Artist illustration showing booster separation from the Ares V. Image Credit: NASA

Constellation Program Provides Lesson About The Importance Of Budgets To Space Exploration

With the completion of Space Shuttle Program’s final mission in July 2011, a 30-year era in human space flight was put to rest. After a combined total of 135 space flights by the six space shuttle orbiters, all attention was directed towards the proposed Constellation Program – a five-year $9 billion project built to succeed NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and bring in a new era of human spaceflight. Most anticipated this project would see astronauts not only return to the Moon by 2020, but venture as far into deep space as Mars.

Unfortunately, Constellation has since become another example of how significant of an obstacle budgeting can be to achieving NASA’s goals. More so, it has become an example of the repercussions of an insufficient budget. In 2009, shortly after taking office, the Obama administration ordered a review of NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program by an independent panel of industry experts. The committee found that NASA’s Constellation Program was grossly underfunded and would not be able to achieve its intended goals without a significant increase in the agency’s budget.

As NASA’s Space Shuttle Program drew to a close, the Constellation Program was dealt a fatal blow when the overwhelming majority of the project was excluded from the 2011 fiscal year federal budget. Deemed both too expensive and far behind schedule, the Obama administration withheld funding for the project. Despite opposition from lawmakers in districts that benefited from the program, Congress passed the budget, canceling the Constellation Program.

With NASA’s space shuttle replacement scrapped, their immediate transport needs to and from low-Earth orbit would subsequently be met by the Russian Federal Space Agency and their Soyuz spacecrafts. While a temporary solution to allow astronauts to continue their research aboard the International Space Station, it has been a costly one. As of 2011, NASA was paying nearly $63 million dollars per roundtrip seat, and as of 2013, this number swelled to more than $70 million.

Beyond these costs, there have been close-out expenses to account for as NASA has worked to negotiate buyouts from Constellation Program related contracts. As Robert Block from the Los Angeles Times noted, “Many of the deals are called ‘undefinitized contracts,’ meaning that the terms, conditions — and price — had not been set before NASA ordered the work to start.” Block went on to say that the process of negotiating a buyout from these types of contracts can be particularly long, painful, and pricey.

The cancellation was devastating for NASA and its space shuttle successor, with NASA administrator Charles Bolden saying, “to people who are working on these programs, this is like a death in the family.” However, there was a silver lining – the Constellation Program’s crewed spacecraft, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle – would survive the budget cuts. During this transition to the post-space shuttle era, it was proposed that development continue for the Orion capsule initially to provide emergency escape capabilities onboard the International Space Station. Long-term, the developed technologies and systems would pave the way for deep space exploration vehicles and subsequent manned missions to asteroids and Mars.

Earlier this month, an important part of this research and development successfully launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket as part of Exploration Flight Test 1 – the first unmanned test flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the reincarnation of Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

[Read more: Orion's Historic First Flight Ushers In New Era Of Human Space Exploration]

While we’re frequently reminded of the precariousness of NASA’s budgetary needs and allotment, we too are reminded that much can be achieved in spite of this. With EFT-1 being the predecessor to three scheduled Orion Exploration Missions, NASA’s manned spaceflight future remains tenacious, purposeful, and bright.