Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Reports of The Stick's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

The speculation of Rocketman notwithstanding, I don't think that the recent election will have much effect on the development of the Ares I launch vehicle and Orion Spacecraft. Anybody who claims otherwise is broadcasting wishful thinking to the rest of the world.

There are many reasons why I believe that Ares I will continue to plod along. Most prominently, it's a jobs-retention vehicle. The political impacts of shutting down the shuttle facilities and laying off the workforce will make any politician think twice. The political ramifications of Ares cancellation would be felt prominently in Florida, Louisiana and California. While President-Elect Obama was able to win without the support of Louisiana or Florida's Brevard County (home to Kennedy Space Center,) I still doubt that many politicians want to tell thousands of people that they're getting laid off.

While shuttle program extension is talked about, particularly by the GAO, there's no compelling reason for adding any more missions to the current manifest (aside from the possibility of an Alpha Magnetic Sprectrometer mission, STS-134.) I do accept the possibility that unexpected delays will extend the current manifest to 2011 or even 2012. But the shuttle's lack of lifeboat capabilities ensures that it will not fill the gap.

At this point, we have no idea who the new administrator will be, or what his or her whims are. For all we know, the President-Elect might convince Michael Griffin to stay aboard. Much more will be known once the NASA Administrator situation shakes out.

The biggest threat to Ares I comes not from the next president or next administrator, but from Elon Musk and his outstanding team at SpaceX who are working on the Falcon IX rocket and Dragon spacecraft. The American public will be justifiably angry if a private firm like SpaceX can launch a manned, orbital spaceflight on a shorter schedule and smaller budget than NASA received for Ares-Orion. The shock of such an event might be able to overcome Congressional resistance to changing the NASA status-quo. It really doesn't matter to the public or Congress if Orion is a more able spacecraft capable of lunar flight. The spiral-development model should have taken this into account and worked on closing the gap first, worrying about the moon later.

While Ares V, Altair, and lunar hardware are a distant future whose continued funding is verymuch in doubt, it's clear that Orion and Ares I have significant momentum heading into the next administration. At this point, only a Dragon can break The Stick.