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Constellation on the chopping block

What's the big deal?

Background on the Constellation Project

Problems with the program

Time for a change?

Putting the debate in context


References & Links

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President Obama axes the Constellation Program

"The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight... But we've got to do it in a smart way, and we can't just keep on doing the same old things that we've been doing and thinking that somehow is going to get us to where we want to be." - President Barack Obama in his address at the April 15, 2010 Space Conference

 President Obama set out seriously redirect NASA's goals with his 2011 Budget. The plan he laid out in February cut the Bush Administration’s Constellation Program. The project to return man to the Moon got axed, as did the development of Constellation’s rocket and crew capsule designed to travel further from the Earth’s orbit (“Obama’s plan for NASA changes met with harsh criticism”). Instead, Obama's space program will focus on partnering with industry to do increased autonomous R&D, “a steady stream of precursor robotic exploration missions,” research to develop heavy-lift rocket technology that will enable exploration to go further than Constellation would have, increased utilization of the International Space Station, “accelerating the next wave of climate change research and observations spacecraft,” and more (OMB FY 2011 Fact Sheet, NASA FY 2011 Overview Fact Sheet - pdf). The most controversial aspect of the plan, though, was the decision to outsource manned spaceflight to the International Space Station to private industry. The decision unleashed a flurry of criticism in political and scientific arenas, and the administration's lag in response time allowed concerns to go unanswered for quite a while after the February unveiling of the budget.

In the first major address he made in regards to the fate of the space program since his budget request was released in February (see video below), the President tried to use the April Space Conference as an opportunity to respond to complaints that his plan took America out of the game and was misguided. Denying the portrayal of the decision as undermining NASA, he emphasized that he was trying to not just close the door on the Constellation project, but to open one for the next chapter of the agency’s future. He acknowledged the power of the space program to inspire and better the lives of those here on Earth, saying,

For me, the space program has always captured an essential part of what it means to be an American -- reaching for new heights, stretching beyond what previously did not seem possible.  And so, as President, I believe that space exploration is not a luxury, it’s not an afterthought in America’s quest for a brighter future -- it is an essential part of that quest (Remarks by the President on Space Exploration in the 21st Century).

He played the decision as one that upped the budget by $6 billion over five years while most other discretionary spending has been frozen, and one that gives the agency an actual new direction, as opposed to the vision set forth by the Bush administration, focusing in its early years on returning to the Moon.

Painting the change as a positive, the Administration depicted Constellation as based on old, preexisting technology that was “over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation” (OMB FY 2011 Fact Sheet). The criticism gets harsher as the report goes on, disparaging the focus on returning somewhere Americans had already traveled to successfully:

Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations (OMB FY 2011 Fact Sheet).

In his April address, President Obama stated these criticisms even more plainly. “Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there,” he said. He affirmed his commitment to putting humans in space, saying,

The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things that we’ve been doing and thinking that somehow is going to get us to where we want to go (Remarks by the President…)

Despite criticism of the decision, Obama has vowed to oppose measures in Congress to save the program, instead suggesting that NASA should focus on other projects and leave human spaceflight to private sector (“Reprieve sought for space shuttles,” “Obama’s plan for NASA changes met with harsh criticism”). He responded to the criticism of the private industry partnership, saying that the shift will allow new technologies to develop faster, with lower costs (Remarks by the President).

President Obama's address at the April 15, 2010 Space Conference - NASAtelevision.

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Last updated:  5/7/2010


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