It was early December morning that we were standing outside, watching NASA’s Orion spacecraft in the Florida sky. We can imagine America taking its first temporary step into the future of human exploration of the universe.
Former NASA astronaut Charlie Bolden said soon after launch in December 2014, “This is the beginning of the Mars era.” And in the moment, who can argue? Here was a spacecraft capable of flying on the moon and back, doing its first test in space.
Six years later, something has shone. The years of waiting for an encore for that flight have gone far beyond the excitement it has created since this flight test-1 mission. We see a flight to Orion two years ago and a mission carrying astronauts around the moon the following year. Instead, Orion is unlikely to fly into space again before 2022 at the earliest.
And for the first time astronauts will board the Orion – who can say? The launch keeps slipping right.
An inefficient process
The Orion spacecraft dates back to 2005, when NASA issued a request to the industry for proposals “with the goal of developing a new crew exploration vehicle by 2014” to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit Is capable of “NASA sought Orion as a building block to land humans on the Moon, known as the Constellation Program. The program was later canceled, but Orion survived.
Since that time, according to Casey Dreyer of The Planetary Society, NASA has spent $ 23.7 billion developing the Orion spacecraft. This does not include the primary cost for the vehicle’s service module, which provides power and propulsion, as it is provided by the European Space Agency.
For this money, NASA received a bare-bones version of the Orion that flew during the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014. The agency has also received the manufacture of Orion capsules — which do not even have a full life support system — that will be used during the unused Artemis I mission due to be blown up in 12 to 24 months. So over its lifetime, and for $ 23.7 billion, the Orion program was produced:
- Orion spacecraft development
- Exploration Flight Test-1 Basic Vehicle
- Orion capsules used for another test flight
- Work on capsules for later missions
Apparently, he is nothing. But it is far from over, even for a large government program. To see how efficiently this money could have been spent theoretically, let’s use an extreme example.
SpaceX is generally regarded as one of the most efficient space companies. Founded in 2002, the company has received funding from NASA, the Department of Defense and private investors. Throughout its history, we can estimate that SpaceX has spent a total of $ 16 billion to $ 20 billion for all of its spaceflight efforts. Consider what that money bought:
- Development of Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy Rocket
- Development of cargo dragon, crew dragon and cargo dragon 2 spacecraft
- Development of Merlin, Kestrel, and Raptor Rocket Engines
- Construction of launch sites at Vandenberg (twice), Kwajalein Atoll, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Sector Center
- In class of 105 successful launches
- International Space Station, 20 missions to supply two crew flights
- Development of vertical take-off, vertical landing, rapid reuse for first steps
- Starship and Super Heavy Rocket Development Program
- Starlink Internet Program (with 955 satellites in orbit, SpaceX is the largest satellite operator in the world)
To sum up, SpaceX gave billions of dollars to all that NASA had spent on the Orion program since its inception.
In his analysis of the cost of the Orion program, however, Dreyer does not bear a mark on Orion, NASA or the spacecraft’s primary contractor, Lockheed. “I have a slightly more sympathetic view towards Orion,” he said. “Its cost and speed is a feature, not a bug.”
The US Congress, which plays an important role in establishing space policy because of its budgetary prowess, is not simply NASA’s intention to go fast with the development of Orion in particular. Dreyer noted that Congress has funded Orion in the last decade with a relatively flat budget, averaging $ 1.6 billion, or 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 exceeded $ 7 billion a year. This allowed for rapid development.
Orion, by contrast, is a program supported by the alliance. One of these is political, which demands that funding be geographically spread around and therefore shared between NASA’s many field centers and subcontractors. A flat budget also allows for a stable workforce over many years. Conversely, with a private company, resources can be suddenly transferred from one program to another, and the job may be terminated.
Orion also has to wait for the space launch system rocket. Although the capsule was launched on a private Delta IV heavy rocket in 2014, Congress has stated that it will have to launch on SLS boosters for future missions. The SLS Rocket Flat is another program constrained by the budget and the need to provide many jobs over many years, and also lagging far behind the times.
The SLS rocket probably won’t be ready before 2022, if not later. Congress’ insistence on using the SLS led NASA to consider formally launching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket, or even its new Super Heavy Booster, intended for crew Orion missions. Both these rockets will offer very low cost, reuse capability and multiple missions in a year.
An approximate result
So how will the incoming Biden administration see Orion? Currently, as part of the Artemis program, Orion will take astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit, where two to four people will meet in a separate lander, travel to the lunar surface, and then travel from Orion to Earth. Will come back . Such a mission can take place by 2026, with sufficient funds.
This moment echoes 2008, when the incoming Obama administration was confronted with a constellation program to bring humans back to the moon and found it far behind budget and schedule. The transition team was led by Lori Gawer, who would become the deputy administrator of the space agency, and called on a blue-ribbon panel of experts led by Normal Augustine to review the constellation. “Our concerns were confirmed by the Augustine panel of experts,” she told Aers. “After full deliberation, the administration requested to cancel the program, including Orion.”
However, the effort was eventually rebuffed by the Congress. The Orion program survived, and NASA was asked in 2010 to begin manufacturing the SLS rocket. NASA was also instructed to show “progress” toward deep space to fly the Exploration Space Test-1 mission in 2014.
“The same intensive industry and NASA lobbying that led to the government’s decision to extend the constellation contract attempted to show Exploration Flight Test-1 as an advancement that we knew would be a very long development period. ” “Recognizing that our hands were tied and prioritizing progress over more prevalent battles, we made an agreement to secure congressional funds for the commercial crew program and proceed with both programs.”
In the end, the commercial crew — thanks to two flights this year by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle — proved themselves worth the investment. Meanwhile, NASA and its contractors have continued to work on Orion and SLS vehicles for intensive space missions over the past decade. With those programs far enough away, Garver said, NASA should be given a chance to show if they work.
“I am waiting to see SLS and Orion flying as soon as possible and urge to incorporate the lessons learned from the experience,” said Gawar. “The workforce and the public deserve nothing less.”
Gawer said the door-to-door message for policy makers is very simple. Working for commercial crew such as public-private partnerships and fixed-price contracts has been shown — and expensive, slow, cost-plus programs like Orion and SLS can be avoided at all possible in the future.