As the prospect of returning humans to the Moon becomes a more frequent topic of discussion, it would be valuable to describe the circumstances that led to the demise of NASA’s last attempt: the Constellation Lunar Program that ran from 2004 to 2010. The Constellation Program poses a cautionary tale about what can happen because of lukewarm political and financial support for such an undertaking.
I worked on the Constellation Program Altair Lunar Lander at Northrop Grumman from 2006–2010 when President Obama cancelled Constellation— except for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV later re-acronymed as the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle — MPCV). So, I enjoyed a sort of worm’s eye view of the whole slowly disintegrating debacle, until I was laid off with the rest of the Human Spaceflight Engineering Team in El Segundo.
The fate of almost every program embodied in a bill in Congress turns on two factors: Politics and Money. The same was true for the Constellation program, but not in the usual manner. Money was the biggest consideration in the cancellation, but NOT really because it was ”too expensive.” It had more to do with the politics around that money, or more precisely, the LACK of said politics about the cost.
When President George W. Bush first announced the Constellation Program in 2004, he had no intention of ever funding it adequately with new money from Congress. The Bush administration never asked Congress for more money for Constellation, and in fact that one announcement was the ONLY TIME that W. spoke about it in public. His assumption appears to have been that it was NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s job to find ways to cannibalize all the rest of NASA to fund Constellation. The second biggest budget line after the human spaceflight budget (Shuttle and ISS) is Science Mission Directorate (SMD) but Congress blocked O’Keefe from transferring money between those accounts. And he could not ”borrow” from Shuttle or ISS to pay Constellation, because that would supposedly delay the planned end of the Shuttle program and the completion of ISS assembly.
So O’Keefe resigned and W. appointed Mike Griffin as NASA Administrator. Griffin’s solution to at least start funding Constellation was to cannibalize the then $800 million Technology Development budget. W. still did not ask Congress for any more money for Constellation and like O’Keefe had done, Griffin parroted the White House party line that NASA would need no new money for Constellation; once the Shuttle stopped flying and ISS assembly was complete in about 2011, NASA would experience “new funding wedges” from the closure of those programs.
Well, guess what? The new $ “wedges” turned out to be more like bureaucratic wedgies. NASA began to discover that ISS Program would be much more expensive to operate than (NASA) predicted, especially with NASA buying rides for its astronauts on Russian Soyuz vehicles. Also, Griffin’s cancellation of nearly all-new Space Technology programs caused a devastating effect, not only on the people who did that work but also on the agency’s ability to find better and ideally less expensive ways of accomplishing a myriad of design, engineering, manufacturing, and operations objectives.
This loss of space technology development capability under Griffin pushed NASA into the “Legacy Hardware” trap. The Human Exploration and Development of Space Directorate (HEOMD) and its primary centers drive the ideology that the only way NASA could progress is to recycle “Legacy” (old) technology. That led to many cost increases because it meant the agency would not even try to do anything better or to control costs.
The most prominent artifact that carried over from that time is the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that replaced the non-starter Ares V. The key Legacy feature of the SLS is that NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) took perhaps their greatest innovation (from when they believed in innovation) the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME)—the world’s first and still most successful reusable rocket engine and turned it into an astonishingly expensive expendable rocket. MSFC planned no effort to recover its first stage with five SSMEs. This lack of planning occurred at a time when both SpaceX and Blue Origin were planning to not only recover their Dragon and New Shepard first stages, but to land them vertically in a controlled descent.
How expensive will the SLS be? About five years ago, the internal number that NASA began using was $2 Billion per launch. Now, some managers are using the cost estimate of $3 Billion per launch. If SLS ever flies beyond its test phase, NASA and the US Taxpayer will reap the true reward of the Legacy hardware ideology. What is more likely to happen is that NASA’s exploration programs simply will find themselves unable to afford to buy an SLS launch more than once a year at that price and under full cost recovery accounting rules. At the NASA Deep Space Gateway (DSG) Workshop in Denver in late February 2018, I asked Jason Crusan, the Exploration Program Manager, why NASA was planning only one flight per year to the DSG. He replied that was all the SLS launches the DSG program could afford.
Instead of succumbing completely to the Legacy ideology for the Altair — in a somewhat desperate attempt to at least keep down the mass of the vehicles—Johnson Space Center (JSC) adopted the “minimum design” methodology to try to eliminate padding from “you must haves” and “shoulds” that were not truly essential to the system design. That minimum design methodology was reflected in the 2007 internal JSC LDAC (sorry, forgot what that acronym stood for) studies and the 2008 Lunar Lander Development Studies by five contractors. NASA would not allow any of these studies to be published.
So, when Barak Obama entered the White House, it is true that human spaceflight was very low on his list of priories. Constellation never appeared on an agenda before him until the second year of his first term in office. Indeed, Obama never warmed up to human spaceflight; he wanted NASA to “inspire the youth” but did not go so far as to want to “inspire them to have jobs” in Aerospace judging from the lack of any new major space program starts under his administration.
Anyway, I heard from somebody who was “in the room” when NASA presented the true costs of Constellation, that everyone was astounded that it would require a 40% increase to NASA’s budget. That cost had never been presented to Congress or reported in the press. The Bush administration succeeded in doing an excellent job of keeping the +$10 billion figure sub rosa and out of the mainstream media. Supposedly, Obama’s reaction was something like “If Bush wouldn’t pay for his own program, why should I?”
Fortunately, the Obama administration did take the leadership role in promoting the Commercial Cargo and Crew program. This program was relatively low cost compared to Constellation or the SLS. The Commercial Cargo and Crew Program (nobody seems to use the acronym CCCP, the old Russian acronym for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) saw subsidies in the $100s Millions and low $ Billions go to several “NewSpace” companies to develop private vehicles. These companies include Boeing, Orbital ATL, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. The CCCP brought NASA substantial cost savings in sending cargo to resupply the ISS 
So, it may turn out that President Obama’s reluctance to commit to a NASA mega-program and instead choosing to focus on developing a much more cost-effective solution through a “public-private partnership” will prove the wisdom of his decision to terminate Constellation. That said, we still will need a lander to deliver humans to the lunar surface, and none of the requirements that Altair addressed will actually go away. Also, it remains to be seen if the present administration will ask Congress for more money to fund its Return to the Moon program.
 Erick Berger (2017, Nov. 8). In-depth study: Commercial cargo program a bargain for NASA, Ars Technica. Retrieved 05 AUG 2018.