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End of Constellation: It is not all doom and gloom

Op-ed by Anatoly Zak

Even before the White House made a proposal on Feb. 1, 2010, to eliminate funding for the Constellation program, a political hurricane had started brewing in Washington, D.C. Critics alleged that the end of the project, which aimed to return the American astronauts to the Moon, would undermine US space efforts and would even mark the end of the nation’s leadership in space, giving the upper hand to evil powers like China and Russia. The criticism is probably leveled by the same people, who six years ago were blindly cheerleading the Bush administration’s shortsighted decision to start this project in the first place, without any solid fiscal or technical foundation. With a minimum foresight and the knowledge of space exploration history, it was clear from the get go that the Bush plan was underfunded, poorly designed and would have to be scrapped sooner or later. It is just unfortunate that it took six years, nine billion dollars and the change of occupant in the Oval Office to come to this realization.

Obviously, for every space enthusiast around the world, it would be sad to see any major space exploration effort to be axed in a budget crunch. The frustration of legislators representing congressional districts with heavy involvement into a discontinued federal project is also understandable. However there is a silver lining. Every failure presents a new opportunity and even more so does the inevitable demise of the Constellation program. NASA still can make it right, make it big, and remain a leader in space, if it chooses to do so.

First of all, the Obama administration promised to increase overall NASA funding, which along with recovering economy, puts the US space agency in a very strong position for drawing up an aggressive future strategy in space. The goal of going to the Moon itself has not been abandoned but only postponed, likely for a historically insignificant period of time. In the meantime, NASA and all its international partners will be able to send their astronauts to the International Space Station, ISS, to conduct scientific research and built foundation for human ventures beyond the Earth orbit. The fact that US astronauts will temporarily fly to the ISS onboard Russian spacecraft, should bother no one but isolationists and nationalists.

It is much more tragic that under funding restraints of the Constellation program, a brand-new space station -- the largest and most complex man-made structure in orbit -- would have to be dumped into the ocean as soon as 2015. Perhaps, it still would not be the most unprecedented waste of taxpayers’ money in the history of space program – just ask the developers of the Soviet N1 moon rocket and the Energia-Buran system. (Both were abandoned practically on the launch pad, after years of colossal efforts.)

Beyond the station

Before the end of this decade, NASA would have a new manned spacecraft, capable of reaching the ISS and, most likely, the same vehicle would be easily adaptable for lunar missions. Although the potential of the so-called “private sector” to build better, cheaper spacecraft is greatly over-hyped, there is little doubt that the US aerospace industry would be fully capable of building a state-of-the-art spacecraft for the federal government. Hysterical cries in the American press about the loss of US capability to launch astronauts into space are completely unfounded.

In the end, it will be the decision of the American public and the US Congress on the ultimate goal of the manned space program after 2020. If the US economy grows and the federal budget can be balanced, many ambitious projects in space exploration, including a lunar base, missions to asteroids and expeditions to Mars would become possible by 2030.

Unlike the Constellation, which was intentionally set up to be an “in-house” program, the future efforts to explore deep space should include a broad international cooperation with Russia, China, Europe and other countries. No longer mandated to exclude foreign partners, NASA can return to the negotiation table with other space agencies and formulate a common approach toward future goals.

Based on recommendations of the Augustine Committee last year, NASA can allow foreign partners into the so-called “critical path” in future cooperative projects, meaning that their goals would not be achievable without hardware and support of other countries. While it may or may not cut cost of the whole enterprise, it would certainly give space program an important political clout. Interdependency in space as well as on Earth would help to ensure that governments make a habit of finding common solutions to international problems at the negotiation table.

As a first possible step to manned exploration of deep space, Roskosmos have proposed to convert the Russian segment of the International Space Station into an assembly platform for planetary ships. European Space Agency expressed interest in the idea and NASA might consider taking them up on that offer. Yet, another space station might be required in the lunar orbit, along with manned and cargo transports, landers and launch vehicles. For future projects, space agencies could contribute and barter various hardware and services for common goals of reaching the Moon and Mars. In other situations, two or more parallel systems, such as transport lines, could be set up, to provide redundancy for the lunar base or a Martian expedition, even in case of a major failure in one of the systems.

However all of this is in the future, while now, the US government has to quickly draft a new strategy for this decade. Due to the enormous influence NASA activities exert on other space agencies, first of all on Roskosmos and ESA, it would be critically important for Washington to demonstrate that the US is still committed to a robust manned space program. Well defined deadlines and budgets should demonstrate to contractors and international partners alike that they have little time to spare in preparing for the next page in the history of the manned space program. To ensure it is happening, Russia, China and India will provide an additional incentive.

Last update: November 9, 2014

Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak /


Scale models of the Orion spacecraft and its launch escape system developed under the Constellation program. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


A Russian concept of the orbiting assembly shop to replace the ISS after 2020 could serve as a foundation for an international program of the deep space exploration. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak