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Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter illustration
Efforts within Code T like Project Prometheus and its Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission (pictured above) stand in sharp contrast to the other major Code T project, the Crew Exploration Vehicle. (credit: NASA)

Constellation and Prometheus: Uncomfortable bedfellows

The way the leadership at NASA explains it, there is a certain logic in putting the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CRV) and related elements, known as Project Constellation, and the Nuclear Systems Initiative, now called Project Prometheus, under the new Office of Exploration Systems (Code T). Both projects are new, ambitious, and hungry for both funds and management talent. They are both essential to the long-term goal of exploring the solar system, and they both represent the Administration’s highest priorities for the United States government’s civil space program.

If they are to succeed, they will not only need substantial resources but, more important, they will need a fairly benign political environment. If they are subjected to the political equivalent of what Clausewitz called “friction,” they will both probably fail.

The national vision for space exploration, laid out by George W. Bush on January 14, 2004, is probably NASA’s last chance to survive in anything like its present form. Its status as an independent agency is an anomaly that dates back to the Eisenhower Administration and, if it fails in its basic mission, it cannot expect to maintain even the modest public support it now enjoys.

The national vision for space exploration is probably NASA’s last chance to survive in anything like its present form.

Too many NASA projects have failed or been canceled over the last fifteen years for anyone to be confident of the success of the current ones. In particular, the agency seems to have admitted that the high cost of getting into orbit has defeated it and that it cannot develop any kind of launch vehicle with significantly improved performance. For the next decade or more, all of America’s major space exploration vehicles, manned or unmanned, will be launched either on Boeing’s Delta 4 or Lockheed’s Atlas 5 or, possibly, by a shuttle-derived system.

For project Prometheus, this should not present any great problem. Their flagship mission, the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter (JIMO), will require a single or, at most, two heavy-lift launches. Compared to the extensive long-term development requirements for the nuclear propulsion and power systems, launch costs will not determine the success or failure of the mission.

JIMO functions as a focus for the broader goals of the project. As Sean O’Keefe rarely fails to point out, getting around the solar system in any reasonable time frame requires a faster method of propulsion than chemical rockets can provide. The JIMO mission will not, by itself, be any faster than a chemically propelled mission would, but it will have enormously more electrical power to use when it does get there, around 2019 or 2020, if the current schedule holds up. This power will allow the probe to use a powerful synthetic aperture radar to examine Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and possibly other moons around the largest planet in our solar system. The Office of Exploration Systems is working closely with NASA’s space science enterprise to develop a set of instruments that will allow for the maximum use of the power that the nuclear power plant will make available.

Still, JIMO is an unmanned probe heading to a destination which will probably not be visited by humans in the near, medium, or far future. Maybe people will be able to visit Jupiter’s moons in the very far future, but no one should count on it. Code T’s other major project, Constellation, is, most emphatically, a people-oriented effort. Getting people to the moon and, eventually, to Mars, is a near- and medium-term objective. The systems required are neither exotic nor are they all that difficult to build.

Building the CEV is essentially a management and procurement problem rather than a technological one.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle is essentially an updated version of the Apollo Command Module with the propulsion and lander attached. The weak gravity of the moon means that a reusable lander should not be that difficult to build. The greater challenge is the need to build and operate the machines that will extract usable resources—so-called in situ resource utilization. Obtaining hydrogen and oxygen from the lunar soil, and doing so reliably and efficiently, is going to be much harder than building the vehicles that will carry people back and forth from the Earth to the moon.

Building the CEV is essentially a management and procurement problem rather than a technological one. Admiral Steidle has shown that he is perfectly capable of running a complex procurement project. He plans to use a spiral development model for the CEV. This should allow the system to go into production on time or, with any luck, even earlier than expected.

What is not evident is whether Code T or NASA has the skill or the capability to manage the development of technology that truly leaps ahead of the current state of the art. The failure of the X-33 project, which was not all that much of a revolutionary vehicle, should be a warning to everyone at NASA that, unless they show the ability to stick to their goals in spite of setbacks and criticism, they will fail yet again.