The Constellation manned space exploration program, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Admin.’s (NASA) planned replacement for its Space Shuttle fleet, faces elimination if President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget proposal is approved by the U.S. Congress. Announced in 2005, Constellation calls for a capsule-based vehicle, known as Orion, which would be launched on new Ares 1 rockets with renewed human Moon exploration as a primary goal. A heavy-lift launch vehicle, dubbed Ares 5, is to follow, designed to transport lunar cargo or mission hardware for deep-space missions, including potential visits to Mars (see “Optimizing the Ares V payload shroud,” HPC November 2009 (p. 46) or visit www.compositesworld.com/go.aspx?id=86666).
The budget request, announced Feb. 1, would instead provide funds for maintaining the existing International Space Station (ISS) until 2020 and would drop the Ares I and Ares V program (the latter is years away from first launch), in favor of orbital launch equipment similar to that now used to lift the Space Shuttles.
Orion crew exploration vehicle team leader Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, Md.) expressed keen disappointment that Orion was targeted after such a significant investment and so near its first flight test, scheduled in the next few weeks. The company claims that Orion vehicles could be ready to fly as early as 2013. A work stoppage reportedly will idle nearly 4,000 program technicians, and the company vowed to work with Congress to modify the proposal.
In sharp contrast, Orbital Sciences Corp.’s (Dulles, Va.) chairman/CEO David Thompson applauded NASA’s “new course for America’s civil space program.” An Orbital statement praised proposed budget changes, particularly the increased funding for earth and space science programs and enhanced R&D spending on launch vehicle propulsion and robotic missions.
News of the proposed cut came five days after NASA announced that a rigorous battery of stress tests has demonstrated that its Composite Crew Module (CCM) is a feasible alternative to traditional metal capsules for carrying astronauts into space and returning them safely to Earth (see full story at www.compositesworld.com/go.aspx?id=90014). Although the CCM was developed in parallel with Orion’s mostly metal crew module, Mike Kirsch, principal engineer at NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center, says the effort won’t be wasted. The CCM was never intended to replace the metal capsule. Instead, the goal was to give NASA engineers, who had little internal data about the performance of composites in spacecraft, some first-hand experience with them and determine their feasibility for extensive use in space structure. That it has done, Kirsch says, noting that, whatever the Constellation program’s fate, NASA now has substantial, positive performance data that could encourage composites use in other programs.
The proposal also sets aside $6 billion over five years to help much chronicled commercial space ventures — most already committed to composites — take over low-Earth-orbit transport. This news was greeted warmly by proponents of private space travel, such as the X-PRIZE Foundation’s chairman/CEO Peter Diamandis, who believes space entrepreneurs can help NASA achieve its goals at less expense. Diamandis warns, however, that budgeted money should not be doled out to fund development but should be offered, instead, as an incentive, paid out to those who deliver turnkey systems that are entirely privately funded — that is, NASA should pay for success without funding failures.
Notably, public/private space efforts are already in the works: The Boeing Co. (Houston, Texas) said on Feb. 1 that it has been selected by NASA to develop “critical technologies and capabilities” for the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative, which will explore concepts for future crewed space missions in low Earth orbit. Boeing is teaming with Bigelow Aerospace (Las Vegas, Nev.), a private developer of expandable habitation modules for space. The funds for the CCDev project, part of NASA’s Space Act Agreements and valued at $18 million, come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.