Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Delaying the Vision

Depending on the direction the political winds blow in 2008, Project Constellation may face a delay of the political kind. The armchair astronauts have been wrapped up in debating the technical merits of the program, and the political merits are now open to debate as well. (I have argued about the technical merits from the perspective of what's politically acceptable, favoring cheaper development and lifecycle costs in order to make Constellation invulnerable to budget cuts like Apollo was.)

The way Constellation is structured, there are many forms that a potential delay can take. While many pundits have jumped to the conclusion that "Barack is going to extend the US spaceflight gap to 2020," that's not necessarily the case. There are three possible forms that a five-year delay could take:
1. Delay the development of Orion and Ares I. This is the worst option, as it would delay the shuttle's successor to 2020. It would force America to rely on Russia (possibly China and India too) for manned spaceflight, at least until SpaceX can get Dragon working.
2. Develop Orion as planned and delay the development of Ares rockets and lunar hardware. This option would still see the gap extending into 2013-2015, but would fly Orion on the already-developed Delta IV Heavy. A future president would be able to resurrect the lunar program at a later date, although this would appear to be unlikely.
3. Develop Orion and Ares I, while delaying Ares V and lunar hardware. Let's face it: Ares I is neither safe, simple, nor soon. Its major purpose is to justify the early development of the J-2X engine and five-segment SRB's. If Ares V is delayed, at least some of its major elements will already be in production. If a future administration authorizes Ares V and lunar missions, it will "only" require development of the super-transporters, launch pads, servicing structure, EDS, 10m core, and fairing. At least the post-shuttle gap would not grow under this option.

Now that we've talked about delays, let's talk about the way politics and acquisition work in the real world. In a best-case scenario, we're talking about major cost growth on Project Constellation, once the costs of maintaining Constellation facilities, hardware and personnel during the five idle years is factored in.

The most likely scenario is that a politically-imposed delay of more than a year will probably spell the end of the Project Constellation. When Congress delays a program indefinitely, it's simply a more gentle way of killing it. (Just think of the way Milton is fired in Office Space.) The Navalized F-22 was killed in this fashion, as have many other aerospace projects.

The only aerospace project I can think of to survive a politically-mandated, multi-year delay was the B-1 Lancer. In 1977, President Carter terminated the B-1 production contract but still allowed the B-1 test program to proceed. Candidate Reagan used the B-1 as a campaign issue in the 1980 election, and authorized production of the improved B-1B when he became president the following year. Of course, this was the height of the Cold War, and a program such as the B-1 could be justified on national security grounds. If some future president should try to campaign on resurrecting Project Constellation in the 2012 election, he or she probably wouldn't find too many sympathetic ears.

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