued government investment, Lockheed Martin would seem to have the pole position for NASA’s planned commercial crew taxi procurement, notwithstanding the company’s expressed reservations about bidding in a competitive environment that it says might favor entrepreneurial firms that lack the experience — and obligation to shareholders — to realistically price their offerings.
But if the new plan is an improvement over the original, it still comes up short on the question of what to do about a heavy-lift rocket that most experts agree is necessary to support astronaut journeys to destinations like asteroids or Mars. Mr. Obama pledged to spend $3 billion on heavy-lift technologies, but he also gave NASA until 2015 to select a rocket design.
That’s too much of a time cushion. NASA has been studying heavy-lift options for years and years; the agency has a pretty good idea of the costs and challenges associated with a vehicle based on existing systems — the space shuttle and the Atlas 5 and 4 rockets — or going with something brand new. It is hard to imagine what would be accomplished at this point by five years of additional study, other than keeping critics at bay.
The White House might argue that its planned investment in research will yield breakthroughs that change the heavy-lift equation from an economic or a design standpoint by 2015. But history suggests that’s an unrealistic scenario: Rocket science has proved remarkably static in the last 50 years in spite of untold billions of dollars of investment. A far more likely prospect is that the money will be spread across a host of propulsion concepts that at best yield marginal improvements to current capabilities.
One option the administration has discussed is developing a kerosene-fueled booster engine in the 1 million-pound-thrust class. This would reinvigorate the U.S. liquid propulsion industrial base while potentially weaning the United States from dependence on Russia for main engines for the workhorse Atlas 5 rocket — both worthy goals — but it would only replicate an existing system.
The worst-case scenario, and unfortunately one for which there is ample precedent, is that the money will be poured into any number of projects that either prove to be dead ends or are abandoned before yielding anything useful.
Spending $3 billion on heavy-lift research certainly might slightly mitigate the job losses caused by the space shuttle’s impending retirement, but as of now the proposed effort lacks both focus and urgency. In the continued absence of these two elements, Mr. Obama will be hard pressed to make the case that he is truly serious about what the expert panel he assembled to assess options for NASA’s human spaceflight program — and whose report served as justification for canceling Constellation and going in a different direction — characterized as meaningful space exploration.