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.