RUMOR: Obama to axe Ares and Constellation

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Jan 27, 2010
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NASA logo, on its headRumors are flying that in the President's budget, which will be presented to Congress on Monday, all the money for the Constellation rocket program -- and the Ares I and V rockets -- will be gone. NASA will still get a full budget and even a slight increase, but the money for the new rocket system will be axed.

First and foremost, these are rumors. The sources are all anonymous, and all the media are quoting each other. However, given the number of sources and the media involved, it's probably fair to say these rumors have a good chance of being true.

So what does this mean?

To be honest, I'm not sure. It's a lot to think about, and I'm not an insider expert on NASA. Having said that, here are some thoughts. Consider these mumbling out loud, ruminations to ponder. If I'm wrong, please feel free to comment!

[Continued after the jump.] 1) According to the rumors, NASA will drop Ares and look for a different heavy-lift vehicle. That means we aren't going back to the Moon any time soon. The Orlando Sentinel (linked above) says this:

"We certainly don't need to go back to the moon," said one administration official.

I disagree with this, strongly. I think we do need to go back. I also think we can do this even in a recession; the money involved is trivial compared to things like the bank bailouts and the two wars we're fighting. And this will create jobs, high-tech jobs, employing tens of thousands of people.

And don't give me any baloney about spending the money here on Earth rather in space. That's a false dichotomy, and totally wrong.

2) What do we do in the meantime, with the Shuttle being retired this year and no other way of getting people to space? I hear a lot about private companies, and I think in a few years they'll be able to do it, but note that not a single private company has put a human in orbit yet, nor have they even launched a rocket capable of doing so yet. To be clear, I think private companies are doing an amazing job so far and may very well be the way we get to space... but we are still years away from that. Once Space X tests its Falcon 9 rocket and it works, I'll be a lot happier.

The nearly-completed space station3) According to the rumors, Obama wants to extend the space station's life to 2020. I'm ambivalent about that, since I don't think the station serves a very useful purpose except to drain vast amounts of money from NASA. Well, that's a bit unfair: we've learned how to build large structures in space, and there is some scientific use for it, but it's cost $100+ billion, and that's a vast sum of cash. That money could have been far better spent by NASA on a different, less expensive design, and other projects (like, say, a return to the Moon).

4) Just because Obama proposes this, it doesn't mean Ares is dead. It has to pass Congress, and while Congress likes to starve NASA, they've never let it get to the point where it gets manourished. There are NASA centers in several states, and many other companies all over the country that make millions from NASA projects. Congresscritters are unlikely to kill such a machine. I expect a big battle in Congress if all this is true.

nasa_ares_1x5) I'm not sure I entirely disagree with this decision, if true. Ares is way behind in schedule and way over cost. The test last year of the Ares I-X has been called an outright fraud by many people, including Buzz Aldrin and the Space Frontier Foundation. Developing a better system might be a good idea... but then, that's why NASA started with Constellation in the first place. Who's to say they'll do any better this time?

6) I'm getting emails snidely attacking Obama for this. I'm not sure that's warranted. I have not seen the actual budget, so I don't know how this will play out. Bear in mind before lazily attacking me that I have been clear on how I feel about Obama and NASA in the past.

I have very mixed feelings over NASA: on one hand, they do some fantastic things with what is really very little money. On the other hand, their seeming lack of ability to get anything done under budget and within schedule is legendary. Those two are related; internal fighting for funds between NASA projects makes it hard to do everything and do it well. If NASA's budget were increased by about 30% a lot of that would go away. But if these rumors are true, the infighting may very well get worse.

Conclusion:

I don't know what will happen here. Congress will fight canceling Ares, so it may not happen at all. And if it does, with more money going to privatizing space, it may help in the very long run. But it leaves a big gap in the here and now -- which, to be fair, is NASA's fault too; they should've been thinking 15 years ago about what to do when the Shuttle retires, especially after Challenger.

I don't know enough about what's really happening in the Ares program right now to know whether it's a total loss, or whether it's worth fighting for. I also don't know if private space companies really can pick up the slack. They think so, and it seems likely, but we have no solid proof yet. That's still a ways off.

And finally, space exploration is important. I find it difficult to believe Obama doesn't know that; he's proven himself to be both pro-science and understanding of the inspiration it provides. And the rumor is that this year's budget for NASA actually goes up a little bit, it just cuts Constellation and Ares. But if this really does gut NASA's future, cutting way back on what they can do, then it's a mistake.

We'll know soon enough. For actual answers, I'll be curious to see what experts in this field have to say. I imagine they're sharpening their keyboards even as I write this.