Orion Liftoff Was a Vision of What Might Have Been

Visions of Future Past  / Image Credit NASA

Following a one day delay due to weather and balky liquid hydrogen fill/drain valves, a ULA Delta Heavy launch vehicle bearing the first space capable Orion capsule lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-37.

Launch, which took place right on time 7:05 AM ET, was flawless, although viewers on the two networks which chose to cover the launch live may have been startled by the Delta’s flaming ignition sequence which bathes the entire lower booster in a momentary conflagration.

As the triple cored heavy lift booster climbed its way into the dawn sky bearing a human rated (although not completed) spacecraft, witnesses on scene, on-line and around the world may not be aware, but they were also seeing a vision of what might have been if history had taken a different course.

Sometimes lost in the events which marked the end of the Shuttle era and the termination of its intended successor, Project Constellation, is the fact that until incoming NASA Administrator Michael Griffin completely upended President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration in 2005 and substituted the Shuttle based Ares 1 and Ares V programs, the initial plan called for a modular exploration architecture based on existing launch vehicles. Namely the very same Delta Heavy which launched Orion today. As for the spacecraft which might have been on top of the stack, NASA was in the process of a conducting a “flyoff” between competing Boeing and Lockheed Martin proposals. Two things seem certain regarding the CEV/MPCV/Orion; it would have weighed less, and it would have flown before now.

In what was, and to many still is, regarded as a highly controversial move, Mike Griffin canceled that “system of systems” approach, the brainchild of NASA Associate Administrator and head of the Office of Exploration Systems Navy Rear Admiral Craig Steidle, when Griffin replaced Sean O’Keefe as NASA Administrator. The vehicle for change was the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), an internal NASA study which concluded that a Shuttle based as opposed to an EELV system was the best approach for returning the U.S. back to the Moon at the earliest possible time.

That didn’t happen. What followed instead were massive cost overruns, slow development, multiple design changes, and ultimately cancellation by a new Administration.

Would the net result have been any different if the ESAS, which many believed was rigged from the outset containing borderline fraudulent assumptions regarding safety factors, had instead endorsed an EELV based architecture?

No one can say for sure, but two key facts stand out. The Delta Heavy and the Atlas V, both rejected by NASA at the time in favor of an Ares I which never came close to orbital launch, have now compiled outstanding safety records, and are playing key roles in human exploration.  Though it is not scheduled to be used in the same manner again, the Delta Heavy set a notable precedent today, lofting a crew capable capsule out of LEO. As for the Atlas V, though under fire due to its Russian main engine, it has been tapped as one of two boosters to carry Americans back into space before Orion’s ride is ready. The irony here is that while at 73,500 lbs. a fully outfitted Orion will be far too heavy for an EELV class vehicle to throw very far, a specification which may have been deliberate, such is not the case with the Boeing CST-100 capsule that Atlas will launch.

In the long run however, it may have all worked out for the best.  Had the two ULA boosters been tapped for the missions the VSE originally envisioned and cemented themselves in that role years ago, it is difficult to imagine that there would have been any path forward for SpaceX off the Kwajalein island testing ground which very nearly proved its undoing.

For an in-depth history of SpaceX and the unique conditions which marked its development, consider purchasing Here Be Dragons The Rise of SpaceX and the Journey to Mars.

Posted in: NASA, SLS / Orion, SpaceX

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