Killing Constellation

The summer I turned seven years old, my family made the classic American vacation road trip down Route 66 to California.  Our end goal was Disneyland in Anaheim, but we made every tourist stop on the way.  The only enduring memento that I have from that trip – aside from pictures in an album somewhere—is a glass paperweight from the Painted Desert National Park in Arizona.  Some clever artisan took different colored sand and made a picture in the tightly capped glass with layers of sand in various hues.

At NASA, budget charts frequently project and program costs into the future with the various elements making up the total in a graphical form with time on the x-axis.  Since the various cost elements are always shown in different colors, the pattern is not much different from that vacation paperweight.  At NASA, such budget projections are frequently referred to as “sand charts”.  Maybe they are at other agencies as well.

After the Columbia loss, there was a furious space policy debate in Washington.  The “Shawcross Option” was to never fly the shuttle again, deorbit the incomplete ISS, and turn NASA into a pure R&D organization with half its existing budget.  That option was nearly chosen.  But the nation’s senior leadership determined that there were too many international commitments which would be undermined by unilaterally abandoning the ISS and the shuttle was required to complete the ISS construction.  Going further, a national policy of space exploration beyond low earth orbit was defined.  Policies without funding are ineffective, so NASA was tasked to quickly propose a multiyear budget to fund shuttle, ISS, and the nascent exploration initiative.  The Chief Financial Officer of the agency, Steve Isakowitz, put together the estimates in record time using materials he had on hand.  Translated into a chart, this became the famous Vision Sand Chart.

Our first reaction on seeing the Vision Sand Chart was that we were appalled.  There was no way we could do our job with that little amount of money, and to develop a new deep space system for that pittance was beyond belief.  But we were good soldiers and went to work anyway.

An early lesson for all of those involved in government budgeteering is to read the fine print, especially the assumptions.   One of the assumptions was that the shuttle would return to flight under the existing budget in late 2004, another was that the shuttle would complete assembly of the ISS in 2009 and be retired immediately freeing up money for the exploration initiative.

Meanwhile back at the rocket ranch, things were not going so well for those of us trying to get the shuttle flying again.  There was a lot of work to be done, real engineering work and hardware production.  We had to build a new inspection boom and sensors to look underneath the shuttle; we had to develop tile repair materials and the EVA tools to dispense them properly.  We had to make significant changes to the External Tank to reduce the possibility of foam loss.  And engineers kept coming up with other deficiencies that the cash strapped shuttle program had ignored for years; issues which also had to be fixed.  So we made a list of all the “must do” work ahead of us, always under intense pressure to get the shuttle flying as soon as possible, and then estimated the costs.  We came up with a bill that was $781 million more than the shuttle budget had in it for the same fiscal year Steve Isakowitz had estimated NASA would spend no additional money for the shuttle.

We presented the case to the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe.  It was not a pleasant meeting.  It was the politest tongue lashing I have ever gotten.  But we stuck to our guns; we needed more money, a request for supplemental funding from Congress must be made.

Shortly thereafter the decision was made at some high level to take the money out of the existing NASA budget; there would be no new request to Congress.  So aeronautics and science were hit hard.  And the nascent exploration program was strangled for money.  So much for the ‘sand chart’.  That was perhaps the first strike against Constellation, before it was really born.

Later on we found that we could not return the shuttle to flight in late 2004.  Our first attempt did not come until late July 2005; and then even that was not successful.  Returning the shuttle to reasonably safe and regular flight did not happen until July 2006.  Completion of the ISS was stretching past 2009 into 2010 – and now into 2011.  The shuttle was taking more and more of the ‘sand’ leaving less and less for the exploration initiatives in the critical design and development years.

There are probably any number of factors which have wounded the Constellation program, perhaps mortally.  But taking longer to return the shuttle to flight, costing more to return the shuttle to flight, and delaying the completion of the ISS and the retirement of the shuttle; those were major causes too.  Coupled with the top-level decisions not to ask the Congress for more money, the squeeze was well-nigh intolerable.  From my standpoint the consequences were unintentional.  But unintentional or more precisely with the best of intentions, the result was severe.

So yes, I had a role in the killing of Constellation; a long time before February 1, 2010.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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60 Responses to Killing Constellation

  1. Were any alternatives for completing the ISS without the shuttle considered? Or was it simply taken as given that the ISS could not be “completed” without the shuttle?

    • waynehale says:

      With the ISS elements virtually complete, changing to any other launcher would have required significant redesign with high costs and delays. Besides, its not just enough to launch the elements into orbit, they must rendezvous with the ISS and be installed — easy for the shuttle and its crew, nothing else does that today.

  2. Brandon says:

    Can you elaborate any further on the decision not to ask Congress for more money for Constellation? The story as I’ve heard it is, the President never proposed (and Congress never appropriated) the original amounts from ESAS. The budget was flat and it was expected to increase, and that difference made the schedules constantly change.

    Why was the decision made not to “fight” that?

  3. Jim Hillhouse says:


    I’m sure I speak for many when I write that we look forward to reading that post!

    Thanks or opening your own blog and continuing the great dialogue you started at NASA.

    Hope things are going well.

    • Wayne,
      I’m sure I speak for many when I write that we look forward to reading that post!

      Seconded! I added a link to your blog on Selenian Boondocks. BTW, I hear you’re now working out in the Denver Metro area, is that correct?


      • waynehale says:

        I’m working for a company whose headquarters are in Boulder, CO, but mostly I am working out of my home in Texas. That is really nice

      • jerr smith says:

        I’m thankful for your blog return as well. Your perspectives and opinions are a breath of fresh air in the polarized world we live in

  4. Chris says:

    Wayne, it s certainly illuminating to learn about the budget impacts the shuttle problems had, but I recall that the Constellation program, in particular Ares I, struggled with technical problems virtually from day 1, and they resulted in schedule slips, too. In an earlier era we might not have learned much about the issues, but in the Internet-based world we have today these problems were aired almost daily, certainly before the Augustine Committee got involved.
    Do you think “the Internet” played a significant role in the demise of Ares I, and hence in the decision to stop the Constellation program?

    • waynehale says:

      I’m not sure it is so much the internet as the total inability of the social media world to have give and take conversations rather than flame wars. Compromise is the genius of the democratic system and we seem to have lost that. There were plenty of debates about how to structure the space program in the 1960s and they were furious at times but rational decisions were made and almost everyone agreed that the selected way forward – if not their first choice – was at least acceptable. Today nobody seems to be able to accept anything less than total agreement with their position. The internet has contributed to that but it is an attitude hardening of positions that is the biggest problem.

  5. Ronald Smith says:

    I believe that at this time the program was calling for a modified version of the Orbital Space Plane program that used EELV. Now today, with the exception of utilizing a dual commercial contract for the spacecraft versus the OSP single source government owned craft one could say that history is repeating itself. How much closer would we be if we had stuck to the OSP philosophy and pursued a SD-HLV on the lines of the NLS? Seems rather close to the Ares path to an outside observer.

    • waynehale says:

      And if Lee had won at Gettysburg would we have both a space program and universal health care? Speculation on what might have been is rather pointless.

      • Ronald Smith says:

        Perhaps not, but history is the best predictor of the future. After Saturn the US threw away all the infrastructure and skill set accumulated and started over. We came so close to doing so with the originally proposed FY2011. I am sorry did not mean to make a pejorative statement, simply noting how things are easier to overturn than to stick with a program in our current political environment.

  6. Peter Levy says:

    Wayne great to see you back in the blog world. Your insites to the space program are always great reading. I would be curious to get your views of what our space program should look like in subsequent posts.

  7. ferrisvalyn says:

    Question Wayne – (and I grant this is a bit of a what-if, but I am really curious)

    You said

    There was no way we could do our job with that little amount of money, and to develop a new deep space system for that pittance was beyond belief.

    Lets assume for the moment that you had the ear of the president, but he has made it very clear to you that there is no extra money – would you have proposed doing something differently? Pursued the Shawcross option? Ditch the BEO aspect?

    • waynehale says:

      I disagree with the scenario. There is more money, it is a matter of priorities. Americans spend more money on pet food than on space exploration (etc., etc., etc).

      • ferrisvalyn says:

        I grant the issue is one of priorities, and there is more money. But if you prefer, assume the president has said you aren’t going to get more money. That his priority is one that only gives NASA that amount of money.

        What then?

      • Gary Miles says:

        I could not agree with you more Wayne. I often hear and read from some critics that the Apollo program was cancelled because we could not “afford” the Saturn V. I roll my eyes every time. The US can afford to sink 27 billion dollars into a clunker called the V-22 Osprey that took nearly 26 years to develop and operate with another 28 billion needed to complete production. Its all a matter of political priorities.

      • Den says:

        Sorry Wayne. “If we only had more money” argument does not hold water. SpaceX and notorious Ares I tower costs come to mind. Billions and years wasted by CxP and not one CxP proponent even feels guilty about it.
        NASA _has_ lots of money, it is just unable to use them efficiently.

      • waynehale says:

        While I certainly agree that some efficiencies in the Constellation management could have improved their situation, I find this discussion tiresome. There is a huge desire that space flight be much less expensive than it is. I have that desire as well. But wishing it were true does not make it so. We’ll see how much more efficient the “private sector” really is when the dust settles. I expect some improvement but not miracles.

  8. Tom says:

    One thing that has always stuck me as odd about Project Constellation is the lack of international involvement, especially in light of the ISS being widely heralded as a triumph of international cooperation and the way major projects in space will be undertaken in the future. I’ll also make note of the recent decision by NASA and ESA to cooperate far more closely on future unmanned missions to Mars than has been the case in the past.

    I understand that the international partners on the ISS have made significant investments into the ISS, and would be naturally disinclined to join a new program that could cause the ISS to be taken out of service sooner than might otherwise be the case, but it still strikes me as a bizarre for Constellation to be an independent undertaking.

    • waynehale says:

      Me too. Most of us pushed for more international involvement but that was not agreed to.

      • Ronald Smith says:

        “Me too. Most of us pushed for more international involvement but that was not agreed to.”

        One idea discussed over in forum is to get ESA to develop a lunar lander and/or a deep space exploration hab, while the US would develop the HLV and Orion. Even in the HEFT paper for a trip to a NEO, it seems that every component will be developed by NASA rather than soliciting parts to other nations. It seems that international cooperation is a hard topic, is that statement accurate or fair in terms of the exploration projects?

        (Here is the link to the presentation on L2, if you cant access it let me or Mr Bergin know)

        And thank you for your insights

    • Apollo didn’t need no stinkin’ international partners and neither did Griffin. 😛

      • Ronald Smith says:

        Apollo was done with a much larger budget without legacy infrastructure. As for Dr. Griffin, I will not talk ill of an individual, however I will remind you that Ares would have required a substantial increase in budget to achieve its goal as was stated by the previous President in his VSE speech, but the money never came. Hopefully looking at the Senate and House Bills we will still get a SD-HLV and not throw away all of the hard won infrastructure and entire workforce with their skill set and have to start over again.

  9. Keith Cowing says:

    FWIW, I was present when the term “sand chart” was coined. It was done at an embargoed media briefing and was first uttered by Brian Berger from Space News. Even then we were all trying to figure out how the ramping numbers (up and down) on the chart would tolerate a change in conditions i.e. RTF slips, ISS “completion”, etc. I also learned that if the last flight eventually ended up in CY 2011, that everyone would still declare victory. It was the signals sent from WH that no more money was to be had – and “just be happy with what you get” – that signaled the evaporation of the Vision for Space Exploration, as Wayne notes, before it was even born. One of the enemies in all of this – indeed a true enemy of human spaceflight – is Paul Shawcross. His actions at OMB have been a disservice to the people of the United States.

    • David Loyd says:

      That’s an illuminating detail, Mr. Cowing! Thanks for the perspective.


      Thank you for posting this story. I was not aware of the CxP birth and underfunding saga. I think it will still be a very long time before we can count on building a space infrastructure along a strict schedule.

  10. Mark R. Whittington says:

    Thank you for a very adult and very incisive post mortem. I can only hope that when the next President tries to put back the pieces, he or she will take your words to heart. For too long we have pretended that something that costs A really costs less than A and it has bitten us time and time again. Maybe we will learn this time that things cost what they cost.

  11. Sam says:

    I would have to disagree that Paul Shawcross is an enemy of human spaceflight, for to be an enemy one has to be passionate about something. Having had the unpleasant experience of briefing Mr. Shawcross, I can say that technical information causes his eyes to glaze over, and there has never been a spreadsheet that he does not enjoy. In the “real world” goals drive the budget; in the world of OMB the budget drives the initiatives. It is these people who make all the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons, and it is the crux of the reason that NASA is in such dire straights.

    As for gutting aeronautics and science, there is a certain Greek tragedy in the fact that Sean O’Keefe was nearly killed in a plan crash after having gutted aeronautics research (and the safety program).

  12. Wayne- I come here to have my mind refreshed in the cool clear waters of common sense showered by someone who actually knows what they are talking about. Thank you for this post on this issue.

  13. David Rankine says:

    Ares I was suppose to use the SSME and 4 segment SRB. Do you think switching to the the J2-x and 5 segment SRB had any effect on cost, time, technical difficulties? Why was the decision made to change from existing technology to new none existing technologies?

    • waynehale says:

      Those decisions were made for life cycle cost reasons, but they delayed the first flight of Ares I by some significant amount. Would it have turned out differently if they had stuck with 4 segment and SSME? Possibly, but again, that is truly unknowable. The current administration has serious policy differences with the Constellation plan and how much difference a flying viable Ares I might have made is problematic at this point.

  14. Chris Pino says:

    I was the Mission or Chief Information Officer for Human Spaceflight during from June, 1994 through June, 1997 working for both Readdy and Gerst. I massaged numbers for OMB with one hand, massaged egos and data in the Mission Programs for General Kostelnik, the Shuttle/Station DAA, with my second hand, while working with my third on a variety of initiatives with Exploration.

    A few points.

    The Columbia Accident Investigation Board identified two systemic risks for the vision, both of which were violated repeatedly. The first, and most important, was the mandate to tailor requirements to budget. The sand chart, and subsequent program planning, violated this mantra from the beginning. Second, they identified the risk of maintaining program continuity across presidential administrations – neglecting to identify the risk of continuity over NASA Administrators.

    O’Keefe, having alienated critical Senate support from Barbara Mukulski by refusing to leave the Hubble Rescue Mission on the Shuttle Manifest and many others by appearing to support a movement to shrink or close the Aeronautics Centers and Science Programs to deal with the flat lined budget.

    He also decided to create a new directorate, Exploration, with all its attendant budget and political costs, to architect and build the new flight system rather then build the new system within the existing Human Spaceflight Directorate. It was led by an Admiral whose primary qualification was having led the Joint Strike Fighter Program whose massive cost overruns were very well documented. He had no experience with rocket ships. He insisted that Systems Engineering and Integration be outsourced while a HQ operated life-cycle management system be used to control the program. His “vision” had to be cobbled together from scratch with managers in the new directorate having to navigate byzantine HQ and Washington politics while cribbing staff at JSC, KSC, and MSFC who were not needed for the Shuttle or Station programs. The first zero-based budget review, unsurprisingly, showed that projected costs would be triple the official budget.

    With Griffin’s advent, Exploration engineering direction was anchored in the Administrator’s office. He mandated from HQ the current Ares and Constellation architecture and Exploration management structure without compelling cost/benefit analysis to rule out alternative flight architectures. NASA engineers were, at lest, put back in charge of Systems Engineering and Integration, to the programs’ benefit but the investment made during O’Keefe’s tenure was effectively written off.

    Simultaneously, the political blow back from the Science and Aeronautics budget cuts and Center threats led to a mandate that all centers be made whole by spreading the work for the new flight system across all the centers. Apollo, Shuttle, and Station had , through much pain and hard lessons learned, forced JSC, KSC, and MSFC to develop a “Code M” culture that could actually design, build, and fly human rated flight systems. The ultimate result of this was the integrated United Space Alliance contract which substantially reduced costs by simplifying and rationalizing Shuttle management.

    The mandate to make all centers healthy on the back of Exploration led to remarkable management inefficiencies and paralysis in design, engineering, and decision making. Had the system actually been built as planned, the multi-contractor problems of the early shuttle days would have been seen as trivial by comparison.

    At too great a length perhaps, I am doubling down on Wayne’s central point. What little chance the sand chart budget held out for the Vision, it was doomed by Washington politics which consistently let short term political issues trump the sound systems engineering and program management knowledge NASA has accumulated over 60 years.

  15. dave s phoenix, az says:

    Wayne, 1. why the pure out and out hatred for Dr. Griffin ? All he did was get a new and exciting plan approved !!! ??? 2. why did civilians stand up during Augustine and curse and turn red in the face with hatred for big dumb rockets ??? I have my own theories as to the answers. Thanks !!!

    • waynehale says:

      I rather like Mike Griffin personally and think that he is very technically smart. Unfortunately, interpersonal relationships are not his strong suite (which he readily admits) and now he is a lightening rod for many people. As to folks standing up at Augustine meetings, cursing and turning red in the face, that is a problem for us all; lack of civility, lack of respect for other people even when disagreeing with them, and the inconceivability of the possibility of compromise. None of this allows for a reasoned debate which can arrive at a rational conclusion.

      • P. Savio says:

        There must be some irony in that Dr Griffin initiated the COTS program which then gave Obama/Augustine the option of going to commercial crew to LEO and killing off Constellation especially ARES 1. If Griffin hadn’t initiated COTS I wonder if that would have even been an option for Augustine to consider and maybe this whole debate would be very different. The fact that Griffin was the initiator of COTS and effectively gave SpaceX its start seems to have got lost in the fog of the NASA Wars.

      • Meg says:

        If I was the one sitting inside a space vehicle of sorts, I think I rather have Mike Griffin on my side instead of some fast talking political type of manager.

  16. Mary Lynne says:

    The most insightful comment here (among many) addresses loss of willingness to compromise. Collectively we seem less and less patient with the tension that arises when we are forced to re-evaluate our own perspectives in the light of contrary evidence. The really dangerous consequence of that impatience is that we simply deny, avoid, obfuscate, etc. the contrary information. We do not ask the questions we may not like the answers to. Worst case is when we try to discourage others from asking them, too.

    What has been hardest for me is to watch this play out in the spaceflight community at all levels, but particularly among those of us trained to work through complex and conflicting data in order to develop a logical path forward. Partisanship and paralysis are self-destructive, particularly now, yet they are in evidence every day, most notably (perhaps) in the debate over configuration of an HLV – a creature not yet authorized nor funded. Pragmatism, on the other hand, is best served by a willingness to develop “win-win” scenarios – suspending one’s own point of view long enough to hear and understand others and then to work toward the middle. It also requires the willingness to _act_.

    Perhaps the best that can be said about the current circumstances is that there are so many opportunities for leadership to emerge. 😉

    Good to see you “back on the air”, Wayne, and broadcasting in radio free space.

  17. Colbear says:

    Glad to see you are still out there blogging Mr. Hale. I always look forward to reading your insights and analysis.

    As someone who worked on the Augustine Commission, I agree with your thoughts. Never enough money in the budget for the technical requirements (and the same can be said of a few other programs as well out there).

  18. Maura says:

    I’ll second the thank you for getting back “on the air” again. I always enjoy reading your words and the discussions that follow.

  19. Mattblak says:

    The insightful and informative comments here have already given this young blog great value. Thanks to all.

  20. Bob says:

    This is my first time. I have worked at KSC for twenty five years I am being laidoff on Oct. 1st. I have to say it has been an honor to work for human space exploration (always my dream). I do wish for my children’s sake there could be something to have dreams of for there children. Wayne it has been a pleasure reading your blog and working towards some of the same goals.

    • waynehale says:

      Congratulations on a long and honorable career in the noblest endeavor of our age. Your hard work will not be forgotten and I am convinced your children’s children will look back with pride to say that their grandfather was part of the early days of space exploration which eventually succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings. Good luck and keep the dream alive

  21. I am appalled that Washington considered killing manned spaceflight exploration after Columbia, the “Shawcross Option”. Spaceflight is something that we can take pride in as a nation. I will probably have to start taking Prozac or something stronger once the Space Shuttle retires since there is no new development for human spaceflight.

    • sspacerrx says:

      Three options were considered during the post-Columbia policy process leading to the Vision for Space Exploration. An OMB option canceled the Shuttle and Space Station and moved all the funding from them to a human exploration program focused on Mars. A joint OMB/OSTP option focused on finishing the Space Station, with a decision on lunar exploration in 2015. A NASA option continued the Shuttle and the Space Station, added a human exploration program, and increased NASA’s budget by several billion dollars a year. The “Shawcross Option” is at best a myth.

      • waynehale says:

        Could be, I was not there. My knowledge of what happened at the EOP is second hand but almost all agree that the Shawcross Option was prominent. If I knew who you were perhaps we could validate your comment. Personally, I post under my real name because I stand behind what I say. I am wrong periodically and will admit that when corrected. People who post under pseudonyms do not gather much respect from me.

  22. Lee Nielsen says:

    Very straight forward article. Very informative.

    How do you feel about the retiring of the space shuttle? How did you contribute to the cancellation of the Constellation?

  23. Charley S McCue says:

    Wayne, thank you for your clear explanation. I have often (red faced and not red faced) said, “No Bucks, No Buck Rogers”.

    Working through a period of red faced shouting, I realized that my problem wasn’t the death of Constellation but of the death of Exploration. The new plan doesn’t seem to be funded well enough to get past LEO. If I understand your information, Exploration never had a chance under the old budget as well.

    Once I got past red faced, it seems the true solution is “More Bucks”.

  24. Richard DeLombard says:

    I retired after 31 years at NASA Lewis/Glenn, lastly spending 20 years in microgravity science.

    Wayne, reading your words brings to mind the words in the two post-tragedy reports AND Dragonfly. It is unsettling to learn what goes on behind closed doors.

  25. rob says:

    so here we are relying on the Russians for space flight now? what a joke!! i wouldn’t trust them to change the oil in my car let alone ferry us to the iss and such…
    this whole cancel NASA (shuttle) thing, is basically a farce….
    im so disappointed….what about our 50 year history?

  26. Charley S says:

    Rereading this after all these years and once again must say, “Well said!”.

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