The Orion spacecraft is now 15 years old, and it’s flown into space just once
December 15, 2020
64         0

by admin


NASA's Orion spacecraft floats in the Pacific Ocean after splashdown from its first flight test in 2014.
Enlarge / NASA’s Orion spacecraft floats in the Pacific Ocean after splashdown from its first flight test in 2014.

The December dawn felt hopeful as we stood outside, watching NASA’s Orion spacecraft streak into the Florida sky. We could imagine that America was taking its first, tentative step into the future of human exploration of the cosmos.

“This is the beginning of the Mars era,” the space agency’s administrator at the time, former NASA astronaut Charlie Bolden, said shortly after the December 2014 launch. And in the moment, who could argue? Here was a spacecraft capable of flying to the Moon and back, acing its first test in space.

Six years later, some of the shine is gone, like slowly rusting brass. Years of waiting for an encore to that flight have worn away much of the enthusiasm that followed this Exploration Flight Test-1 mission. We were supposed to have seen an encore flight of Orion two years ago and a mission carrying astronauts around the Moon next year. Instead, Orion is unlikely to fly into space again before 2022, at the earliest.

And as for the first time astronauts will climb on board Orion—who can say? The launch keeps slipping to the right.

An inefficient process

The Orion spacecraft dates back to 2005, when NASA issued a “request for proposals” to industry with the goal of “developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2014 that is capable of carrying astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.” NASA sought Orion as a building block to land humans on the Moon as part of what became known as the Constellation Program. This program was later canceled, but Orion survived.

Since that time, according to The Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier, NASA has spent $23.7 billion developing the Orion spacecraft. This does not include primary costs for the vehicle’s Service Module, which provides power and propulsion, as it is being provided by the European Space Agency.

For this money, NASA has gotten a bare-bones version of Orion that flew during the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014. The agency has also gotten the construction of an Orion capsule—which also does not have a full-life support system—that will be used during the uncrewed Artemis I mission due to be flown in 12 to 24 months. So over its lifetime, and for $23.7 billion, the Orion program has produced:

  • Development of Orion spacecraft
  • Exploration Flight Test-1 basic vehicle
  • The Orion capsule to be used for another test flight
  • Work on capsules for subsequent missions

Obviously, that is not nothing. But it is far from a lot, even for a big government program. To see how efficiently this money could theoretically have been spent, let’s use an extreme example.

SpaceX is generally considered one of the most efficient space companies. Founded in 2002, the company has received funding from NASA, the Department of Defense, and private investors. Over its history, we can reliably estimate that SpaceX has expended a total of $16 billion to $20 billion on all of its spaceflight endeavors. Consider what that money has bought:

  • Development of Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy rockets
  • Development of Cargo Dragon, Crew Dragon, and Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft
  • Development of Merlin, Kestrel, and Raptor rocket engines
  • Build-out of launch sites at Vandenberg (twice), Kwajalein Atoll, Cape Canaveral, and Kennedy Space Center
  • 105 successful launches to orbit
  • 20 missions to supply International Space Station, two crewed flights
  • Development of vertical take off, vertical landing, rapid reuse for first stages
  • Starship and Super Heavy rocket development program
  • Starlink Internet program (with 955 satellites on orbit, SpaceX is largest satellite operator in the world)

To sum up, SpaceX delivered all of that for billions of dollars less than what NASA has spent on the Orion program since its inception.

Flat budgets

In his analysis of the Orion program’s costs, however, Dreier does not heap scorn on Orion, NASA, or the spacecraft’s primary contractor, Lockheed. “I tend to take a slightly more sympathetic view toward Orion,” he said. “Its cost and pace are a feature, not a bug.”

The US Congress, which has an outsized role in setting space policy due to its budgeting power, simply does not intend NASA to go particularly fast with Orion’s development. Dreier noted that Congress has funded Orion with a relatively flat budget over the last decade, an average of $1.6 billion or so per year. During the Apollo Program, when NASA had a clear goal and a deadline to reach the Moon, annual funding for the Apollo Command and Service Module peaked at more than $7 billion a year. This allowed for rapid development.

Orion, by contrast, is a program supported by coalitions. One of these is political, which demands that funding be spread around geographically and so shared among many NASA field centers and subcontractors. A flat budget allows for a stable workforce over a number of years, too. By contrast, with a private company, resources can abruptly be shifted from one program to another, and jobs terminated.

Orion has also had to wait for the Space Launch System rocket. Although the capsule launched on a private Delta IV Heavy rocket back in 2014, Congress has said it must launch on the SLS booster for future missions. The SLS rocket is another program hampered by flat budgets and the need to provide many jobs over many years, and it is also far behind schedule.

The SLS rocket probably will not be ready before early 2022, if not later. Congressional insistence on using the SLS has precluded NASA from formally considering launching on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, or even its new Super Heavy booster, for crewed Orion missions. Both of these rockets would offer much lower cost, the potential for reuse, and multiple missions a year.

A predictable outcome

So how will the incoming Biden administration look upon Orion? Presently, as part of the Artemis Program, Orion will carry astronauts from the Earth to lunar orbit, where two to four people will get into a separate lander, go down to the Moon’s surface, and then return to Orion for the journey back to Earth. Such a mission could take place by 2026 or so, with enough funding.

This moment has echoes of 2008, when the incoming Obama administration was faced with the Constellation Program to return humans to the Moon and found it over budget and far behind schedule. This transition team was led by Lori Garver, who would go on to become the space agency’s deputy administrator, and called a blue-ribbon panel of experts led by Norm Augustine to review Constellation. “Our concerns were confirmed by the Augustine panel of experts,” she told Ars. “After full deliberation, the Administration requested cancellation of the program, including Orion.”

However, this effort was ultimately rebuffed by Congress. The Orion program survived, and NASA was told to start building the SLS rocket in 2010. NASA also was instructed to fly the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014 to show “progress” toward deep space.

“The same intense industry and NASA lobbying that led to the government’s decision to extend the Constellation contracts, created Exploration Flight Test-1 as an attempt to show progress during what we knew would be a very long development period,” Garver said. “Recognizing our hands were tied and preferring progress over more protracted battles, we made an agreement to secure Congressional funding for the commercial crew program and moved forward with both programs.”

Ultimately, commercial crew—thanks to two flights this year by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle—proved itself worth the investment. In the meantime, NASA and its contractors have spent the last decade continuing to work on Orion and the SLS vehicle for deep-space missions. Those programs are far-enough along, Garver said, that NASA should be given a chance to demonstrate whether they work.

“I look forward to seeing SLS and Orion flying as soon as possible, and urge incorporation of the lessons learned from the experience into future NASA programs,” Garver said. “The workforce and the public deserve nothing less.”

The take-home message for policymakers is pretty simple, Garver said. Public-private partnerships and fixed-price contracts like those for commercial crew have been shown to work—and expensive, slow, cost-plus programs like Orion and the SLS are to be avoided in the future if at all possible.

subscribe for YouMedia Newsletter
0 comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

newsletter
subscribe for YouMedia Newsletter
LET'S HANG OUT ON SOCIAL