As everyone knows, the Space Shuttle program is being retired at the end of this year. As everyone probably knows (or at least should know), President Bush the Younger openly addressed the fact that America hasn’t really been doing anything significant in space in thirty or so years, and it was time for us to get off our butts and strive again. His dad, George Senior, attempted something similar, but was summarily slapped down by congress. George Junior, however, managed to get the program passed with a surprisingly solid bipartisan support. Both Democrats and Republicans were united in this one: It’s well past time for us to do more.
The plan they adopted was called “Constellation,” which called for the development of a reusable space capsule called “Orion,” two new rockets, the “Ares I,” which would launch the Orion, and the “Ares V” which would be essentially a Saturn V-comparable cargo rocket, and a Lunar Lander called the “Altair.” The plan called for continued support for the ISS, a return to the moon by 2019, and following that, the first mission to Mars somewhere around 2031. This was all rather modestly budgeted: $40 billion over $20 years, with most of that on the front end for R&D, as opposed to the $300 Billion Shuttle program. Congress loved the idea, as I said.
The only snag was that the system wouldn’t be up and running by the time the Shuttles were retired. The first Orion wouldn’t be ready to fly until 2014, a break of four years during which we’d be unable to put a person in space ourselves, we’d have to bum rides off of the Russians. This is lamentable, but it’s happened before - there were no manned American launches from the Apollo/Soyuz mission in 1975 until the first Shuttle flight in 1981. There were a number scheduled, of course, but Carter killed ‘em all with the vague mention of “Budgetary problems.” From then until now, we’ve been pretty consistent in space, excepting two breaks of three years each following our various Shuttle Disasters.
Back during the election in ‘08, Obama repeatedly stated that if elected, he’d support a “Postponement” of Orion development for five years, in essence pushing the initial launch date back to 2019, and effectively keeping us out of space for a decade. Like Carter before him - and is it just me, or is Obama turning into a Carter revividus? - he’s cited budgetary problems. Like Carter before him, there unquestionably *are* budgetary problems, but just like Carter, killing the manned space program isn’t going to solve any of them. Compared to other government programs - Hope for Homeowners, for instance, which is a $300 billion dollar program which has, to date, helped exactly three families who couldn’t afford homes get homes - or our new Universal Heath Care, or the Cash for Clunkers program, or the GM Bailout - the mere $40 Billion for Constellation was a mere pittance. It was, however, a high-profile pittance, and he decided to target it.
Make no bones about it, by the way, but “Postponement” equals “Cancellation” when you’re dealing with massive high-tech projects like this. To develop spacecraft and large rockets is amazingly expensive, and the aerospace corporations that do the work divert resources for years or decades, in hopes that they’ll make back their investment when the system goes in to operation. They prepare factories, train assembly lines, shut down some facilities to re-tool them, this isn’t a magic-wand situation, it takes a lot of time, effort, money, and faith, most of which the companies foot themselves. Already financially overextended, they simply can not afford to *keep* overextended for half a decade. They’ll have to re-allocate people and resources and production facilities to other jobs, which, of course, means they can’t do Constellation. “Postponement” thus is a polite way of saying “I’m killing it, all you high-tech people we promised money and jobs? You can go home.” If and when we ever came back to Constellation, we’d have to start over almost completely from scratch.
Sure enough, Obama more or less immediately pitched his bold vision for doing nothing in space. Congress - in a rare current example of bipartisan support - said that was crazy talk, and voted against it. Irritated, the president started a commission which “reviewed” NASA and Constellation, and then surprisingly presented a bold new vision for doing nothing in space. In essence it said “Kill Constellation,” abandon any plans to go to the