As it prepares for possible changes to U.S. space policy with the election of a new president, NASA has quietly opened the door to what could be a major revision to its flagship Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft.
The story, written at Ars Technica by veteran space reporter Eric Berger, concerns a Request for Information issued by NASA in September, asking contractors for input on possibly bidding for production of the Orion spacecraft after its first two orbital flights. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is the current contractor, having won the contract to build Orion in 2006. By 2010, an estimated $5 billion had already been spent on the spacecraft, and according to a GAO review of cost and schedule estimates earlier this year, the agency expects to spend an additional $11.3 billion through its first crewed flight EM-2, notionally scheduled for April 2023.
To put that into context, NASA spends approximately the same amount on Orion every four months, year in and year out, that it payed to SpaceX to develop the Commercial Resupply Dragon spacecraft. And the SpaceX investment not only included two orbital demonstration missions, but also fed development of the Falcon 9 rocket which launched them.
For all that however, Orion’s future beyond EM-2 is far from settled, hampered in part by an agreement with the European Space Agency to provide the craft’s service module which presently only includes the first orbital flight, EM-1, which will launch without a crew in 2018. It is not at all clear that ESA, which is building the module in exchange for being let off the hook for further ATV supply missions to the International Space Station, is willing to sign up for more than two flights.
Hard recurring cost estimates for any element of SLS are notoriously difficult to pin down, but unit replacement costs for the space capsule have previously generally been cited as around $1 billion each. For a fully expendable spacecraft which was originally supposed to have been reusable, that is a pretty tough pill to swallow in an era which will see at least two, and likely three other reusable crew-rated spacecraft; Boeing’s Starliner, SpaceX’s Dragon and Blue Origin’s New Shepard, regularly flying at a fraction of the price.
Throw in Sierra Nevada’s automated, but upgrade-able Dream Chaser space plane which will be also be hauling cargo to ISS by the time Orion hosts its first crew, and the picture looks even worse.
As Berger points out, the NASA RFI could simply be a none-to-subtle hint to Lockheed Martin to get its pricing in order or else, but the agency left hole big enough to fly a Shuttle through with the following zinger:
“If a respondent wishes to provide a broader input beyond the topics described in this RFI or beyond the technical scope of the Orion spacecraft, then it is requested alternate responses be submitted separately. However, if a respondent includes an alternate approach other than the reproduction of the Orion spacecraft developed under the current Orion contract based on NASA-provided data, the respondent shall identify which, if any, of the requirements and objectives identified in the “Contemplated Future Requirements” section of this RFI could not be met or would need to be revised to accommodate the alternate approach. The respondent should also identify the cost implications, both impacts and savings, associated with the suggested changes to those requirements.”
NASA it seems, is quietly considering at least the possibility of dropping the Orion as currently designed, in favor of an alternate, and far less expensive vehicle offered by Boeing, SpaceX or perhaps even another company.