NASA's Constellation Has A Hiccup: First Flight Delayed To 2014

Washington, D.C. - Following the release of the annual report of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), NASA announced that it is realigning its Constellation program milestones. "Realigning" means that the program, which will replace the current Space Shuttle program and target a return to the moon by 2020, is being delayed by one year.

According to NASA, the budget, schedule and technical performance milestones for its Constellation Program will be "adjusted" to ensure the first crewed flight of the Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsule. The updated schedule expects the launch and crew vehicles to take off by September of 2014, well after the previous 2013 target, but ahead of the March 2015 deadline.

The Constellation program was thoroughly examined by the ASAP, which pointed out concerns about the time table and safety issues of the program. Citing unusual anxiety among NASA employees about the program, the panel said that NASA system planning, "particularly as it affects overall safety performance, is deficient in clear-cut, appropriate requirements. As a result, a course correction is called for before this trend continues."

Addressing the government, the panel noted that NASA requires "adequate funding" to meet its commitments to space exploration and safety of flight. Failure to address its leadership and financial problems "could undermine not only this country’s commitment to a presence in space, but also U.S. National defense and global standing," the ASAP concluded.

"With the Constellation Program and other initiatives, NASA has embarked on projects of long duration and great complexity. Safety and efficiency in such undertakings depend on continuity of leadership and appropriate funding," the report states. "Without that support, the advances that NASA has achieved in recent years could be jeopardized, and to later regain what was lost would impose great and unnecessary risk and expense."

"The ASAP urges not only NASA, but also the Federal authorities that oversee the Agency and the space policy experts that advise it, to strive more effectively for consensus on national priorities in space exploration. Among the many benefits of such a consensus will be a healthier Constellation Program, and consequently, a safer one."

A substantial problem for NASA will be the gap between the retirement of the current Shuttles and the availability of the new launchers and crew vehicles. At this time, NASA plans on retiring the shuttles by 2010, but the ASAP believes that NASA will face some tough choices on how to bridge a four-year gap until Constellation kicks in. The ASAP said that NASA will either have to rely on Russian spacecraft for its missions, extend the Shuttle program or accelerate the development of the Ares launch vehicle (and Orion crew vehicle.)

While no answer for a recommended solution was given, the ASAP said that postponing retirement of the Shuttle "would have costly effects. Given the age of the three remaining Orbiters, extending their service life would require elaborate reconditioning work." Orbiters will need to be reconditioned and tested against rigorous standards, resulting in cost that will draw from the Constellation budget. In addition even a fully reconditioned Shuttle would still be subject "to the risks inherent in its design".

In order to maintain the level of safety and reliability to which the Shuttle Program has aspired from the start, all of that reconditioning work would have to be tested against rigorous standards. The expense in all this effort could draw heavily against Constellation if additional funding is not forthcoming. Furthermore, even a fully reconditioned Shuttle would still be subject to the risks inherent in its design.

The Constellation Program is currently the umbrella name for the development of numerous spacecraft and systems, including the Ares I and Ares V rockets, the Orion crew exploration vehicle, and the Altair lunar lander. Its purpose is to take astronauts to the International Space Station after the retirement of the space shuttle and return humans to the moon by 2020.

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