Constellation Is Dead, But Pieces Live On

Passage of legislation authorizing NASA spending for the next three years means the agency’s Constellation Program of back-to-the-Moon spacecraft developments is officially over, but some of its work will continue as the agency shifts its focus to sending humans to an asteroid.

Doug Cooke, associate administrator for exploration systems, told the Space Transportation Association at a Washington breakfast Oct. 22 that NASA will go ahead with the first test early next year of a complete J-2X upper-stage rocket engine developed for the terminated Ares I crew launch vehicle.

Work also is continuing on five-segment solid-fuel rocket motors originally intended as the Ares I first stage, but now, like the J-2X, as a possible component of the new heavy-lift rocket ordered in the authorization law.

“The bill is now law, so the truth is at this point we’re not going to continue with the Constellation Program as it has been, and we’re going to move in this new direction,” Cooke says, noting that new congressional guidance may emerge as lawmakers tackle appropriations legislation after the midterm elections Nov. 2.

Previously NASA was bound by its old appropriations language to continue the Constellation Program it had funded, and expressly forbidden from spending money on the Obama administration’s new approach to human space exploration. Now the agency is moving ahead on a path that will bypass the Moon in favor of sending humans to an asteroid, Cooke says, using a government-built heavy-lift rocket with an initial capability of about 100 metric tons to get the necessary hardware to the target from a jumping-off point in high Earth orbit or a lunar Lagrange point.

A notional asteroid mission would require on the order of 300 days, according to study data Cooke presented, in a spacecraft based on Constellation’s Orion crew exploration vehicle that is also mandated by Congress. Solar-electric propulsion currently is the favored route to the Earth-departure point, Cooke says, and there is a lot of engineering and scientific work to be done on how to approach and interact with a low-gravity body like an asteroid.

“These objects are actually excellent stepping-stones for long-duration missions in space,” Cooke says. “The capabilities that we need to implement it will help us get to cislunar space, Lagrange points, the Moon, Mars’ moons, as well as Mars itself.”

For most human trips to and from space, NASA will continue to pursue the administration’s new plan to shift to commercial crew vehicles for access to the International Space Station and any other destinations in low Earth orbit that are developed. To that end, Cooke says, NASA will begin seeking proposals for a second round of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) effort started this year with stimulus-package funds.

Although the final figures for CCDev 2 will not be available until there is a Fiscal 2011 NASA appropriations bill, and formal agreements will not be signed until next spring, Cooke says the second round will probably involve more government funding than the $50 million used in Fiscal 2010. Those funds were used as seed money for two different crew vehicles, some life support and crew escape hardware and launcher health-monitoring gear, all of which was supplemented or exceeded by private funding.

Affordability will be a key factor as NASA refines the architecture it will pursue for deep-space exploration, Cooke says, starting with an industry workshop on the subject next week at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Inadequate funding for Constellation led to the White House call for its termination after President Barack Obama took office, a shift Cooke concedes has been “challenging,” with more challenges to come.

“We’ll work through them,” says the 37-year NASA veteran. “We always have.”

 
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