Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Narrowing Launch Window

In response to a post by Clark Lindsay on the HobbySpace blog, a number of readers are commenting on whether Project Constellation will survive the end of the Bush Administration. My fear is that it probably won't.

At this point, it looks like Ares I and Orion are an unstoppable juggernaut. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that NASA will be able to reach earth orbit, be able to reach the space station (and probably do it safer than the shuttle can,) and be able to retain the politically-important shuttle workforce to a great degree. It's a curse in that Ares I and Orion are able to operate without the Ares V, lunar lander, or earth departure stage. Without getting the elements needed for a moon mission started before the next administration enters office, it will be politically easy to cancel the return to the moon.

The only way for NASA to have started developing lunar hardware was for the private sector to develop the earth-orbit hardware in NASA's place. If NASA had offered a prize for Orion in the same vein as COTS, and if NASA had purchased a commercially-available or near-term launch vehicle, such as an Atlas V with a wide-bodied Centaur and/or a wider core, it may have rebuilt its post-shuttle manned spaceflight capability without sacrificing its ability to develop lunar hardware.

It's been pointed out many times before, by voices such as Taylor Dinerman, that Congress is unlikely to end its government-funded manned spaceflight program. My corollary to that is that Congress is equally unlikely to fund flights beyond earth orbit. Come 2009, whether by presidential or Congressional initiative, it's likely that our lunar dreams will be buried in the dust, and Orion will be consigned as a costly and infrequent but reliable means of manned spaceflight. The silver lining to this dark cloud is that the door will now be open for private, free enterprise to carry the lunar return mission on a sustainable schedule.