Merge NASA with the Military? Scrap Constellation? Really?

A Delta IV Medium rocket launch (USAF)
A Delta IV Medium rocket launch (USAF)

Actually, I’m not overly surprised by this news, but it could be a kick in the teeth for the future of the US civilian space program. According to Bloomberg News late Thursday night, the Obama transition team will probably (note “probably”, not “possibly”) advise a collaboration between NASA and the Pentagon to fast-track development of the next launch vehicle.

But there’s a catch, Constellation doesn’t appear to be a part of the plan.

Apparently feeling the pressure from diplomatic issues with Russia, and China signalling a renewed vigour in their intent to land on the Moon before NASA’s planned 2020 landing, the Obama administration is looking for a cost-effective solution to the Shuttle decommissioning in 2010. Unfortunately the Constellation program has never been considered “cost effective”, it’s always been considered the best course of action. With the economic noose tightening around all government departments, the US space agency has been finding it very hard to explain the ballooning costs and technical challenges associated with Constellation.

Last year, the Pentagon’s space program received $22 billion, one third more than NASA’s entire budget, so it seems reasonable that funds could be shared. But it sounds like NASA could be merging certain aspects of the civilian space program with the US military space program, probably scrapping Constellation and making military Delta IV and Atlas V rockets “human rated”…

So what’s the big deal? The Pentagon has a seasoned space program, so does NASA, why not merge the two and save a huge chunk of change in the process? After all, one department, or one space program, should be easier and cheaper to fund. Also, the military has always had a key part to play in the history of manned spaceflight. Add to this the fact that the Pentagon’s space program already has two robust launch vehicles and a merger almost sounds like a good idea.

But what if NASA becomes surplus to requirements? Suddenly we have a space program with a primary focus on military applications, non-military sciences are bound to suffer. And is it really that easy to make existing launch vehicles human rated? Many would argue that it isn’t. As for Constellation, simply abandoning it is a huge waste of an investment. What a waste of time.

Barack Obama’s transition team obviously has concerns about the Chinese advances in space, possibly the root cause of this shift in direction. In 2010, China has plans to dock two spacecraft in Earth orbit, igniting worry that this could be key to the development of military technology.

An automated rendezvous does all sorts of things for your missile accuracy and anti-satellite programs. The manned effort is about prestige, but it’s also a good way of testing technologies that have defense applications.” — John Sheldon, visiting professor of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

As I mentioned in a previous article, manned spaceflight boosts technological advancement; letting the US drop to second place (a possibility if there are no viable commercial alternatives after Shuttle retirement) is a rather unsavoury situation to be in. As Sheldon points out, China could be in a key strategic military position as they make a push to the Moon, giving the US government extra impetus to reinvent their stance in space.

Regardless of NASA mismanagement, Constellation doubts, arguments between the transition team and the NASA Administrator, the decision may have already been made as to the fate of NASA. It appears to be a national security issue first and foremost, possibly forcing NASA to cooperate closely (or even merge) with the well-funded Pentagon space program. If this does happen, the US civilian space program will be changed forever.

Sources: Bloomberg, FoxNews

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14 thoughts on “Merge NASA with the Military? Scrap Constellation? Really?”

  1. Hmm… I think you may be confusing the use of the same launch vehicles with a merger of space programs. I do not consider the two to be synonomous. In my view, it’s a bit like saying two neighbors are merging their households and assets because they decide to purchase the same model vehicle from the same manufacturer, just with different accessories

    You may be interested in the following article from 2005:
    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/339/1

  2. I also feel I should note that there seems to be the mistaken impressions out there that:

    1: EELVs would be less capable than Ares I. This is incorrect, as multiple EELV configurations already exist.

    2: Abandoning Ares I for cheaper EELVs means abandoning the Ares V HLV. This is incorrect as the Ares V is now designed to use 5.5 segment boosters instead of the 5 segment SRBs intended for Ares 1. Ares I is thus not tied into the development of Ares V.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this. Constellation is a mess of a mission, and I’m not sure that it should fly. Other missions continue to come along that are cheaper and accomplish better science goals. Constellation-X was proposed back in the late 90’s and has since been revamped a number of times due to its insane cost estimates.

    I’m not sure that I have all of the information on it, but it could very well be the next Mars Science Laboratory or LISA — a cost-overrunning monstrosity that all but kills NASA’s budget for a long time. Avoiding that seems to be a reasonable, high priority.

  4. Hi James,
    According to the source (Bloomberg), there will be an awful lot more shared that simply using the same launch vehicle. In principal, I have no issues with using a tried and tested launch vehicle for manned missions (regardless of the human rated debate), but from what I can see, the two space programs will merge. As to what this means, I don’t think we totally know at this time, but it could be as simple as transferring military launch capabilities from the Pentagon space program to NASA, or, it could be a more fundamental shift toward an amalgamated space program.

    If it’s the latter, NASA science could be affected. But if it’s a simple case of scrapping Constellation as a bad idea (why, oh why wasn’t it scrapped months… years ago?), and using a robust military EELV… well, it should be a good thing. As to whether upgrading Atlas V/Delta IV will be as quick as everyone is hoping is open to debate. I’m not sure how much redesign and development is required to make these rockets human rated.

    Abandoning Ares I for cheaper EELVs means abandoning the Ares V HLV. This is incorrect as the Ares V is now designed to use 5.5 segment boosters instead of the 5 segment SRBs intended for Ares 1. Ares I is thus not tied into the development of Ares V.

    Now that is interesting, I had no clue that the Ares V could be developed exclusively… BTW, what’s the comparison in heavy lift capability between the Ares V and a Delta IV Heavy, say? Would the Ares V be dropped for the same reasons Ares I will be? (i.e. there’s a better alternative).

    Hi Ethan!
    It’s odd, every time I write about NASA, it seems they’ve been caught with their pants down. Where are the plans? The timelines? The reasonable budgets? They’ve been in this business for 50 years, I’d expect something a little more robust to be coming out of this agency…

    Oh well, let’s see how this develops, mixed feelings all-round I’d say!

    Cheers, Ian

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