NewSpace V. Old Ways : Could Congress Be Planning to Replace Dragon With Orion?

In case anyone thought NASA’s announcement of two winners in the Commercial Crew program, one of which was Boeing, signified a new era of cordial relations between “NewSpace” advocates for Commercial Crew and those who remain firmly in the camp of the “OldSpace” approach as represented by the SLS/Orion program, a letter from two key Congressional Republicans to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden should come as a rude awakening.

The letter, reported in Space News, is from House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, and is co-signed by Sub-Committee on Space chair Steven Palazzo (Missippi), and asks the following:

“If Orion could provide a redundant capability as a fallback for the commercial crew partners, why is it necessary to carry two partners to ensure competition in the constrained budget environment?”

While the premise of the question is flawed, as Smith and Palazzo should be well aware, the intent may be more than a little ominous for those within NASA, the NewSpace community, and the general public which see the Commercial Crew program as an encouraging step in expanding access to LEO.

First the premise.  Orion, as the Space News story points out, is required by Congressional language to be able to perform as a backup to Commercial Crew.

From the NASA Authorization Act of 2010:

The Space Launch System shall have:

(C) The capability to lift the multipurpose crew vehicle.
(D) The capability to serve as a backup system for
supplying and supporting ISS cargo requirements or crew
delivery requirements not otherwise met by available
commercial or partner-supplied vehicles.

Notice that the language does not require SLS or Orion (the multipurpose crew vehicle) to be able to perform such duty in a manner which is either affordable, or on a timeframe applicable to any specific circumstance. Smith and Palazzo, by virtue of their positions, should be perfectly aware that although SLS is physically capable of sending an Orion to ISS, there is absolutely no way it can meet either of the two conditions which would make it a practical proposition.

So why ask the question?

Perhaps the impending launch of a partially completed Orion aboard a Delta Heavy for a December test flight inspired the question which mentions Orion by name, but does not specify SLS. At roughly $500 million combined cost for Delta Heavy (NASA cost plus EELV subsidy) and an estimated $1 billion for each non-reusable Orion, as a backup to Commercial Crew it would be a wildly expensive proposition, albeit one exceeded by the cost use of using the Space Launch system for the same task.

A more plausible explanation can perhaps be found in the second half of the question, which asks why two Commercial Crew providers are necessary. The multi-part answer, which NASA has supplied time and again, is to provide both competition in pricing and performance, and redundancy in case one provider experiences developmental delays or technical issues. A third, and decidedly longer range objective is to boost non-governmental LEO developments.

Rather than seeking to undermine the Commercial Crew program directly through underfunding, which has been the case in the past, the emphasis could be turning to eliminating the most troublesome aspect of it, that it could profoundly embarrass the SLS/Orion program, by weeding out the company most likely to do so.

Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a widely circulated article explaining why Boeing “won” NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Some, including took exception to the premise. The article however, was based on a leak of the still embargoed NASA Source Selection Statement which purportedly awarded Boeing a higher overall score than SpaceX, as well as Sierra Nevada Corporation. Assuming that portion is factual, what emerges is the basis for a new assault on NewSpace by eliminating an “unnecessary” second competitor, which based on scoring, but not budget, or sanity, would necessarily be SpaceX.

A brazen notion to be sure, but the letter was written for some reason, and most likely at the urging of at least one interested party.  And let there be no doubt, the reduction to a single Commercial Crew provider, shielded by the pretense that Orion could serve as a backup, would clearly benefit several stakeholders.

In the first place, Boeing would be freed from nearly certain embarrassment at the hands of SpaceX if the latter performs as advertised, even as the lack of a practical alternative would open the door to winning all possible flights in an uncontested solicitation. Schedule slips and program “adjustments”  would become something NASA had little choice but to tolerate. Lockheed Martin could almost certainly count on contingency contracts to modify Orion “in case.” Space state representatives would see a plausible justification for throwing more money at SLS/Orion as they so badly want to do. In short, the old order would be restored once more.

Could it happen?

It certainly seems a stretch. SpaceX would scream, protests would be filed and Twitter might melt. Furthermore, SpaceX has put no small effort into building political capital of its own. Presumably, Congressional Democrats and even some Republicans would mount a vigorous defense. In the end however, the existence of the letter suggests someone thinks it is possible.

Much rests on the upcoming election. While the Senate has generally been more friendly to NASA’s Commercial Crew program, a Republican takeover would likely place Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, whose distaste for SpaceX is as palpable as his love for the Space Launch System, in charge of the Senate Appropriations Committee which funds NASA. With only two years left in an Obama Administration already reeling from one crisis to another, and generally disinterested in space in the first place, the unthinkable might just become the inevitable.

Waiting in the Wings : Richard Shelby

Waiting in the Wings : Richard Shelby

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3 Comments on "NewSpace V. Old Ways : Could Congress Be Planning to Replace Dragon With Orion?"

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  1. Yes it could definitely happen. Boeing & pals likely already killed the selection of SNC by scaring NASA.

    Presently they are engaged in a continuing massive PR & lobbying campaign. Part 1 is to keep SNC’s protest from having any chance of success. Part 2 is to ensure that when the budget is cut too much, Boeing and only Boeing will be funded.

    Better hope for a Democratic Senate. Burning twitter messages aren’t going to stop this train.

    • Dudely says:

      SNC didn’t win because they were not as far along (their entry is a lot more complicated after all). Since the ISS might not even need more flights after 2020, it didn’t make sense to choose someone who might be a bit late and only able to perform a couple flights.

  2. Adam says:

    I’m sorry, but the obvious implication here is that Orion should replace CST-100 as they are highly redundant, basically the same capsule with different service modules.

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