In 2008 Star Trek writer/producer and science advisor Andre Bormanis wrote an editorial here at TrekMovie about the presidential campaign and the future of NASA, advocating the Constellation program. Barack Obama (a Trekkie) went on to win the election and this week his administration announced a major shift in NASA policy, including the cancellation of Constellation. Today Andre is back with his thoughts on the new NASA.
President Proposes Bold New Approach to Exploring the Final Frontier
by Andre Bormanis
The announcement of the change of policy for NASA came with Monday’s submission of the NASA’s FY 2011 budget, which opened with the following statement (full of Trek-isms).
Today we are launching a bold and ambitious new space initiative to enable us to explore new worlds, develop more innovative technologies, foster new industries, increase our understanding of the earth, expand our presence in the solar system, and inspire the next-generation of explorers.
– NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, February 1, 2010
The bad news is, the Constellation program has been cancelled. The good news is, the Constellation program has been cancelled.
Constellation was initiated in 2004 by the Bush Administration to return American astronauts to the moon. The intention was to build an Apollo-style capsule that would accommodate up to six astronauts, riding atop a new launch vehicle, Ares-I, largely derived from Space Shuttle booster technology. Eventually a heavy-lift launcher and Moon landing vehicle would be developed as well.
After six years and roughly $9 billion, Constellation has produced a couple of mock-up capsules and test articles, and only one test flight, of just the first stage of the proposed Ares-I. This is mostly the fault of the previous Administration and Congress, which never funded the program at the level it needed to keep on schedule, and get crews to the Moon by 2020. Even if it were fully funded today, no one believes that a Moon landing would happen by 2020, and accomplishing this goal – essentially a repeat performance of what we did with Apollo over forty years ago – would cost on the order of $100 billion. It would further drain money from space science and unmanned exploration of the solar system at a time when our robotic emissaries are so brilliantly demonstrating their exceptional capabilities.
Artist rendition of (now cancelled) Constellation program Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit
President Obama has instead chosen to end Constellation, but also to add money to the NASA budget to develop advanced propulsion systems, automated rendezvous hardware, orbital fuel depots, and other technologies that will be needed to get humans beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO). The job of ferrying astronauts to and from LEO will be given to private industry, with about $6 billion in new NASA funding over the next five years.
Critics of this approach cite two immediate concerns: one, private space ventures have yet to demonstrate that they can reliably send people, not just payloads, into orbit. This is certainly true, and there is probably greater risk in handing this task to the private sector than in giving the job to NASA (as lead contractor – private industry has always built space hardware).
Secondly, as a couple of friends recently reminded me, technology development in the absence of a clear and specific goal often leads to a lot of fancy hardware that never gets used. Constellation, whatever its faults, at least had a clear goal: get Americans back to the Moon.
Although no specific goals were laid out in their plan, NASA’s chief did make comments to the press about where he sees the new vision leading:
Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year, people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of firsts.
– NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, February 1, 2010
Personally, I think President Obama made the right decision. Although I initially supported Constellation, the program has become, at best, a slow road back to the Moon, and that road is almost certainly a dead end, not a stepping-stone to more distant journeys. I do hope that in the coming months Obama will articulate a specific set of destinations for NASA beyond LEO – the Lagrange points, a near-Earth asteroid, possibly the Martian moons – that can pave the way to an eventual human landing on Mars.
Yes, it’s a risk to give up Constellation and turn the reins to LEO over to the private sector, and yes, it’s a risk to develop new technologies before specific missions with the necessary political support have been established. But as James T. Kirk once said, “Risk is our business!”
Could NASA’s new direction be the right path to the final frontier seen in Star Trek?
More to come on new NASA Debate
Tomorrow TrekMovie will have another editorial on this topic from another Trek vet, but with a differing point of view.
Andre Bormanis was the Star Trek science advisor for several years before becoming a full-time writer and eventually producer for “Star Trek: Enterprise”. He holds a B.S. in Physics and an M.A. in Science, Technology, and Public Policy, the latter earned under a NASA Space Grant fellowship. He is a long-time space advocate and member of The Planetary Society. Andre is currently a writer and producer for the ABC Studios series “Legend of the Seeker”.