by Rat Writer
Should the Constellation program be canceled? What are the costs and benefits?
| When a dream turns into reality, it is truly an amazing thing. All the time, all over the world, people are dreaming, and when they feel the necessity of pursuing a goal, they face support as well as criticism. The establishment of NASA is an example of an achievement based on the dreams of Americans to explore the universe. This motive has withered in the American people. The Constellation program is the third attempt by a president to put human space travel back into the picture, and it could be the last. This writer views human space travel from an emotional standpoint, imagining being an astronaut and walking on the moon. Science was needed to arrive in space in the first place, but the science resulted from the dreams of many people. The Constellation Program should not be canceled.
In 1961, according to a Facts on File historical timeline, John F. Kennedy entrusted the United States of America with the challenge of putting a man on the moon, and safely returning him to Earth within the decade (“Key Events”). A historical overview by Facts on File News Services describes the situation. The President’s request took place during the heart of the “Space Race” between the US and the Soviet Union. Russia had already managed to launch the satellite Sputnik and also had achieved launching the first man into space, but the US was nonetheless dedicated to completing the President’s challenge (“Returning”).
After the failure of Apollo 1 in 1967, continues Facts on File, in which three astronauts were killed by a fire during a pre-launch testing, there was some doubt about NASA’s capability, but they continued their effort through many more attempts, finally launching the US’s first successful manned mission to space, Apollo 7. In July 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldran landed on the surface of the moon. Later in the day of their arrival, they took their famous first steps on the moon. They planted the American Flag, collected a few moon rocks, and experimented in the low gravity. Obviously, this was “one giant leap for mankind” (“Returning”).
Facts on File recounts that the US soon launched five more successful moon missions, accompanied by the failed attempt of Apollo 13. Gradually, public interest in space travel faded, as well as funding from the government. The most recent occasion that man has set foot on the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972. There were three more moon missions planned, but NASA lacked the support to follow through with the launches of Apollo 18, 19, and 20. NASA decided instead to launch Skylab in 1973, which many people found to be a waste of money. It was observed by critics that the overall interest in space exploration had ended with the first moon landing because the race against the Soviets had been won.
It was during Richard Nixon’s presidency that another NASA program was put into effect: The Space Shuttle. This new phenomena of 1981 was considered to be just a partial success. Yes, Challenger and Columbia both tragically exploded, but the space shuttle also served in the creation of the International Space Station, a jointly-run international project. Since the first section of the ISS was deployed into earths orbit, the US has spent over 100 billion dollars on it. Critics today say it was a complete waste of time and money that could have been spent on performing much more important space research (“Returning”).
The origin and the details behind the Constellation are explained by Facts on File. After two failed attempts to revitalize the space program, and send men from America back to the moon, George W. Bush made a proclamation in 2004 stating that he would try again. He devised a plan in which NASA would be challenged to get men back to the moon by 2020. The plan was named Constellation, and it was put into effect in 2005. The goal was to send astronauts on week long missions to the moon, gradually increasing the length of their stay, until a moon base was completed. They would then possibly establish a permanent settlement. The moon base would then serve as a launch point to send astronauts to Mars.
When Constellation was first proclaimed, many space program enthusiasts were amused. There was a general agreement among them that the program would never be successful under NASA’s current budget (“Returning”).
The Obama administration is currently considering the termination of the Constellation program because there are many doubts about its probability to be successful with its current funding, as well as whether it will be worth the money it would require to survive. But there are many who support the program, who see great value in human spaceflight, and fear that it would fail to be revived in the near future if it were put at a standstill now.
Supporters of Constellation Program termination present their case. They argue that the construction of a moon base would distract NASA from Constellation’s ultimate goal, that there is not enough funding to complete the program without bankrupting the space program, and that robotic missions to the moon would serve NASA much more efficiently and safely than manned missions.
If the aim of the Constellation Program is to get men on the planet Mars by first getting men back on the moon, it might be possible that the moon will become its own destination as the program continues to progress. George W. Bush, in his plan, proposed that in order to achieve getting men on Mars, the program should first focus on establishing a base on the moon. Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the Planetary Society, stated in a CQ Researcher article by Thomas J. Billitteri that a base on the moon would not hold much purpose, especially considering the costly technology needed to support life on the moon, and that the whole time this lunar base is being created, no progress would be made as far as the goal of getting beyond the moon (Billitteri). Facts on File News Services quotes NASA expert Howard McCurdy: “The easy way to go to the Moon is the hard way to go to Mars.“ Yes, we’ve gone to the moon in the past and we‘re experienced in that process, but there are faster ways of achieving arrival at the ultimate goal, Mars. Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 7 suggests one alternative. He takes notice of Lagrangian Point 1, which is a point within the Earth-Sun system in which a spacecraft can hover, due to the cancellation of the Earth’s gravity and the Sun’s gravity. “L 1 would be a cheaper and easier site for a base of operations, since minimal fuel would be required to maintain position” (“Returning”). Continuation of the Constellation Program will most likely lead NASA into a time trap, due to the complications posed by having to first establish a lunar base.
At the current rate that NASA is receiving funding, many scientists infer that Bush’s extremely expensive plan to send the US back to the moon was never economically realistic in the first place, and continued support of Constellation would bankrupt the space program. Facts on File News Services reports that “a 10-member panel appointed by the administration of President Barack Obama to review plans for the U.S. human space flight program’s future delivered its report October 22.” The panel concluded that the existing Constellation program could simply not by carried out under NASA’s current budget (“Space”). It can be predicted that the cancellation of the Constellation Program would go over fine with the general public, based on the uncaring reactions to previous failed attempts to revitalize human space travel. According to Facts on File News Services, funding for the space program was twice as much during the Apollo missions than it is now (“Returning”). Billitteri states that in a July poll by Rasmussen, only 29 percent of the respondents were in favor of a manned Mars mission. Funding and public interest have both drastically decreased. The results of attempting the Constellation program with the current money flow to the program as well as the state of the economy could easily be suicidal to the entire space program, putting it in a much more difficult state to resurrect than now.
If the Constellation program is terminated, the funding for it could be used for time-efficient as well as less-costly robotic missions to the moon that would be held at a much higher scientific value. Friedman continues in the CQ Researcher article that “searching for life is what compels us to explore space.” He goes on to say that when billions of dollars are in hand, and the possibility of landing on Mars is in the far future, any goal less than discovering life in space (such as landing on the moon, which we have done before) may not be worth the money and risk, unless the goal is achieved by means of robotic probes (Billitteri). When humans work for hours, they tend to desire breaks. Do robots? Of course not. Dan Vergano described in his article that many unmanned explorers have been successful, such as the Hubble telescope and the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and they “are still sending back signals years after they were expected to expire” (Vergano). According to Facts on File News Services, the mission of Spirit and Opportunity costs less than sending a shuttle to the International Space Station, which is in earths orbit as opposed to the surface of Mars (“Returning”), which, according to World Book Encyclopedia, can be anywhere between 34,600,000 and 249,000,000 miles from Earth (Squyres). In an AIR&SPACE Magazine interview, Roger Launius of NASA recounts how robots have become immensely more sophisticated since the 1950’s, but humans have not. He continues by predicting that humans will have to accept this idea in the near future (“Humans”). As of the present moment, the price of human space travel has become increasingly expensive, and NASA’s money would be better spent on robotic missions.
Opponents of Constellation Program termination submit their major points. They argue that a program that includes a moon base is necessary in order to maintain a smooth and prepared mission to Mars in the future, that Constellation can be properly funded if desired by Barack Obama, and that the US needs to complete Constellation if it wants to hold its prominent position in space exploration, and even possibly pass up Russia.
Although the Constellation Program’s plan to return to the moon before heading on to the planet Mars may cause a major stall in the program, many feel that the alternative, sending astronauts straight from Earth to Mars, would pose the possibility of much worse risks. Scott Pace of George Washington University elaborates on these potential problems in a CQ Researcher Article by Billitteri: “We don’t know how to land humans on the Martian surface, build systems two years away from Earth, deal with the biological hazards and so on.” He declares that it would be irresponsible to go directly to Mars (Billitteri). John Logsdon, director of the space institute at George Washington University, agrees with Pace in a Turkish Press Article, stating that the moon is our “offshore island” and it makes sense to go there first before going further (“Moon base”). Wouldn’t the costs of a plausible major accident out-weigh the costs of delaying the arrival on Mars? NASA mentions in their plans for the moon base in a Moon Daily article that they intend to learn to use the natural resources on the moon as a means of “living off the land” (“US Plans). The resources on the moon would serve a variety of purposes in assisting the survival of a moon base (such as Helium-3, which is abundant on the lunar surface, and can be used through nuclear fusion to develop a great source of energy). Resources would be much more cheaply obtained from mining the moon’s surface than transporting resources from Earth (“Returning”). The gradual approach suggested by the Constellation Program (a moon base) would definitely be worth the time extension it requires, because of it’s contributions to experience, preparedness, and resources.
If the Constellation Program is terminated because of its financial shortage, the possibility of getting the human space travel missions back on course will become even less probable. Yes, it is true that at the rate the funding for the Constellation Program is at, the space program could die completely from attempting a financially unrealistic operation. But President Obama is, in fact, in control of the funding, as well as aware of its current limitations. His decision regarding the Constellation Program will most definitely include increased funding for NASA, if he so chooses not to shut down the program. Billitteri mentions a 2009 Gallup Poll in which 76 percent of the respondents saw importance in having a US manned space program. He also brings up the deadline President Bush set, to free up money for the Constellation Program by 2016, removing all funding from the International Space Station. There is the possibility, however, that the ISS will continue to be funded past its deadline (Billitteri). Sean O’Keefe, in a summary by Facts on File, claims that the Constellation Program would be properly funded if every taxpayer pays an average of 15 cents a day (“Returning”). There is money out there, and Obama has the choice on his plate, so this point of the issue comes down to simply whether Obama is trusted to properly fund the Constellation Program with everything it needs, that is if public interest is high enough and he decides not to cancel the program (which would, by the way, cause between 4 and 6 thousand job losses at NASA centers nationwide (Kappes)).
Supporters of the Constellation Program all over the US argue that the Constellation Program is the next step for America in maintaining it’s position of power in space. The near future holds many space-related goals of other countries, such as Japan, India, and China, and if the US continues to delay action by canceling Constellation, these countries could pull ahead of the US, which is already behind Russia. An Indian lunar probe, according to Billitteri’s CQ Researcher, detected signs of water on the moon, using a NASA instrument (“Billitteri”). Facts on File describes that Japan has already placed an unmanned rover on the moon, and China plans to “build a space station and make a moon landing within the next several years” (“Returning). China’s fast-developing military space program is by far the most threatening. If the US continues with Constellation and arrives on Mars, it will be way ahead of China, and could possibly pull in front of Russia, regaining the position at the top. In an interview with a veteran Russian cosmonaut, according to an article by Vladimir Isachenkov, he said that Russia no longer has a viable program for building a new space ship, and it could possibly lose its place as the leader in space travel (Isachenkov). The US was the first on the moon, and it is not living up to that title by taking so long to return. The Constellation Program is the US’s chance to get humans past the moon before anyone else does, and further delaying of human space exploration could send it far behind the rest of the world.
“…rockets really run on dreams,” says James Cameron, film director, in a Washington Post article. He points out that the American people still pay to support the US space program because “they still believe, to some extent or another, in that shining dream of exploring other worlds” (Cameron). Though put in the words of a celebrity, this is true, and the Constellation Program supports this cause. After careful examination of the points and evidence on both sides, it can be inferred that both options are realistic and honest, but continuation of the Constellation Program is still probable, and it best serves the values of America when it comes to space exploration.
Preparation is very important, especially when it comes to situations in which lives can be lost. If the construction of a moon base creates a delay in the eventual arrival on Mars, it will have to be that way. The astronauts of this generation have never visited a planet before, so it would be best to start them somewhere in close proximity to Earth that at least NASA is familiar with: the moon, which is part of Constellation’s plan. Plunging right into an excursion to Mars, with a crew of inexperienced astronauts, as well as the unpredictable situations that could arise, could spell failure. Benefits of heading straight to Mars only include a speedier arrival and overtopping Russia’s space program, and these do not seem to be worth risking safety and a higher probability of success. A return to the moon is necessary to reassure and correctly estimate NASA’s abilities, before heading any farther out.
President Obama would not simply allow the Constellation Program to continue if he wasn’t planning on giving NASA the money it needed. The question is on his desk, meaning he will cancel it completely, or fund it all the way. Of course, on its current budget, the program would not be a success. This has been made clear. But it really doesn’t matter. This would only matter if Obama wasn’t deciding on the issue in the first place, and NASA just kept on doing what President Bush told them to do. In response to the opinion of the United States in the Rasmussen poll mentioned earlier by Billitteri (only 29% of respondents in were in favor of a manned Mars mission), the Constellation Program could be carried out until a moon base is established, and halted at that point, if interest in the mission to Mars is still at a low. Once the moon is reached however, there may be a new spark of interest in the American people after they see the first people on the moon since 1973 and how NASA’s technology has greatly advanced since. It’s impossible to determine exactly how Americans will feel about Mars in the future, but if focus remains on the moon, so be it. It is part of the Constellation Program’s plan, and NASA will follow through with that plan if allowed.
The fact that sending robots into space is a lot cheaper than sending humans into space cannot be denied. Remember why NASA was started, though. It was because of the goal to get an American on the moon, not to collect moon rocks. Isn’t there some sort of beauty in sending a living organism in space, versus launching a chunk of metal into the sky that sends us pictures? Billitteri remarks in a CQ Researcher article: “But others say that while robots are useful, they can’t replace astronauts.” He continues by quoting the words of Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, who believes that the interest in human space exploration will not be satisfied by having “really good rovers up there” (Billitteri). Not everyone views space exploration from a scientific point of view, many view it in the same state of mind as John F. Kennedy. Those that do value scientific research above all else can have their desires met by inexpensive robotic probes, but America cannot. It is more than that. The Gallup poll mentioned earlier clarifies that most U.S. residents value a manned spaceflight program (76%). Constellation is qualified by this statistic to be a value of the US.
The benefit of Constellation regarding international competition in space stands alone as an undeniable factor. A direct mission to Mars may put the US in the lead, but as described before, the risks would not be worth taking just to get to that position. Constellation is the fastest possible way to Mars that does not involve serious risk.
George W. Bush presented a plan, and the US decided to follow it, because it values space exploration. If everyone agreed to it, why consider giving up after only 5 years? The goal is still 10 years away. Constellation is the next step for the US in going beyond the moon. If Americans want to do it, why should simple things like money get in the way? It’s just like Kennedy’s challenge, but the US is stalling this time around. It can be done; we’ve done it before.
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