Chair Force Engineer

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Wedge Issue

It has been argued that America needs Project Constellation to fend off attempts by China to monopolize the moon. While it will be important for America to hang on to its own corner of the lunar surface in the event that foreign powers try to claim it, there are serious reasons to doubt that the specific plan laid out in Project Constellation will be sustainable enough for America to retain any lunar real-estate.

Project Apollo has been summed up as "flags and footprints" by many space enthusiasts. NASA came, it saw, and it abandoned. There was neither funding nor political will to sustain a presence on the moon or develop the hardware which would be required for a permanent lunar presence. We will have to examine "Apollo on Steroids" to determine whether the same political and economic factors will doom this effort to becoming "flags and footprints" as well.

For the past 27 years, NASA has succeeded in keeping Americans in space by obtaining the funding to keep the shuttle program alive. It's a sound assumption to believe that inflation-adjusted levels of shuttle spending can be sustained, because America's leaders believe that 1) America should ahve some type of manned spaceflight capability, and 2) laying off the shuttle personnel will be political suicide. At the same time, it's hard to imagine NASA getting any funding increases for manned spaceflight beyond an adjustment for inflation. The political will to do so can't be conjured up unless America enters into an over moon race with another spacefaring superpower. Even still, such will cannot be sustained after said race comes to a comclusion.

It stands to reason that NASA should conduct Project Constellation in such a way that the operational costs per year do not exceed the yearly costs of the Shuttle and ISS programs in constant-year dollars. Unfortunately, I'm skeptical that the current Constellation architecture can fit within the shuttle funding wedge. Even if the program is limited to two lunar missions per year (two Ares 5/6 launches and two Ares I launches,) the size of the enlarged "standing army" and the cost of the expended hardware will probably outpace shuttle spending.

NASA will always have the option to grow its share of the pie if it can't fit within the current funding wedge. If the private sector is involved early in the game, it will bring private dollars in to enlarge and sustain the effort. If international partners join it, it can also help the Constellation effort at the expense of added oversight by additional nations.

The current Constellation architecture is not well-suited for either foreign partnership or private investment. Constellation has been designed around preserving America's industrial base and making use of American facilities, with the noted exception of the J-2X nozzle (being designed & built by Volvo, utilizing their experience from the Vulcain 2 engine.) It's also hard to imagine a system that is designed, owned and operated by the government being open to private funding anytime soon.

I've been skeptical the Project Constellation will receive full funding, but I don't think that a Constellation-based moon landing is out of the question. The real political challenge will be sustaining the effort after we've gotten there. That was the failure of Apollo, and NASA is currently on its way towards reliving history.