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Monday, June 14, 2010

Constellation hammered by back door manoeuvering

Project Constellation's Ares V launcher (artist's impression)


NASA has come up with a cunning way to implement President Obama's desire to cut Project Constellation, the planned new heavy lifter for the Americans. With Congress supporting the project but Obama against it the Obama appointed NASA Administrator, Charlie Boden, a veteran of four space flights, has written to private sector contractors working on the project telling them they need to cut right back to allow for termination costs if the thing is cancelled. This effectively means that many of the skilled staff involved will be lost making continuing with the project nigh on impossible. Congress is furious, saying that NASA is using a legal wrinkle to sabotage the project and hamstringing Congress, who were due to pass a law forcing NASA to continue with the project later this month, as a result. The problem is that Constellation needs an extra $3 billion a year to be viable. NASA, a big target at a time of swingeing budget cuts, is anxous to preserve its current programmes hence their apparent keenness to roll over on this.


Falcon 9 launches from Cape Canaveral on Friday June 4th


With particularly bad timing for the Constellation backers the privately funded Falcon 9 launcher had a successful maiden launch ten days ago, carrying a dummy Dragon spacecraft which is designed to carry, ultimately, cargo and crew. It is built by the SpaceX company which was set up by PayPal founder Elon Musk. Despite some minor problems, it hit its test target area 155 miles above the Earth to within 1% accuracy. Obama wants the private sector to provide launch capability going forward and the successful Falcon 9 launch goes a long way to making that likely. At 177 feet tall and nearly 12 feet in diameter this is a serious offering from the private sector and SpaceX have already won a contract to resupply the International Space Station in the future.


Ares V (artist's impression)


The big problem for Project Constellation is that it wanted to do too many things: be an orbital supply rocket, a Moon capable launcher and, ultimately, a launcher for a Mars mission. The simpler, one task private rockets are stealing a march on it just as the old Russian rockets did for commercial sattellite launches. The real competition for the future, is going to come from Asia and we are sure that the Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are already eyeing up some of the staff currently working on Constellation.


India's 144 foot tall successful PSLV rocket

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