The Gathering Storms of Spring


Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is moving into the final countdown for the first flight of the Falcon 9, possibly as early as this month. The moment of truth for U.S. President Barack Obama’s new space policy may be very close at hand.

Few outside observers expected the administration to cancel the Constellation project in its entirety. Many had looked for Ares 1 to be cut outright but expected that a smaller Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket would be developed. The Orion deep space capsule would survive to be launched on one of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles.

With his surprisingly radical plan, the president apparently hopes to sharply reduce government expenditures for human spaceflight. Money freed up from Constellation will subsidize commercial resupply of the international space station. In keeping with the administration’s larger goals for the economy, NASA will use a slightly increased budget and the rest of the Constellation money to expand science, especially Earth science and to invest in advanced technology.

The bug in the ointment is that changed expenditure also means changed employment at a time when no region can afford to lose high-paying manufacturing jobs. There is surprisingly strong bipartisan opposition in Congress to canceling Constellation outright, particularly by politicians in states that stand to lose those jobs.

The opposition is not entirely self-interested. Many opponents believe that NASA needs a goal with clear milestones — like those in Constellation, or in Apollo before it — to achieve meaningful exploration in space. They question the ability of entrepreneurial rocket companies — not heretofore overly endowed with success — to take over human launches to orbit, a role traditionally handled by the government. Others argue that the United States’ increasingly tattered “leadership” in space requires near-term expeditions beyond low Earth orbit, which Ares 5 and Orion were intended to achieve.

Whatever Congress wants, the United States’ many financial crises will make it supremely difficult to go back to the expensive, government-developed Constellation plan. However, given the proper political or financial opening, Constellation supporters may be able to obstruct the president’s plans and keep at least parts of Constellation going a little while longer.

Through a coincidence of timing, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket is likely to become Exhibit One for both sides. It is the first entrant in NASA’s strategy of handing over cargo delivery to the international space station to new commercial space lines. Falcon 9’s first flight is likely to occur when the fight over Constellation will be going strong.

Fairly or not, it may indeed shower on NASA’s parade. A Falcon 9 failure, or even a partial success, will give supporters of Constellation the political opening they need. Rarely has so much potentially ridden on a single rocket launch.

SpaceX’s existing $1.6 billion Cargo Resupply Services contract probably is not at risk, nor is the similar contract with Orbital Sciences. Future commercial contracts, those to deliver crews to the space station and expand NASA’s scientific and engineering development activities, may require money freed by the shutdown of Constellation. If Constellation survives, the money is unlikely to be there.

NASA’s appropriations bill approved last year prohibits the agency from shutting down Constellation, or spending money on any alternative, without the express approval of Congress. As it was intended to, this guarantees a long and drawn-out fight over NASA’s future direction. Most likely, money will continue to drain into a probably doomed Constellation for many months, and possibly beyond the end of the year.

It is difficult for everyone involved to lose Constellation after so much effort and money have been invested. While many think the project wasteful and technically ill-designed, the administration’s Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee concluded the project is well managed and does not face obvious insurmountable technical issues. If so, the project is being canceled largely because of the failure of two administrations to request the funding promised five years ago when Constellation began — hardly unusual in American spaceflight — and Congress’ continuing unwillingness to adequately fund the projects it wants to pursue in space.

In choosing to abandon Constellation outright, as opposed to modifying the project, the United States is encouraging the appearance that it is backing away from a lunar return and other expeditions to deep space. That is likely to be perceived around the world as abandoning space leadership, and thus leadership in aerospace technology, which could have significant negative diplomatic and commercial consequences.

Even so, if the price of reinstating Constellation, or significantly delaying its demise, is abandoning or seriously truncating the administration’s plans to subsidize commercial space transportation, the nation would be making a serious mistake. If the president’s change of strategy succeeds, it could represent a watershed in humanity’s slow expansion into space.

For example, when space shuttle orbiters were lost, the entire space program shut down until the reason for the failure was understood and addressed. If a Constellation vehicle fails, in the absence of alternatives, exploration would stop just as cold.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, and other contenders for space station delivery contracts, are designing and building rockets with essentially nothing in common. If one fails, there would be no reason not to continue flying the others. Instead of shutting down the human space program for years after a launch failure, projects could continue using the remaining vehicle designs.

Diversity also engenders inventiveness. SpaceX has designed the Falcon 9 rocket with remarkable conservatism, attempting major reductions in complexity while keeping most design and manufacturing in-house. Falcon 9 minimizes components that use different designs to do the same job: the rocket uses modifications of the same engine for both stages. Falcon 9 has many elements in common with the Falcon 1, which was ultimately successful. Significant parts of the former vehicle — including the first-stage engines, avionics and some structures — have been flight tested on Falcon 1 before Falcon 9’s first flight.

With nine relatively small and simple first-stage engines, in theory Falcon 9 can reach orbit even after losing one. Flying multiple engines on each mission will let SpaceX rapidly obtain engine flight experience, which could lead to high levels of technical maturity and reliability early in the vehicle’s flight history.

If it all works and gets to orbit, Falcon 9 has the potential to become the relatively simple, ultra-reliable Soyuz of the American rocket fleet.

Orbital Sciences has chosen a different route to reliability. Rather than have large numbers of identical engines —which did not work out so well for the Soviet N1 Moon rocket — Orbital has gone for a more recent strategy: reduce part counts through fewer engines. Rather than develop everything from scratch with clean-sheet designs, it is assembling existing and well-understood technologies from multiple sources — for example, a modification of that N1 engine — in a new way.

Subsidizing entrepreneurs is risky. All of them could fail. And, of course, their projects will prove far harder than they think. None is likely to explore beyond Earth orbit with astronauts for decades.

In an ideal world, we would continue a modified Constellation project while investing in entrepreneurial companies, but this would involve dramatically greater funding for NASA. If we must choose, choose diversity over NASA’s one shot at success.

Even if Falcon 9 fails its first flight test, Constellation supporters have their own moments of truth. Last year’s appropriations language virtually guarantees the Orion spacecraft’s Pad Abort 1 test, like Falcon 9 scheduled for this month, will go forward as planned. If this test is anything less than perfect, the entrepreneurs may yet have the last laugh — on their way to cash their NASA checks.


Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in
San Francisco
. He is a small shareholder in Orbital Sciences Corp., a company discussed in this article. For further examples of his work, see