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‘Apollo on steroids’: The rise and fall of NASA’s Constellation moon program

Posted By Jason Davis

01-08-2016 7:53 CDT

Topics: Horizon Goal

It was September 2005, and NASA administrator Michael Griffin faced down a room of reporters at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Griffin had only been in charge of the agency for five months, having been nominated by President George W. Bush to succeed Sean O'Keefe, who resigned in December 2004.

In part one of our new Horizon Goal series, we examined how the president laid out a bold new vision for NASA in the wake of the Columbia accident that would retire the space shuttles in 2010, build and fly a new deep space crew vehicle by 2014 and land humans on the moon by 2020. The new program was called Constellation.

At the time, the space shuttle was America's only means for shipping crew and cargo to the International Space Station, which was scheduled to be completed in 2010 and de-orbited in 2016. NASA's potential alternatives included relying on foreign partners, outsourcing ISS runs to the private sector, using the yet-to-be-built crew vehicle, or some combination of all three.

To Griffin, this was untenable: NASA needed an in-house shuttle successor, and a plan to kick Constellation into high gear.

He commissioned an agency-wide tiger team which produced a report called the Exploration Systems Architecture Study, or ESAS. The report concluded NASA should build two new rocket systems and make the crew vehicle a gumdrop-shaped capsule similar to the Apollo vessels that first carried humans to the moon.

Constellation had a new look, and this press conference was the big reveal. In response to a reporter's question about the crew vehicle, Griffin made a remark that came to define the program.

"Think of it as Apollo on steroids," he said.

During the Apollo years, in 1966, NASA's budget peaked at $44 billion (all costs in this article have been converted to 2016 dollars for ease of comparison). But in 2005, the agency's budget was less than half of that, and that continues to be the case today.

Could NASA really do Apollo on steroids with one-half the funding?

Ares I and V


Ares I and V
An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ares I and V rocket systems. Ares I (left) was designed to launch Orion, while Ares V would be used to lift large payloads into orbit, avoiding a previously proposed multiple-launch cargo strategy for lunar missions.

Constellation version 2.0

Griffin's revamped Constellation program called for two new rockets named Ares I and Ares V. Ares was a nod to the Greek god associated with Mars, while the designators I and V were an homage to the Saturn moon rocket family. The crew capsule was christened Orion to represent a bright, recognizable constellation.

Ares I would be a skinny, single-stick rocket used to launch Orion. The core stage would be a modified space shuttle solid rocket booster, and a shuttle main engine would power the upper stage.

Ares V would be a cargo freighter, advertised at one point as being able to lift 160 metric tons to low-Earth orbit (by comparison, the space shuttle maxed out around 25 metric tons). Five shuttle engines and two modified shuttle rocket boosters would power the vehicle at liftoff, and for the upper stage, NASA would build a brand new liquid engine called the J-2X. 

The Saturn V upper stage engine was called the J-2; hence, the J-2X was another component of 'Apollo on steroids.'

Griffin—an engineering junkie with Master's degrees in aerospace science, electrical engineering and applied physics, and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering—declined to speak on the record for this story. However, research and interviews suggest several reasons he changed course from administrator O'Keefe's strategy.

Politically, the retirement of the space shuttles would be a triple whammy. Scores of space district workers would lose their jobs, America would lose access to the ISS just as it was completed, and perhaps worst of all, the iconic shuttles—the pride of the nation's space fleet for three decades—would be mothballed without a clear successor in the works.

By accelerating Orion development and building Ares I, Griffin hoped to have America flying to the station again as early as 2012—two years earlier than President Bush had envisioned.

Under O'Keefe, NASA had considered purchasing modified Delta or Atlas rockets to launch Orion and the hardware necessary for lunar missions. But Griffin's ESAS report found that "as many as nine" launches would be required for a single lunar mission. Ares V, on the other hand, could heave tremendous amounts of cargo to space in a single shot, which could reduce costs and lower complexity by cutting down on in-space assembly.

Furthermore, the ESAS report said re-using space shuttle technology had "significant advantages with respect to cost, schedule, safety, and reliability."

NASA administrator Michael Griffin

NASA / Bill Ingalls

NASA administrator Michael Griffin
NASA administrator Michael Griffin turns from his console to watch the liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis through the windows of the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center in February 2008.

Behind schedule and over budget?

By the time Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, a narrative had emerged that Constellation was behind schedule and over budget. Obama himself used that phrase in a 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, and this perception persists today.

Is it accurate?

By February 2009, NASA said Ares I and Orion would not fly until 2015. Although that was just a one-year delay from the timeline President Bush laid out in 2004, it was a three-year slip from Griffin's hope of being ready by 2012.

As for Ares V, in 2008, NASA claimed the mammoth rocket would still be ready to send humans to the moon by 2020—using a lunar lander called Altair—just as Bush had specified. In 2009, the agency was less explicit about the landing itself, but did say Ares V would still be operational by 2020.

The first NASA budget to include Constellation, released in 2004, asked Congress for $8.8 billion from 2005 through 2009. Almost all of that was for Orion—just four percent was set aside for procuring rockets.

An analysis of NASA budgets shows Constellation actually ended up spending $11.9 billion during that period—a cost overrun of $3.1 billion.

Future prospects

Although Orion and Ares I had yet to fly, Constellation's 26 percent cost overrun and one-to-three-year delay (depending on whether you choose Bush's or Griffin's timeline) was in good company with another ambitious, once-in-a-generation NASA project: the space shuttle. When Columbia finally launched in 1981, it was almost identically delayed and over budget. 

Constellation's schedule and cost problems can also be attributed to NASA deciding to build its own rockets, which wasn't part of the original plan. However, despite this change in strategy, America's ISS access gap did not shorten as Griffin had hoped—it lengthened.

Furthermore, Constellation's future prospects were looking worse, not better. From 2010 through 2014, NASA projected Constellation would cost $28.7 billion. That's a cost increase of 140 percent over the program's first five years.

There were also doubts about whether Ares V would actually be ready to fly by 2020. Out of the $28.7 billion NASA was requesting for Constellation from 2010 through 2014, just $125 million was earmarked for Ares V, meaning the big rocket's development was being pushed farther into the future in favor of getting Ares I and Orion off the ground. In 2009, a blue-ribbon panel—which we'll discuss in the next Horizon Goal installment—concluded Ares V wouldn't be ready until the late 2020s, and that lunar landing hardware wouldn't be ready "until well into the 2030s, if ever."

Orion unveiling

NASA / Bill Ingalls

Orion unveiling
NASA officials unveil a model of Orion after announcing Lockheed Martin had been chosen as the spacecraft’s prime contractor in 2006. Doug Cooke, who was the deputy associate administrator for the agency’s exploration program at the time, is second from left.

The blame game

Many NASA and industry officials say Constellation was actually underfunded, which caused it to fall behind.

Between 2005 and 2009, NASA and the White House asked for about $1 billion more for the program than it received, but Congress—which can adjust the agency's yearly budget—cut Constellation funding in 2007 due to larger budget battles. 

"I don't know who to blame, but all I know is that our budgets weren't there," said Doug Cooke, the former head of NASA's exploration division, during a phone interview. Cooke also said that on more than one occasion, NASA was forced to raid Constellation funds to cover other human spaceflight programs, including the last two space shuttle flights.

From 2005 through the end of the Bush administration, Constellation's costs increased an average of $834 million each year. But NASA's total budget only grew an average of $660 million annually, meaning either NASA was underfunded, Constellation was gobbling up a larger share of agency resources than originally envisioned, or both.

Jeff Bingham, an influential Senate advisor who helped draft three NASA oversight bills, said this created a recipe for intra-agency discontent. 

"What you're doing is forcing everyone to be the enemy of [Constellation]," he told me. "You're basically undermining the kind of unified scientific support that you need to be able to sustain a program of this scope."

Ares I-X assembly


Ares I-X assembly
Pieces of an Ares rocket come together inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, prior to an October 2009 test flight.

Technically speaking

From a technical standpoint, how was Constellation doing by the time President Obama took office?

Though the 2005 ESAS report was fairly specific in spelling out the plans for Ares I and V, both rockets underwent significant design changes.

Ares I was originally supposed to use a space shuttle main engine for its upper stage. By 2007, NASA switched to the J-2X, the yet-to-be-built Ares V upper stage engine. The move was apparently made after the agency concluded it would be too costly and challenging to re-engineer a shuttle engine to start in the vacuum of space (the shuttle's engines normally ignited on the launch pad and burned all the way to orbit).

The change might have later given NASA an advantage by having a common upper stage engine for both rockets, but in the short term, this meant the J-2X would have to be finished and tested before Ares I could fly. 

Though Ares V didn't make it very far off the drawing board, NASA also concluded the RS-68 engine, which powers the Delta IV rocket, was a better choice for the rocket's core stage than shuttle engines.

Both of these moves eschewed shuttle technology for other options, yet one of the main reasons given in the ESAS report for NASA building its own rockets instead of buying them from Boeing or Lockheed was the availability of existing shuttle technology, which was supposed to cut costs, accelerate schedules, and make the rockets safer and more reliable—not to mention preserve the existing workforce.

In 2009, the Government Accountability Office declared Orion and Ares I faced "significant technical and design challenges," citing internal NASA planning tools that said the agency was working to resolve 207 high-risk problems. The most publicized of these was the potential for excessive Ares I vibration to violently shake Orion and its crew during launch. 

By late 2009—after a test flight that we'll describe in Horizon Goal part three—NASA engineers had fixed the vibration problem, and were seemingly making progress on the other technical issues.

But was it too late? The Obama administration was already taking a hard look under Constellation's hood, and as a result, Apollo on steroids was in big trouble.

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See other posts from August 2016


Read more blog entries about: Horizon Goal


GaryChurch: 08/01/2016 09:06 CDT

Understanding NASA's byzantine flailing for some purpose to validate it's existence is similar to what happened to the U.S. military in World War II and Korea. A dedicated WW2 buff can cite a dozen examples of weapons programs that never worked as advertised and never accomplished what was promised. It is all forgotten now but the lesson remains clear to any who care to learn it- it is not a perfect world. NASA has ever failed to institutionalize expanding the human presence into space out of fear of failure. The result is the present dead end pursuits of LEO and Mars and a mishmash of libertarian ideology promising something for nothing. The vast treasure expended on questionable defense programs are the problem. Funding a Human Space Flight Beyond Low Earth Orbit (HSF-BLEO) will require a commitment similar to the Ohio submarine replacement program. Google that.

GaryChurch: 08/01/2016 09:27 CDT

The goal of Apollo was to land humans on the Moon. The next goal should have been to establish a self-sustaining off-world colony. The cost of doing this was considered prohibitive while the cost of not doing it was never considered and is still not appreciated. The cost of not taking the next step was going nowhere- and spending hundreds of billions of dollars going nowhere. Any long duration human presence Beyond Low Earth Orbit (BLEO) requires massive shielding. Radiation is square one. Water is the utilitarian solution. The only practical path to acquiring those initial hundreds of thousands of tons of water is to exploit the ice resources at the lunar poles. For thirty years the U.S. launched over one hundred Saturn V class vehicles to no purpose. Most of the lift was wasted on sending a 737 size glider into LEO so it could come right back down. With a new administration the space program will either remain dead or NASA will be pointed back at the Moon.

VinceRN: 08/01/2016 10:58 CDT

What we need is Apollo on steroids. What we've gotten so far is half of an attempt at Apollo on qualudes. Not NASA's fault, they have to make tough decisions about what tondo with limited funds and I just don't think that's going to change. I would like to see NASA getting people to Mars, but I just don't think it's going to happen. I sincerely hope I am wrong.

spacecase: 08/01/2016 03:15 CDT

10's of years and billions of dollars and the Senate Launch System is no closer to going anywhere. What a waste. I keep looking at the slipping dates and "marching army" costs keep going and going. First off they should redirect to a Lunar outpost mission instead of the asteroid. Let Space X do the Mars mission. Space X may not be able to meet the schedule but I would bet on Space X over NASA any day.

GaryChurch: 08/01/2016 03:59 CDT

The worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration, worse than both shuttle disasters, is without a doubt the ruinous ideology known as NewSpace. The flagship company and its Tony Stark/Howard Roark/John Galt demigod have done tremendous damage to public opinion and the worst is yet to come. The hobby rocket and the space station to nowhere are the albatross that billions have been wasted on- the SLS is the Obi-wan Kenobi rocket- the only hope. The space agency has been infiltrated by two-faced double agents and scyophants who countenance one page damning NASA as the horrible porkonaut army while on another page praising the billions poured into commercial cargo and crew. Mars is a gimmick, a P.R. hook, used by the NewSpace contingent and a clique within the space agency as a cash cow that can be milked endlessly for tax dollars while any results will conveniently always be ten years away.

spacecase: 08/01/2016 04:58 CDT

Musk gets things done. RTLS boosters, Tesla cars, Li battery factory acres in size. And he does it quickly. He is dead serious about Mars, The cost of his Falcon 9 heavy will be at least 10X less than SLS, if SLS ever gets finished. The first Falcon 9 Heavy is only a few weeks from launch. Our only hope for a manned Mars Mission lies with Musk. The best thing that ever happened was commercial space. Bezo's will be flying paying customers on suborbital flights soon and Orbital vacations in the next decade. Instead of tremendous damage to Spaceflight, Commercial Space has sparked tremendous progress and enthusiasm in Spaceflight. Just look at the folks who work at Space X. It's the future.

GaryChurch: 08/01/2016 05:45 CDT

The Musk cult has contaminated the internet for years with a legion of worshipers endlessly hyping NewSpace as "the future." The reality is the funky falcon faux heavy is no Moon rocket, let alone a vehicle that can take humans to Mars. In any case, Mars is a fantasy, a scam, and a cold dim rock not viable for colonization. No natural body in the solar system except Earth is fit for human habitation. The solution was worked out in the early 70's by Gerard K. O'Neill and nothing has changed: artificial spinning hollow moons fabricated from lunar material.

GaryChurch: 08/01/2016 05:52 CDT

IWith one hundred days until a new administration a united space exploration enthusiast subculture should by now have a agreed upon specific plan widely known to the public and the candidates. We have nothing and so can expect nothing we say to matter when the new boss takes office. Dumping the ISS and Mars horizon goal and pointing the space agency at the ice resources on the Moon with an augmented SLS program should be what the candidates are making speeches about. LEO is not really space and any long term human presence Beyond Low Earth Orbit (BLEO) will require massive water shielding. The ice at the lunar poles is where that shielding is to be found. The NewSpace billionaire hobbyists can be enablers by building robot lunar landers to harvest and ferry that ice off the poles or continue as stumbling blocks.

DrMorbius: 08/01/2016 07:12 CDT

As bad as this was, I think it was far worse because it appears that this mis-guided project, in typical NASA fashion, stole funds from science missions such as Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, the Terrestrial Planet Finder, and the Space Interferometry Mission. These were all nuked in favor of Constellation;what a disaster. So while the giant, pork-barrel, go-nowhere manned mission projects get billions thrown at them, planetary science is left the crumbs. A recent example is the foot dragging, some 10-15 years worth, on a Europa mission until Bolden was force, kicking and scream, to fund it. He is still whining about it.

Karen: 08/04/2016 08:35 CDT

Come on, Jason, surely you know better than to use the CPI when discussing NASA costs. NASA uses the NSSI (Nasa New Start Index), as their inflation rate is higher than the CPI. NASA's 1966 budget of $5,9B is $61B in 2016 dollars using the NNSI.

GaryChurch: 08/04/2016 08:56 CDT

The SLS cannot be characterized as a "giant, pork barrel, go-nowhere manned mission project" if compared to DOD projects. The legacy of going cheap on the shuttle makes the SLS 5 segment boosters problematic. Perhaps the worst wrong turn made by the space agency was selecting the SRB for the shuttle instead of going with the more initially expensive pressure-fed booster. Developing a cargo version of the Space Launch System for launching large robot missions would have been more likely with pressure fed boosters because, unlike the SRB, which had to be disassembled, railed to Utah, reloaded, railed back, and reassembled, a pressure-fed would have actually broke even. There is still no other alternative to developing such boosters in terms of reusability. Landing back inferior lift stages with clusters of low thrust engines is a dead end. There is no substitute for a Super Heavy LIft Vehicle with hydrogen upper stages.

GaryChurch: 08/04/2016 09:06 CDT

The cost of the Ohio submarine replacement program will be about 350 billion over 4 decades. It will probably cost much more than that as such programs are characterized by cost over-runs. It is interesting to speculate on the cost of using lunar-water shielded "space boomers" to replace the missiles, bombers, submarines, and associated systems on Earth. It would probably cost about the same. Such true spaceships could take guest scientists on multi-year missions of discovery to the outer planets.

Joe Brooks: 08/04/2016 07:56 CDT

Good article - I'm looking forward to subsequent parts. Your recount of this portion of NASA's space history jibes well with what I remember.

Jason Davis: 08/05/2016 06:01 CDT

Quite right, Karen. My main reason for using the CPI calculator is 1) it was simple, and 2) so long as I'm consistent, I felt the figures should be valid for comparison's sake. But it's possible my logic is faulty.

Karen: 08/06/2016 11:59 CDT

@Jason Davis: Fair enough. :) Except for when you're trying to compare a 1966 budget to a 2005 budget. The 1966 budget would be expected to go nearly three times as far, not twice as far. It's unfortunate, but while consumer goods have largely gone from "hand produced by domestic labour" to "mass produced using cheap overseas labour" (keeping the inflation rate of consumer goods, aka the CPI, down), NASA still works with highly trained domestic labour, manufacturing things in small volumes. So the NNSI is inherently higher. That said, one can hope that advancing technology can help offset this... :)

Torbjörn Larsson: 08/06/2016 08:08 CDT

Good article series! And I am glad the thread had some useful comments at the end, like Constellation it didn't go very far due to ideology. @gary: " Radiation is square one. Water is the utilitarian solution." If you can afford to strangle your economy, perhaps. It looks like SpaceX will try for massive, fuel limited spacecrafts that will minimize travel time and so radiation doses. You can have opinion on their goals, but the existence of possible technological solutions is fact. @DrMorbius: "A recent example is the foot dragging, some 10-15 years worth, on a Europa mission until Bolden was force, kicking and scream, to fund it." Of course he, and the scientists, were protesting, the current Decadal Survey had not included the recent ice moon results and their implications for astrobiology, and the mission does bit allow for a lander designed for what the orbiter will discover, But by some fast foot work by Jim Green, they have changed the law to be able to investigate all the three most prioritized targets (for astrobiology) - Enceladus, Titan and, yes, even Europa, likely in that order.

GaryChurch: 08/07/2016 05:31 CDT

If you can afford to strangle your economy, perhaps. "It looks like SpaceX will try for massive, fuel limited spacecrafts that will minimize travel time and so radiation doses. You can have opinion on their goals, but the existence of possible technological solutions is fact." It looks like the SpaceX fans will always contaminate any conversation with their advertising.

Karen: 08/07/2016 05:45 CDT

Gary, please be polite. This is the third time you've taken to name calling in this thread. You can disagree with people without calling them names.

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