No one seems to know, even though it’s been pretty well defined by NASA. If we are to believe this web page (and it seems consistent with what I’ve always understood it to be) it is the set of hardware elements that are to get us back to the moon, and eventually to provide the basis for missions “beyond,” whether Mars or other objects in the inner system. These include the Ares I and Ares V launchers, the Orion capsule, and the Altair lunar lander (it also of necessity includes the Earth Departure Stage, though it’s not mentioned at the top level, and remains unnamed, as far as I know).
But apparently people, and people who should know better, don’t read that web page. One of them is Andy Pasztor of the Journal, who I had to correct the other day (I sent him an email — he never responded).
Someone else who should know better is Glenn Smith (who I’ve known for a couple decades, though we haven’t had any interactions since the early nineties), who wrote an editorial last week that implies (well, OK, actually states) that Constellation is a moon base:
It is time to reconsider whether we want to go ahead with the Constellation program to place a base on the moon. Many of us in the space community would be eager to recreate the thrill of Apollo. However, from the public’s standpoint, going back to the moon in 2020 would not invoke the same sense of awe and inspiration it did 51 years earlier when it was a seemingly impossible task.
The Constellation program is not to place a base on the moon. The Constellation program is to develop the capabilities to get humans back to the moon (and perhaps beyond it). To actually build a base would require much more than Constellation, at least as currently defined. There is in fact no funding in the budget plans that I know of for a lunar base (there’s not really enough to even do Constellation in the manner in which NASA has insanely and duplicitously and disingenuously defined it).
At this point, arguing about whether or not we should do a moon base is utterly beside the point, because there are no concrete plans as to what NASA is going to do once it has the trivial capability to get a handful of astronauts to the moon once or twice a year, at a cost of billions per flight, which is all that Constellation in its current incarnation provides.
And notice the last two sentences. They don’t seem to jibe with the first one. “Going back to the moon” is not the same thing as building a moon base. After all, we went to the moon once, and Mike Griffin advertised this plan as doing that “on steroids,” and there may have been a base implied, but there may also not have. Unfortunately, the VSE wasn’t sufficiently specific about what we were supposed to do after we got back to the moon, other than as to use it as a basis for going on to the other places, but there are lots of ways to do that.
Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to lack of specificity, because I don’t believe in socialistic/fascistic five- and ten- and twenty-year plans. I was happy with the president’s general goal that man was going out into the cosmos, and I wasn’t unhappy with the idea that we’d get back to where we were forty years ago and use that as a basis for going beyond.
What I am unhappy with is the cargo-cult mentality on the part of NASA that, because we got to the moon forty years ago on a humungous launch system with a crew capsule and service module and expendable lander, that this is the way to do a reset of history and reestablish a forty-year-old baseline.
In my mind, what Constellation should be is the development of an infrastructure that allows us to go anywhere we want in the inner (if not outer) solar system, and then let the national priorities determine what we’ll do with it once it’s in place.
But it must do so in an affordable and sustainable (and, I would add, scalable) way, which means you can’t throw the hardware away. In repeating Apollo, we are doing exactly the opposite. We have to develop a system that has low marginal costs, which means reusable hardware, which means in-space refueling, and depots from which to do so scattered (at first) in cis-lunar space. Until I see NASA plans to do so, I won’t take their multi-decade plans seriously.
[Tuesday morning update]
Paul Spudis (who was on the Aldridge Commission) says that NASA has managed to subvert the intent of the VSE:
The Vision was never intended to be a repeat of Apollo – the idea was to use the Moon to create new spacefaring capabilities. This is a task that’s never even been attempted in space, let alone accomplished. It is the antithesis of “been there, done that.”
The administration may have thought that the issue was settled after the VSE announcement and the Aldridge Commission, but it wasn’t, and there continue to be warring factions within the agency. It was pretty clear (and one can even recall quotes from Doug Stanley to that effect) that some saw the lunar mission as nothing more than an excuse to develop Mars hardware (a heavy lifter, that just happens to be named “Ares”), which is ironic, because the Ares V will not perform a Mars mission in a single launch, and it’s impractical (short of something like Sea Dragon) to build a launcher that will. And yet they avoid the technologies (in-space assembly and fueling) that are enabling for Mars, though this would make the moon more practical and sustainable as well.
This is quite literally lunacy.