What was the Constellation Program?

The Constellation Program was a NASA space exploration program, the main objective of which was to send astronauts to the Moon around 2020 for long-term missions. On January 14, 2004, President Bush, Jr., presented to Congress as well as to NASA his “Vision for Space Exploration” in which he expressed his desire to see human’s return to the Moon before 2020, and to then prepare a mission to Mars and beyond. As soon as it was presented to the media, the Constellation Program received a mixed reception. While some were enthusiastic about the idea of ​​a new era of exploration beyond the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), others found little interest in an Apollo-bis deemed to be little innovative.

The objectives assigned to this project were very ambitious: the replacement of the fleet of NASA space shuttles (then almost three decades old) by a series of capsules and specialised modules, and then, in 2020, the construction of outposts on the Moon for expeditions to Mars. In its detailed report, NASA described the five main objectives of the Constellation Program: ending the ISS station, developing a sustainable program of human and robotic missions, extending the presence of humans through the Solar system, developing technological innovations, and promoting international and commercial participation.

To meet these objectives, NASA largely used
the scenario of the Apollo program: a spacecraft (Orion) was responsible for
transporting the crew to and from lunar orbit, while a second vehicle, Altair,
was intended for landing on the Moon and returning to Orion. However, where the
Apollo program used the Saturn V launcher to send the two vehicles to the Moon,
the Constellation Program provided for two launchers, one of which (Ares I) was
intended for launching the manned capsule, while the other (Ares V) placed the
lunar module and the last stage of the launcher responsible for accelerating
the assembly, towards the Moon in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Indeed: the mass of
spacecraft to be sent to the Moon has increased considerably to meet the more
ambitious objectives of the Constellation Program. Sending by a single launcher
would require developing a much more powerful launcher than the Saturn V
launcher. The technique of rendezvous in orbit is perfectly mastered by NASA,
which makes it possible to envisage an assembly in orbit of vehicles bound for
the Moon, scenario which had been ruled out because considered too risky at the
time of the Apollo program. Orion must would have been used for non-lunar
missions, in particular the service to the International Space Station (ISS),
which requires having an intermediate class launcher.

As NASA pointed out, the exploration of the Solar system and beyond is guided by important scientific and social questions. In addition to human, scientific and technological prowess, this ambitious program aimed above all to seek our cosmic origins, to discover if life exists elsewhere than on Earth and how could we live on other worlds, in particular on the Moon and on Mars. The program also had to ensure that the choices made were sustainable, affordable and flexible. The Constellation Program, however, suffered from technical difficulties, but also from insufficient resources. To reach the objectives set as soon as possible, in 2004, Congress had accepted a six percent increase in NASA’s budget for the 2005 fiscal year, bringing it to sixteen and a half billion American dollars, more than half of which was devoted to exploration missions and space transportation, the rest being devoted to research and development. This budget was accepted on condition that NASA completed the projects in progress, namely the resumption of space shuttle flights and the completion of the International Space Station (ISS) station.

In May 2009, the Constellation Program was
approved by President Barack Obama, but he expressed some reservations about
the deadline and requested an independent review of the program from the Augustine Commission, made up of a panel
of ten experts. President Obama notably proposed alternatives “Ensuring that the national space flight
program remains safe, innovative and affordable in the years following the
withdrawal of the shuttle service
”. He proposed to NASA an envelope of almost
nineteen billion American dollars, an extension of five percent compared to the
previous year. Meanwhile, in its September 2009 report, the auditors of the
GAO, the equivalent of the Court of Auditors, pointed out that the costs of the
Constellation Program had increased, and considered that the deadline set for
2020 would not be respected since even NASA could not estimate the final cost
of the project without conceptual and technical analysis, even less estimate
the launch date of the first manned mission.

In total, since the launch of the Constellation Program, NASA had already swallowed up fifty billion American dollars in the Ares rocket and the Orion spacecraft, out of the ninety-seven billion American dollars allocated. This shift in spending did not bode well. This opinion of the President’s financial experts simply meant that the financing of the project was stopped. Of course, President Obama was not obliged to follow it, but in this case, he was responsible for it. Six months after his request for an investigation, in November 2009, President Obama became aware of the one hundred and fifty-six pages Augustine report. The Commission concluded in particular that the Ares rocket system would not be operational for manned missions before 2017, while the return to the Moon was not possible until around 2025, taking into account the most favorable circumstances.

Faced with the possibility of political failure and setback, to respect his commitments to his voters, on February 1, 2010, President Obama announced the cancellation of the Constellation Program, without abandoning all projects. Indeed, if Barack Obama made the right decision at the right time, he could not abandon everything knowing that the cancellation of contacts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alliant Techsystems and other companies would cost NASA an additional two and a half billion American dollars. The end of the Constellation Program, however, did not spell the end of Mars’ dreams.

The “Artemis” program, successor to “Constellation” is a manned space program of NASA, the American space agency, whose objective is to bring a crew to lunar soil by 2024. At the instigation of the President Donald Trump, the date of human’s return to the Moon, which NASA had set for 2028 without clearly defined programming, was brought forward by four years in April 2019 with objectives which were specified giving birth to the Artemis program. This must lead to a sustainable exploration of our natural satellite, that is to say the organisation of regular missions, the outcome of which would be the installation of a permanent post on the Moon. The program should also make it possible to test and develop the equipment and procedures that will be implemented during future crewed missions on the surface of the planet Mars. The missions of the Artemis program require the development of several spacecraft: the Space Launch System (SLS), heavy launcher, and the Orion spacecraft, the realisation of which has already started for several years but is marked by regular budgetary and calendar slippages. In addition to its very tight deadline, the project encounters a budgetary problem similar to that which had been fatal in 2009 to the Constellation Program which pursued the same objectives. Will Artemis succeed where Constellation has failed? The future will tell us.

This article was written by Komi NUGA (Paris-Saclay).

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