The Future of Orion
Where will Orion go? How long will it and the Space Launch System survive? They almost certainly have enough momentum not to suffer the same fate as Constellation. However, with a fickle, micro-managing Congress, budget constraints, changing Presidencies, and now with local commercial competition, the challenges to the long-term survival of the program will be multi-layered.
Currently, the only plans in the works (after test flights) are an asteroid sample return mission, followed by a flight to Mars in 2035…neither of which are funded to-date. The asteroid mission is already widely criticized and in trouble in Congress. Most experts agree that SLS needs a launch frequency of at least one shot per year to support the infrastructure that builds and flies it. A few interesting proposals have been put forward, but NASA can’t seem to afford to build any of them until SLS R&D is completed.
NASA won’t fly alone into deep space either. Russia plans to operate a heavy-lift launcher program also. SpaceX will test launch their Falcon Heavy this summer (and they have super-heavy, extra-wide vehicles on the drawing boards). Will there be enough destinations to keep an uber-expensive program like SLS flying? Remember that Orion is only a crew capsule and SLS is only a launcher. Each mission outside of Earth orbit will also need a specialized, and roomy, exploration spacecraft built to the specific needs of the destination and mission. In order to launch SLS and Orion somewhere once per year, an exploration spacecraft will need to be built once per year as well. NASA has never been good at building one manned spacecraft while operating another. Those vessels have yet to be funded, developed, or built and NASA funding rides on Congressional priorities.
It currently looks like Congress might like Moon missions, and that kind of effort would certainly support annual launches for just the SLS and Orion pair (along with the ESA-built, ATV derived service module that is already in the works), but not for very long. Everyone and their dog will soon be capable of reaching the moon with manned and unmanned vehicles, especially if the Moon becomes commercially relevant.
Perhaps Orion’s add-ons will be built by Bigelow Aerospace. They’ve had test articles of inflatable space station modules, decades ahead of the International Space Station, in Earth orbit since 2006 and 2007 and will launch an add-on module to the ISS aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft this fall. They’ve only had to wait for a better future of human access to space to move forward. The launch frequency to support them will be provided by commercial launch services like SpaceX and Boeing more than NASA, but maybe Bigelow’s involvement will drag the cost and build time of support spacecraft down far enough to keep SLS flying annually.
So what is Congress thinking? Well, They don’t really seem to care if their gold-plated bird actually flies anyplace, so long as the industries that build the bird (and the jobs attached to them) stay funded. They don’t seem to care much that we might end up launching it to the ISS every year just to keep the ball rolling. NASA engineers just give that parental smile and repeat that Orion is a deep-space vehicle and will never be used to support that particular space station. Eventually, public patience with the cost will dwindle if low launch frequency makes SLS a rocket to nowhere.
What purpose will it serve then? Maybe flights to Mars will become routine. Maybe someone will build a moon colony. Once there are people living on the moon or Mars to stay they will need supplies…lots of supplies. Mars is not like Earth, so self-sufficiency for Mars colonies could be a lot further out than some folks envision. Mars carries more in common with a moon, from a human survival perspective, than it does with Earth. Maybe human colonies/science will reach even further out into the solar system where only systems like SLS/Orion can reach them for badly needed and frequent resupply.
I think it more likely that this new launch program will just feed data into their partner database for companies like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and others to carry forward at better prices…and freedom from bi-polar Government agencies. Currently, NASA’s commercial partners are developing several space technologies on their own that NASA did not instigate nor fund directly, on astonishingly short time frames and price tags. NASA is slowly evolving into more of a consumer of technology than a provider.
Here’s the thing…when SpaceX will test launch the Falcon Heavy, later this this year, people will start scratching their heads and wondering at the relevance of SLS. The Falcon Heavy will carry 3/4 the throw-weight of the first-generation SLS, for a much smaller fraction of the cost. When it flies it’ll be the mightiest launch system since the SaturnV moon rocket. It will likely fly paid missions into geo-synchronous orbit before the scheduled SLS test launch. If all goes well, it will definitely accumulate a deeper launch history than SLS, because the cost per launch will be orders of magnitude less and commercial orders are already lined up to fly on it while SLS is only intended to launch once per year. Almost each and every one of the proposed future SLS missions can be designed to fly on one or more other launchers at dramatically lower total cost. Perhaps it will even be SpaceX, or one of their commercial competitors, not SLS, that will carry the first humans to Mars.
So SpaceX will fly a human-rated upgrade of its Dragon spacecraft by 2017, a heavy launch system by the end of this year and Bigelow already builds orbital, long habitation spacecraft. For SLS/Orion to be useful for Mars flights, it probably needs to get there before less expensive systems. Will it really take some combination of commercial space interests longer than 2035, 20 full years, to get humans to Mars? If they get there first, what will we even need SLS and Orion for? Maybe to save their baby, Congress will have to look at, and aggressively fund, some things they haven’t shown much interest for in the past…such as Lagrange point space stations and Jovian moons.