No More Moon

At least by NASA, if the Orlando Sentinel has it right:

When the White House releases his budget proposal Monday, there will be no money for the Constellation program that was supposed to return humans to the moon by 2020. The troubled and expensive Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle to ferry humans to space will be gone, along with money for its bigger brother, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies needed to take humans back to the moon.

There will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all.

In their place, according to White House insiders, agency officials, industry executives and congressional sources familiar with Obama’s long-awaited plans for the space agency, NASA will look at developing a new “heavy-lift” rocket that one day will take humans and robots to explore beyond low Earth orbit. But that day will be years — possibly even a decade or more — away.

In the meantime, the White House will direct NASA to concentrate on Earth-science projects — principally, researching and monitoring climate change — and on a new technology research and development program that will one day make human exploration of asteroids and the inner solar system possible.

There will also be funding for private companies to develop capsules and rockets that can be used as space taxis to take astronauts on fixed-price contracts to and from the International Space Station — a major change in the way the agency has done business for the past 50 years.

As the article notes, there will be a battle royale with people on the Hill like Shelby, but it’s hard for me to see how the program will survive if the White House sticks to its guns. On the other hand, this is not a White House known for sticking to its guns.

Anyway, if that’s the new plan, it actually has a lot better prospects for getting us back to the moon than Constellation ever did, and much more affordably.

[Update a while later]

Clark Lindsey makes a good point on the politics:

Regarding the resistance in Congress to cancellation of Ares I, I’d bet the administration would love that fight. With deficits a huge concern in the general public, the killing of a giant boondoggle government rocket project is exactly the sort of symbolic act that the administration would be happy to see receive a lot of attention. The fact that most of that resistance comes from a handful of Republicans in Alabama and Texas would only highlight the irony of a situation where the President will be fighting conservatives to kill a government program and use private sector services instead.

When it comes to pork, there don’t seem to be any “conservatives.”

[Update a couple minutes later]

Keith Cowing feels cheated (again):

NASA has just spent more than half a decade telling Americans that we are all going back to the Moon – and why. In the process, billions of dollars have been spent. Children have grown up being told this again and again – just like my generation heard in the 1960s. Now this is being taken away from them. I can only imagine how my generation would have reacted. It is one thing to alter a plan, change rockets, etc. But it is quite another to abandon the plan altogether.

The ISS has great potential – much of it yet to be realized. But much of that untapped potential was preparing humans to go out into the solar system. Now those destinations have evaporated and have been replaced with the elusive and ill-defined “Flexible Path”.

How is NASA going to explain this about face? Answer – they won’t – because they can’t. They are incapable of admitting mistakes or even stating the obvious. What I really want to see is how NASA attempts to explain this bait and switch to all of the students it has sought to inspire since the VSE was announced. A “Summer of Innovation” centered around a stale and contracting space program seems somewhat contradictory to me.

How will NASA – and the White House – explain the use of vast sums of taxpayer money to bail out the decisions of incompetent financial institutions on Wall Street and yet not be able to find a paltry fraction of that amount to bail out the future of space exploration that future Americans will benefit from – and participate in.


He apparently had far too much faith that anything was going to come of this. I was somewhat hopeful right after the announcement, but once ESAS came out, I knew that the program was doomed to failure. We’ve wasted billions and years more, but at least we’re going to stop the bleeding now. I’m much more encouraged about our prospects to get to the moon now than I have been in five years.

[Early afternoon update]

Bill Posey has fired off a foolish response:

“This Administration has thrown hundreds of billions of dollars into a failed stimulus bill, but when it comes to keeping America first in space his ‘plan’ is to cancel the development of America’s next human space vehicle, outsource our good-paying Shuttle jobs to the Russians, place all of our hopes on a yet unproven commercial adventure, rush/force the transition to yet unproven commercial alternatives, and shifts money from human space flight to global warming research.

“Until we have a clearer plan for the future, the only realistic and reasonable way to preserve America’s leadership in space is too [sic] provide for a temporary extension of the Shuttle. To terminate the Shuttle later this year with no plan, but rather a vain hope, is ill advised.

He has never proposed a realistic plan as to how to extend Shuttle. They’re running out of pieces to fly it, and the lines were shut down long ago. And I get very tired of arguments for “jobs,” good paying or not, with no apparent concern about cost or value to the taxpayer (or space enthusiast, for that matter). I grow even more tired of hearing about how an Atlas that has an almost perfect flight record is “unproven,” while Powerpoint rockets are some kind of sure thing, merely because they are being designed by NASA.

No, this isn’t exactly what I’d be doing if I were president, but it’s a hell of a lot better policy than anything we’ve had since Mike Griffin took over. I don’t even object to spending more money on climate monitoring, particularly given what a mess the science currently is — I just wish that Jim Hansen wouldn’t have any control, or even influence, over it.

57 thoughts on “No More Moon”

  1. “I think Blue has a point, Rand. I feel like you’re seeing this like an engineer or a businessman, where the mission drives the budget. Cut the bad mission, and in principle you free up the budget for a better mission — even if it can’t be done right now.”

    The funding involved isn’t really the point. Chances are good that NASA will continue to spend whatever it gets incredibly inefficiently, at least if you define efficiency as producing actual useful space technology and exploration.

    The point is that once NASA no longer has the primary exploration transportation development mission, others can emerge to fulfill it without being cut off at the start because “NASA’s in charge of all that”, a responsibility they’ve guarded jealously but fulfilled abysmally since Apollo.

    As Rand has been popularizing (I can’t recall where I first heard the point – G.Harry Stine? Jerry Pournelle? It was a while ago) the point is not for the government to briefly visit Mars for a trillionish dollars. The point is to get to where National Geographic Society, or a major university consortium, or a big foundation, can afford to pull together a Mars expedition. And that is going to take prying control over transportation development away from NASA’s incredibly expensive grip. This policy would be a huge step in that direction.

  2. The funding involved isn’t really the point. Chances are good that NASA will continue to spend whatever it gets incredibly inefficiently, at least if you define efficiency as producing actual useful space technology and exploration.

    It is to me. I repeat, you are thinking like an engineer, someone for whom a waste of money is a sad thing, to be regretted and stopped if possible.

    I’m thinking politically. I’m thinking what else will that money be doing? If it had a prayer of being spent more efficiently — on X prizes or whatnot — or even better, returned to the taxpayer, then I’d be all for pulling it out of NASA’s palsied hands.

    But it won’t be. If NASA doesn’t get to spend it, it will be used to nourish and strengthen some really appalling collectivist cancer. Head Start, or a National Health Outcomes Panel, or worse. It would be better if the money were burned, or buried. If sending it to NASA accomplishes more or less just that, I’m fine. And, heck, if it gives some Mech E intern a useful experience, and instructive exposure to government bureaucracy, so much the better.

  3. Carl Pham, it is easy to say “the market” decided highways and airplanes were cheaper than trains. But the reality is a bit different.

    Nonsense. Airlines have historically been profitable. Toll roads pay for their construction easily. The entire costs of the federal highway system were paid for by taxes on the gasoline burned by cars and trucks using them. Not a penny of Federal tax income was used. The Federal government only got involved in the Interstate system for the obvious collective-action problem reason, that you need one agency to set standards and choose routes, lest you get locked into fifty squabbling and inconsistent messes. It had zero to do with needing “pump-priming” capital.

    It does not however make a lot of sense to compare airplanes vs rail. There may be some limited overlap over short distances, but rail is not an airplane replacement.

    Uh…then what’s the point, God? You think you’re going to get people out of their cars? Dream on. Cars are wonderful. You have this small machine you can store on your own property, which is so simple even 16 year olds can operate it safely, which has very low maintenance costs and very high reliability, comes in many different shapes and sizes to suit individual family needs, and is an amazingly flexible means of transportation: goes where you want to go, door to door, whenever you want, at nearly any speed, in any weather, and with zero security concerns. If we were still getting around on trains and by foot, and someone invented the “microtrain” i.e. car right now, it would be hailed as the “greenest” and most socially-responsible invention of the century.

  4. Carl,

    It’s pretty obvious you’re quoting my post but responding to someone else’s argument. Where do I say I’m worried about the money? Not that I approve of NASA’s ongoing waste of dollars – for the half-trillion or so space exploration funding they’ve spent since Apollo wound down, we should be halfway to Alpha Centauri by now. But NASA wasting dollars is not something I ever expect to fix.

    By the way, it’s also obvious you’re not aware that there’s no proposal to cut NASA’s funding here – latest word is it’ll increase by about a billion a year under this plan. Just not by the many many more billions it’d take for NASA to have a hope of ever actually flying something under Constellation. Realistically, that level of increase was never on the table, so it’s pointless to talk about alternative uses for nonexistant funding.

    NASA wasting national opportunities for a generation now, via their fiercely-defended monopoly on developing the means of space exploration (and their utter incompetence at doing it themselves), THAT is what I’m glad this new policy ends. THAT is where I see the huge new opportunity opening up. THAT is the heart of the revolutionary political change this new policy will represent. Clear now?

  5. The Stick is dead, long my it… well… stay dead!

    I’m hopeful that the concept of commercial services will work, but I also recall that it is and always has been Congress, not any President or Administration that has controlled and directed NASA’s funds.

    And NO Congress, no matter what party is in control has expressed any real effort or support for NASA manned spaceflight beyone LEO. Funds get “allocated” to various programs directly from Congess who is allowed to add “riders” and “specifications” to direct where the allocated money is spent.

    And before every sings the laments of having a Democratic Controlled Congress, this has been a CONSISTANT thing across both parties no matter who is in control.

    Congress controls NASAs budget, they also control how NASA spends the money it recieves and they have been highly protective of that arrangment no matter which party is in the White House. Congress, not any Presidental “vision” or “program” proposed, controls and directs NASA and they have made it quite clear that they don’t intend to ever let NASA get beyond LEO again.

    I know that Bigelow/LM showed off an “Orion-lite” capsule not to long ago that they claimed could be lofted on the Atlas-V and I fully expect that will the be “authorized” commercial launch vehicle given funding from Congress. I also expect Congress to continue to fund THAT launch vehicle and capsule with no upgrades or changes as far into the future as they can. Even more so than Aries-1 the Atlas-V (or Delta) are the perfect vehicles to restrict activities to LEO while “looking” like NASA has a purpose and mission.

    I’m hopeful that I will be surprised and wrong, but my “gut-feeling” is that COTS funding along with the Centennial Challenges will be victims of this budget cut, done away with by Congress but blamed on the Administration.

    I’m hopeful that Space-X can survive such a cut, and I’m hopeful that they will still be able to get the Falcon-9 and Dragon operational. But my “gut” tells me that even IF Falcon-9 flies and Dragon performs perfectly that Space-X will suddenly see the “heavy-lift” payloads they based the Falcon-9 on will suddenly be transfered to Atlas and Delta boosters instead, and that there is going to be a Congressionally mandated “drop” in the launch prices of those launchers also.

    (Having seen something similar before I highly suspect that there is going to be a “Congressionsal-Review” of the COTS program and specifically the Falcon-9 awarded to a nice, neutral company-study-group… Say Boeing or LM or maybe just ULA… Which will find that the Falcon-9 launch and operations costs are “too-high” compared to Atlas or Delta and recomending that the money for COTS be instead used to purchase launches from Boeing, or LM… Or maybe just go with a neutral third party like ULA…


  6. Just a nit but:

    > ..The initial cost estimate for the system was $25 billion
    > over 12 years; it ended up costing $114 billion (adjusted
    > for inflation, $425 billion in 2006 dollars)

    $25 billion in 1950’s money adjust for inflation to $200 billion in 2009 $’s. Given the program waas streached out from 12 years to 50, a mear doubling of the cost is surprizingly small.

  7. >’re seeing this like an engineer or a businessman,
    > where the mission drives the budget. Cut the bad
    > mission, and in principle you free up the budget for
    > a better mission — even if it can’t be done right now.”

    but you forget to congress NASA missions exist to justify spending the money nin the right districts. If the mission becomes to cheap, say by commercializing functions, its no longer “valuble enough” to justify the votes.

    Its why CATS replacements for shuttle were always a nightmare that would give NASA execs cold sweats.

    I mean give them some credit. You think it was mear sloppyness that they speced out a Earth to LEO Ares-1/Orion with development costs BUDGETED for a inflation adjusted cost 35% more then the complete shutle program? Ares-V/Altair budgeted for the same. Then add in overruns…

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