Update: SpaceX Super Heavy/Starship vs NASA Space Launch System/Orion

The race is on.

I don’t normally like comparing NASA to SpaceX as competitors…they are not. SpaceX rides on NASA’s shoulders. They glean from the NASA’s appropriations funding and knowledge base. Even if they don’t actually rely and NASA for much anymore, they are still partners with them as NASA loves on them, feeding and teaching them like a tender parent.

However, while NASA and SpaceX are partners, SpaceX and Congress are not. Neither are SpaceX and Boeing or Lockheed Martin who actually build NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and its crew-rated space capsule Orion. SLS has a very major flaw built into it…it depends on a fickle Congress for its existence. Such programs are fed money whether they fly or not…for a while…until enough powerful factions in Government see the waste and decide to rid themselves and the budget of its drain.

SpaceX development of the Super Heavy booster and their Interplanetary spacecraft, Starship, does not rely on NASA for funding, except for the profits derived from those few of their flights that they contract with NASA. SpaceX leads the space launch industry with a rich and growing commercial launch schedule with which it fund its development plans and is about to conquer the next generation of Internet technology. Soon, when Commercial Crew starts flying missions to the Internation Space Station, SpaceX can go forward with NASA’s stamp of approval for human spaceflight as well. With this certification and knowledge, SpaceX…like a fledgling bird…can completely unshackle thermselves from NASA and can move forward with their own inter-planetary human spaceflight program. Other folks like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are also standing in line to take their turn learning from NASA, and SpaceX also, to build a multi-faceted approach to space envelope expansion, funded and driven by initiatives all totally self-funded and beholding to Congress.

Orion, designed originally as a Moon capsule, was dishonestly repackaged as an Interplanetary spacecraft during the Obama Administration. Now it has been repackaged by the Trump Administration with Bush’s original role for lunar missions, but it is still hitched to a launcher that hasn’t ever flown. NASA just awarded Lockheed with several new purchases of Orion, but Orion still has no ride to space. It can fly to the Moon on other launchers, maybe, but the companies who fly those future rockets have plans for their own crewed spacecraft to fly on them. SLS/Orion will eventually launch, but not before those other choices start coming online. By then SLS/Orion will be rendered obsolete by multiple alternatives pushed by ambitious, competitive, AD-HD inflicted billionaires. Political momentum and a very narrow (and still shrinking) schedule advantage will propel SLS/Orion to an un-crewed Moon-loop mission, and then they will carry NASA astronauts to and from one Moon landing mission sometime on 2024/2025. Then they will die together.

Landers which can actually land on the Moon (which Orion cannot) are under development with NASA’s help. Commercial long-term space habitats capable of landing on the Moon, or simply orbiting something, are under development with NASA help. Multiple launch systems more powerful and far less expensive than SLS are under development, without NASA help. All of these have positioned themselves to overtake the sluggish SLS development calendar.

What we call SLS/Orion started with the Constellation Program, an “ISS to the Moon to Mars” effort initiated by President Bush Jr. in 2005. Obama cancelled them in 2009 when they weren’t going anywhere and Congress restarted them under the new name SLS/Orion. They have never been a flight program and still aren’t. Constellation’s single test flight of Ares I and Orion’s first test flight aboard a Delta Heavy have been the only missions that have flown in Constallation’s and SLS/Orion’s entire combined history. Those programs have languished on the ground, wallowing in the excesses of Congressional favor, for over fourteen years. Like a 30 year-old gamer living in his mother’s basement, NASA’s next mighty Manned Moon/Mars plan sat and pretended to live a real life as it watched the world pass it by. In the meantime NASA has gradually shifted its human spaceflight program from Constellation/SLS over into its Spin-off program and is about to hand it off forever to Commercial Space.

SLS and Orion will suffer their deaths at the hands of their own shrinking influence in a fast-moving ecosystem of faster-moving competition.

Such is the fate of flightless birds in a world of change.

~ by Bill Housley on September 24, 2019.

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