Is NASA’s Constellation Program “Too Big to Fail?”

by Space Frontier Foundation on May 3, 2010

Space Frontier Foundation Dares Congress
to Apply Their Own Logic to Their Own Space Pork

The Space Frontier Foundation today dared members of Congress to apply their own rhetoric about taxpayer bailouts of the financial industry to the failed multi-billion dollar Constellation rocket program in their home states. As an example, the Foundation cited a recent quote about the Wall Street disaster from Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama:

“The message should be, unambiguously, that nothing’s too big to fail.

And if you fail, we’re going to put you… put you to sleep.”

“Just as the Senator says, nothing’s too big to fail. The Ares launch vehicles being developed in Senator Shelby’s state are a total failure by every honest measure.  They will cost too much, are years behind schedule, and our nation’s top experts say they could not fulfill their intended mission even if they were built,” said the Foundation’s Rick Tumlinson. “It is the space equivalent of Wall Street vultures who happily collected huge profits selling bad investments but then demanded our tax dollars when everything fell apart. It’s time for Ares to be put to sleep.”

The Foundation agrees with a blue ribbon White House panel, and other experts across the space field, who have found that the Constellation Program announced under former President G.W. Bush is failing to meet its original goals. In particular, the outrageously expensive Ares rockets, initiated in 2005, have already eaten the seed corn of exploration technology funding.   President Obama is cancelling these failed projects in favor of a more affordable and innovative path that sustainably opens the space frontier.

But many in Congress oppose this change, and instead want to throw more money at Constellation and Ares – as much as an extra $5-6 billion per year – even as they criticize federal bailouts of the automotive and financial industries.

“We think Senator Shelby, and many others trying to protect their local pork, should apply the same logic to the space program they apply to Wall Street,” said Foundation Chairman Bob Werb. “Just because Ares is based at his Marshall Space Flight Center is no reason to ignore the complete disaster it has become.”

“We agree with Senator Shelby and his colleagues when they worry about taxpayer bailouts.  When an institution has repeatedly failed, we need to clean up the mess and try something new, instead of doing the same thing over and over expecting a miracle to occur,” added Tumlinson.

“That applies to NASA and the Marshall Spaceflight Center too” concluded Werb.”  “Protecting organizations from their own failures is not good for the nation or the hard working people at NASA.  The people on the ground in Alabama deserve better than an unaffordable program that will have to be cancelled sooner or later anyway.  They deserve a shot at success – success that will secure their jobs regardless of shifts in the budgetary or political winds.”

Is NASA’s Constellation Program “Too Big to Fail?” (pdf)

Guest May 3, 2010 at 6:17 pm

What price tag can you put on Safety???

Guest May 3, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Well said. NASA should be held accountable just like every other organization. If a part keeps failing, cut it and move on. I find it interesting that Senator Shelby would contradict himself like this…

Jeff May 3, 2010 at 8:13 pm

“..and our nation’s top experts say they could not fulfill their intended mission even if they were built” — well, I guess that depends on WHICH ‘EXPERTS’ you ask, and if you believe they’re the ‘TOP’ in the industry. “Years behind” ? Yes- but, as the ‘Blue Ribbon’ group recognized – this is driven by lack of committed funding – NOT from flawed design. “It is the space equivalent of Wall Street vultures who happily collected huge profits selling bad investments but then demanded our tax dollars when everything fell apart” – So now you’ll compare a Government funded and controlled program which is adhering to NASA’s own rules and regulations – to the uncontrolled – unregulated world of Wall Street finance? Wow – that’s certainly taking a LOT of poetic license. And lastly – though you’ve tried to make it so – it simply is not a partisan issue. There are a LOT of Democrats fighting for keeping manned space flight a priority – by supporting the continuation of Constellation.

Terry Hancock May 4, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Re: "Safety"

This argument (i.e. that we should develop crew transfer vehicles through the government because it'll be safer) is based on false premise — that the government program actually has a better chance of making safe vehicles.

Since it only hints darkly at the possibility of commercial failure in this area, it doesn't have to stand up and defend its position — that's a marketing (or propaganda) technique known in the computer industry as FUD — "Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt". It was used by IBM and later by Microsoft. It's what you do when you don't have any real selling points — just try to convince the customer that they'd be taking a chance if they went with anyone else ("No one ever got fired for buying IBM").

But we must remember, that NASA is the program that lost many spacecraft getting to where it is today, and which today does not have ANY vehicle which can truly be considered safe. NASA's development programs have not produced a "safe, reliable crew transfer vehicle" since the 1960s. Despite all of the costly safety work-arounds that were introduced after Challenger, we still lost Columbia. Now NASA has introduced more, even more expensive work-arounds, and claims the Shuttle is "safe".

But the thing is, the Shuttle is unsafe because of basic design mistakes. Most of them political. For example, we wouldn't have lost the Challenger if it weren't for the decision to strap solid rockets onto a manned vehicle — something which, even at that time, was highly controversial, because there are intrinsic safety issues associated with solid rocket systems.

But that decision was made, because of political pressures. The original concept of a liquid-fueled "fly-back booster" was simply too expensive, and program didn't have money for it. The reason it was too expensive was that the shuttle was far larger than it needed to be to be an effective crew transfer vehicle.

Why? Because it also had to be a cargo vehicle? Why? Because if they had kept Saturn for cargo (or built a new heavy-lift vehicle), the Shuttle would likely have been canceled. Administrators lumped all their eggs into one basket so that Congress would have to protect that one basket. More political maneuvering.

The end result of all of this was that the Shuttle was a complete failure at its originally-intended purpose: to provide reliable, reusable, fast-turn-around space crew transfer capabilities to support a space station, which in turn was conceived of as a way of supporting further space exploration and space industry.

Instead, the Shuttle was a compromise, a designed-by-committe solution, which turned out not to be very good at solving any of the problems it was supposed to solve. Because, from an engineering point of view, we should've built (at least) TWO different launch systems — one for lifting modules up to station, and one for ferrying crews. As it is, we've wound up using Shuttle to do the former (even though it's not really very good at it), and Soyuz to do the latter (even though it doesn't really have the crew capacity — completely ignoring the issue of it not being American, which I don't think is such a big deal, but obviously some people do think it's a matter of pride that we have an American solution).

Ares was, from what I hear, going in exactly the same direction: way over budget, poorly managed, attempting to solve impossible engineering problems, because management was doing what the politics required instead of paying attention to the engineering requirements and capabilities they had to work with. Would Ares even produce a "safe" vehicle? _Maybe_. Maybe _not_. Certainly they weren't close to doing it on the originally proposed timetable. Certainly NASA's record for building safe spacecraft is not as promising as it would have to be to justify the "safety" argument.

Frankly, our odds of getting a "safe" crew transfer vehicle are at least as good if not a whole lot better with commercial options.

The most important thing about a commercial approach is that it stops us from putting all of our eggs in one basket like that. With a competitive field, there's a real chance that we'll be given choices that not only make sense (no stupid political compromises that can't work from an engineering perspective) and fill a variety of niche applications. Most likely, we'll first see variations on the capsule concept, like SpaceX's "Dragon" concept. Later we may see reusable spaceplanes or mini-shuttles that can actually do what Shuttle was supposed to do.

So, indeed, "what price tage can you put on safety?" Certainly it's not worth giving it up to keep pork barrel projects alive.

RGrokett June 6, 2010 at 1:25 am

Excellent comments! …the only "safe" rocket is, and will be for the next 50 years, one in a museum. Same as the only "safe" automobile is the one sitting perfectly still. (well, I guess on both of those, you could slip and fall.) NASA needs to get back to pure research, like scram jets, nuclear interplanetary designs, exotic materials, robotics, etc. and let commercial companies handle the "day-to-day" work of ISS and beyond package delivery!

Searchlight Rental April 25, 2011 at 9:58 pm

It is unfortunate to see NASA become so politicized. Loosing our edge in space will probably be one of the greatest losses attributed to the recession and bad policy decisions of the last decade.

I have never been able to understand why people cannot make decisions based on what is the best result and not what solution is the easiest politically.

If private companies take up space flight that will be great. But, the US should not rely on private industry to move spce exploration forward. If we can send billions over seas we should spend billions on our own future.

Tom G April 25, 2011 at 11:03 pm

If the experts say that this is not the right program to keep America's spaceflight program on track then we should listen to the experts. All too often the experts are over ridden for purely political reasons.

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