Time For a Sanity Check on the Orion Spacecraft

NASA’s Exploration Flight Test-1 of a partially completed Orion spacecraft has proven to be a field day for the agency’s goal of inextricably linking the words “Orion” and “Mars” in the public perception and cementing the notion that the agency is indeed taking the first step towards a manned landing on the Red Planet.

Perhaps it is, but there are serious doubts.

One year ago, on December 3rd, 2013, the Houston Chronicle ran an op/ed by former Johnson Space Center Director Chris Kraft and Space Station Program Tom Moser which contained the following memorable line

“SLS is killing JSC. SLS is killing Texas jobs. SLS is killing our national space agenda”

Implicit in the call out of SLS was its only payload, the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle.

The Economist has also weighed in with a launch day article observing:

“Both Orion and the SLS are expensive. Both—and especially Orion—risk becoming white elephants, for Orion has rivals.

Two other crewable craft are being developed in America at the moment: both Boeing and SpaceX are building capsules, called CTS-100 and Dragon respectively, to take people to and from the space station. Dragon has already logged several trips in space, including four unmanned cargo flights to the station. Either capsule could be adapted for a deep-space mission and Elon Musk, SpaceX’s boss, is known to want to go to Mars, which helps explain why Dragon’s heat shield is already designed to cope with the speed of a return flight from that planet.”

According to estimates put forward by NASA’s Office of Inspector General in a report released in August 2013, the Orion capsule alone, (absent SLS or Ground Systems) will have cost $16.5 billion in development by the time of its first crewed launch, nominally scheduled for 2021 but considered likely to slip. Development began in August of 2006 when NASA assigned Lockheed Martin a sole source contract in what was then Project Constellation. By the time of a GAO report released last year, the total had already come to $6.2 billion.

For comparison’s sake, NASA’s investment in the SpaceX COTS contract, which was awarded the same month, August 2006, ultimately came to $396 million, a figure which produced, along with SpaceX’s own investments, not only the Dragon itself, but the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and two NASA/SpaceX test flights. The first, in December 2010 was the COTS-1 mission, which saw a brief orbital test similar to the current EFT-1. The second was the May 2012 COTS 2/3 mission to ISS.

In fact, the acquisition cost of the Delta Heavy launch vehicle alone being used for Orion’s test flight, cited at $370 million, nearly equals the COTS SpaceX total. A full accounting, which would necessarily include the ULA launch subsidy provided by the Air Force, but still footed by the taxpayer, as well as mission specific components of the test Orion would drive the cost well above the $500 million mark.

It gets worse. Earlier this year, NASA awarded (potentially) Boeing and SpaceX $4.2 and $2.6 billion respectively as part of the final phase of the the Commercial Crew program. Those awards include full development of the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, as well as a test launch, and up to six operational missions each. In other words, the combined $6.8 billion award would result not only in the completion of two entirely different crewed spacecraft, but 14 total flights including launch vehicles. While a variety of factors including budgets and uncertainty over the Station’s future suggest it is unlikely NASA will get the opportunity to award both companies the full amounts, the relevant point is that the totals are a representation of what Boeing and SpaceX obligated they could produce. The discrepancy is too much to dismiss.

If Orion (we are exempting SLS from this discussion) was something much more than it is, then the comparisons might still be interesting, but largely meaningless. Regrettably that is not the case. Despite its massive expense, and a NASA the pr campaign which all but guarantees it is taking us to Mars, Orion is little more than a transfer vessel, barely distinguishable in actual performance than CST-100 and in particular Dragon, where later iterations may offer the promise of actually landing on Mars.

Moreover, unlike the Apollo Command Module, whose first flight was also on a smaller vehicle than it would eventually ride into history, there is no analogous direct path to the end goal. Instead there are decades, tens, and maybe hundreds of billions of dollars and nobody knows how many hardware development programs all standing in the way.

And that may be so what is so grating about the way the space agency is trying to sell both the EFT-1 mission and the SLS/Orion project as a whole. With no specific Mars plan in the works, and virtually every entity which has reviewed the project concluding there is no way NASA can pay such a mission with anticipated budgets anyway, the connection between Orion in 2014 and Mars in 2040 is simply to tenuous to take seriously.

While larger than the two Commercial Crew vehicles, and designed for longer stays in somewhat deeper space, a maximum capacity to support for 4 astronauts for 21 days is hardly the stuff of Mars transits and the hardware for the “next giant leap.”  To make that happen, Orion will require the exact same thing a modified Dragon or an altered CST-100 would require, a fully outfitted habitation and life support module (or modules) capable of supporting crews for 2-3 years. And that is only a start.

All of which begs the question of why spend so much, for so long, to get so little, when other alternatives are emerging?

NASA says Orion is a must have for Mars. Maybe the agency is right, but if that is the case, then as the Augustine Committee, the GAO, the National Research Council and its own OIG have pointed out, what the agency really “must have” to get there is quite a bit more money than anyone thinks is going to be forthcoming.

To get the some insight into the real reason why we keep funding SLS/Orion, listen to Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s “cutting edge” answer in this PBS NewsHour video calling the whole thing into question.


Posted in: Mars, NASA, SLS / Orion

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2 Comments on "Time For a Sanity Check on the Orion Spacecraft"

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  1. Shelby’s segment starts at 5:57.

  2. Gary Border says:

    Stewart, your arguments are irrefutable. Personally, I find NASA’s use of the words “Mars Mission” and “in the 2030s” in the same phrase offensive. America went from Mercury spacecraft launched by Atlas Ds to Apollo spacecraft launched by Saturn Vs in 7 short years … and we put humans on the Moon and brought them back, safely.

    My question to NASA is “what are you doing in the next 5 years?” And the answer better contain the words “manned” and “Mars”.

    Based on your conclusions, I only makes sense that we de-rail Orion and SLS now, and insure that the savings are directed to those who can safely deliver humans to Mars in the shortest possible timeframe. If the government funding isn’t sufficient to allow NASA to accomplish the task at hand, I’d suggest we ask our new commercial partners if, given that same government funding, they could successfully “go it alone”.

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