Write it on your calendar.
Yesterday (Dec. 3rd, 2014) NASA made history. Orion (the human-rated interplanetary spacecraft that NASA has been working on) flew in space for the first time aboard a Delta Heavy rocket in a spectacular and beautiful early morning launch. The unmanned test flight lasted four and a half hours in which the capsule orbited the Earth twice and traveled several thousand miles away from the planet before it reentered Earth’s atmosphere at near Lunar-return velocity and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The flight has been deemed a success, with the word “perfect” used many times. Once again, NASA has demonstrated that it leads the world in human space-flight, because for the second time it has designed and tested a human-rated spacecraft that exceeds low-earth orbit. Now we just need to go and do it again with people aboard. When we do, the heat shield and other components will have improved even more due to lessons learned from before, and derived from, this flight.
I noticed that the SpaceFlightNow.com LiveStream broadcast of the event had a disappointing 6,500 viewers during the recovery of the capsule. It should have been 650,000, but most folks still just don’t get the significance of this historic flight. NASA was rated #6 on trends in Google News, with at least two or three entertainment industry related issues ranked above it. Those of us in charge of generating interest in human spaceflight and space exploration still have a lot of work to do apparently.
Orion has an undeservedly checkered past. It started out back during the Bush administration as part of a multi-layered “ISS to Moon to Mars” project called Constellation intended to revisit the moon and pursue a Mars exploration initiative, as well as replace the aging and very expensive Space Shuttle program which was scheduled for cancellation due to safety concerns. Over-scoped and badly under-funded, the heavily criticized Constellation program languished in missed milestones and cost-overruns until it was eventually cancelled by the Obama Administration. Any plan to go to the moon was nixed with it as a “been there, done that, got the T-Shirt” kind of thing and the Mars date was cancelled and replaced with a highly criticized and in-specific “someday” pseudo-goal. Space Act Agreement programs already underway to hand-off International Space Station resupply and crew transportation duties to private companies were announced and publicized as the eventual shuttle replacement for ISS support. In the interim, the U.S. would pay Russia to transport U.S., Japanese, and Canadian crew to and from the ISS, and ESA and Japan would operate their own unmanned resupply spacecraft to fill the gap left by the shuttle for cargo deliveries.
Citing illegalities in how the the Constellation program was cancelled without their input, and out of concern over lost jobs among the contractors that supported the Space Shuttle program, Congress bullied NASA employees for a year to keep working on existing Constellation contracts while Congress worked to revive its suddenly dwindling relevance in manned space exploration. This ended in the first and last Constellation test flight of an Ares I simulation vehicle with a mock-up of Orion on top of it. During this time of uncertainty and lack of focus, Congress revived the Orion program (under a highly unmemorable name which I can’t remember) and ordered NASA to start a new, shuttle-component based, Saturn V comparable, heavy-lift launcher program to go with it. This became the Space Launch System (aka SLS, but jokingly referred to by some space advocates as the “Senate Launch System“). Both were cleverly re-scoped by NASA for activities beyond Earth orbit only. Space advocates (with a nudge and a wink) still liked to use the word “Lunar” when talking about Orion, while Congress (also with a nudge and a wink) still liked to use the words “ISS docking” when talking about it. However, many think that NASA has no scientific need to send humans to the moon, and Orion, and especially SLS, are far and away too expensive to fit into the frequent launch routine necessary for ISS support tasks. Space advocates kept using the name “Orion” over and over again until it stuck and NASA re-scoped or cancelled numerous other planetary science programs to pay for it all. President Obama finally groaned and said “Fine!” to the critics of his lack of direction on Mars and offered up a ridiculously distant Mars date (I recall it was something like 2035?) to get us all to shut-up about it. We didn’t.
Orion is a great spacecraft but I hear it won’t fly again until 2018 or so, at which time they plan for SLS to take it on a test-drive spin around the moon and back again with a crew aboard. The next mission after that, as I understand it, will be an asteroid sample return flight around 2024. Will the currently ongoing programs in the new and growing commercial launch industry beat NASA’s current timeline for human interplanetary space flight? I know that their projected budgets are between 3X to 10X less than NASA’s for achieving similar destinations, which always makes things easier to do. So was all of the hoopla and expense over this Orion launch pointless?
Here’s the thing. NASA keeps all of their data on an elaborate database system. All of the organizations outside of NASA which NASA funds, has spin-off and other Space Act Agreements with, or which supply NASA with goods and services, have access to that database. This flight of Orion was not just a “NASA” test flight…it was a “NASA & Friends” test flight. The data which was logged and stored by flight control and on-board the Orion capsule will be seen by experts at SpaceX and others and used to tweek their own designs. This flight will feed data directly into the ongoing, deep, and complex commercial space development effort in ways over which Congress has no control. They can rob funding from commercial space initiatives to try and starve them out, but all of the funding that goes into NASA still feeds data into the development and acceleration of those same initiatives.
I think that Orion’s future as a frequently-used spacecraft is doomed. SLS is too expensive to launch often enough to fund its own supporting infrastructure or get much use out of Orion. Commercial space has implemented timelines on the calendar to eat into Orion’s already sparse mission profile. With NASA’s indirect (if not openly direct) help, SpaceX will fly vehicles to Mars this decade and Planetary Resources could have platinum samples gathered from a near-Earth asteroid in-hand at roughly the same time as NASA’s planned asteroid mission. We’ll see NASA’s lunar-loop test launch, and possibly the asteroid mission, but then folks will wonder why they need to spend money for NASA to do things the expensive way that will already have been done cost effectively by others. The only thing that will save SLS and Orion will be dramatically ambitious missions to the outer-planet moons and such. Those spacecraft will need to be huge but I guess Orion could still serve as an Earth reentry vehicle for them.
But Orion’s place in history is still assured. When the Lewis and Clark expedition, a government funded scientific discovery project spear-headed by then President Thomas Jefferson, journeyed back down the Missouri river on its return leg, it was met by the first of the commercial interests, the beginnings of the country’s pre-1830s Fur Trade industry, on their way out. One of the explorers with the Lewis and Clark company, the now famous John Colter, joined them and went on to discover Yellow Stone.
The same thing is happening now with space. NASA employees are “retiring” into commercial space employment and bringing their knowledge, experience, and contacts with them, while NASA continues replacing those people with new folks and training them in new projects.
Freed from the burden of performing ongoing launch programs, and contracting their launches on far less expensive vehicles developed by private companies, NASA will continue to do what it does best…break new ground. New commercial space development will still be orchestrated, supported, facilitated, and in some cases funded by NASA, while NASA will reach further and further out into the cosmos where commercial efforts can’t afford the risks.
Government, however, thankfully, will no longer get to decide when we go to the moon or Mars or how much it has to cost. Near space will no longer feed pork-barrel politics aimed at dumping hundreds of billions of dollars into a small group of politically-connected companies, nor will it compete with other government programs for funding. Space flight spending will no longer be justified on the basis of space flight spending alone, but will need to actually fly, soon, in order to survive. The price will drop further as new technologies, industries, and companies involving all of us will be born, launch frequency increases, and the tech development curves become self-sustaining. The same folks who are now whining about the cost of space exploration will be clambering to climb aboard. Human spaceflight will touch our lives as often as satellite TV has. We will see people set foot on Mars, and perhaps even stay and live there, during the span of most of our lifetimes.
Someone close to you might even be one of them.
Correction: The next launch of Orion in 2018 will be on a Minute Man ICBM launcher wherein this same capsule that just flew will go up on a very short flight to test the launch abort system. My understanding is that they will take it to maximum aerodynamic pressure and then trigger the launch abort stack to pull the capsule away from the ascending rocket. It’ll be fun! I wonder if they’ll actually trigger the explosives on board the rocket during the test. I should think they would…so that means we get to see the rocket blow up on purpose! I guess the launch after that one will be the SLS swing around the moon.