The Orion spacecraft is now 15 years old and has only flown into space once

NASA's Orion spacecraft floats in the Pacific after being shot down during its first flight test in 2014.
Enlarge / NASA’s Orion spacecraft floats in the Pacific Ocean after being shot down during its first flight test in 2014.

December dawn was hopeful as we stood outside watching NASA’s Orion spacecraft shoot into the Florida skies. We could imagine America taking its first tentative step in the future of human exploration of the cosmos.

“This is the beginning of the Mars era,” said then-space agency administrator, former NASA astronaut Charlie Bolden, shortly after its launch in December 2014. And who can argue right now? Here was a spacecraft capable of flying to the moon and back and making its first test in space.

Six years later, some of the shine has disappeared. Years of waiting for an encore for that flight took away much of the enthusiasm that followed this Exploration Flight Test-1 mission. We would have seen an encore flight from Orion two years ago and a mission with astronauts around the moon next year. Instead, Orion is unlikely to fly back into space until 2022 at the earliest.

And as for the first time astronauts climb aboard the Orion – who can say that? The launch keeps sliding to the right.

An inefficient process

The Orion spacecraft dates back to 2005, when NASA made a “request for proposals” to the industry with the goal of “developing a new crew reconnaissance vehicle by 2014 that could transport astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.” NASA sought Orion as a building block for landing humans on the moon as part of what became known as the Constellation program. This program was later canceled, but Orion survived.

Since that time, NASA has spent $ 23.7 billion on the development of the Orion spacecraft, according to Casey Dreier of The Planetary Society. 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 has received a bare-bones version of Orion that flew during the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014. The agency has also received the construction of an Orion capsule – which also does not have a full life support system – to be used during the unmanned Artemis I mission to be flown in 12 to 24 months. So over its lifetime, and at $ 23.7 billion, the Orion program has delivered:

  • Development of Orion spacecraft
  • Exploration Flight Test-1 base vehicle
  • The Orion capsule to use for another test flight
  • Work on capsules for subsequent missions

That is clearly not nothing. But it is far from much, even for a major government program. Let’s use an extreme example to see how efficiently this money could have been spent in theory.

SpaceX is widely regarded as one of the most efficient space companies. The company was founded in 2002 and has received funding from NASA, the Department of Defense and private investors. Over the course of its history, we can reliably estimate that SpaceX has spent a total of $ 16 billion to $ 20 billion on all of its spaceflight efforts. Consider what that money bought:

  • Development of Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missiles
  • Development of Cargo Dragon, Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft
  • Development of Merlin, Kestrel and Raptor rocket engines
  • Deployment of launch sites at Vandenberg (twice), Kwajalein Atoll, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center
  • 105 successful launches into orbit
  • 20 missions to resupply the International Space Station, two manned flights
  • Development of vertical take-off, vertical landing, quick reuse for first stages
  • Spaceships and Super Heavy Missiles Development Program
  • Starlink Internet Program (with 955 satellites orbiting the Earth, SpaceX is the largest satellite operator in the world)

In short, SpaceX delivered all of that for billions of dollars less than what NASA has spent on the Orion program since its inception.

Flat budgets

However, in his analysis of the costs of the Orion program, Dreier hopes not to disdain Orion, NASA or the spacecraft’s prime contractor, Lockheed. “I tend to have a slightly more likeable take on Orion,” he said. “Cost and pace are a feature, not a bug.”

The United States Congress, which plays an outsized role in determining space policy due to its budgeting prowess, simply does not intend NASA to move particularly fast with Orion’s development. Dreier noted that Congress has funded Orion for the past decade on a relatively flat budget, averaging $ 1.6 billion a year. During the Apollo program, when NASA had a clear goal and deadline to reach the Moon, annual funding for the Apollo Command and Service Module spiked at more than $ 7 billion a year. This allowed for rapid development.

Orion, on the other hand, is a program supported by coalitions. One is political, which requires funding to be distributed geographically and thus shared by many NASA field centers and subcontractors. A fixed budget also ensures a stable workforce over a number of years. In contrast, in a private company, resources can be abruptly shifted from one program to another and jobs can be terminated.

Orion has also had to wait for the Space Launch System rocket. Although the capsule was launched on a private Delta IV Heavy missile in 2014, Congress has said it should be launched on the SLS booster for future missions. The SLS missile is another program hampered by low budgets and the need to provide many jobs for many years, and it is also well behind schedule.

The SLS missile probably won’t be ready until early 2022, if not later. Congressional push for the use of the SLS has prevented NASA from formally considering launching on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, or even the new Super Heavy booster, for manned Orion missions. Both missiles would have a much lower cost, the potential for reuse and provide multiple missions per year.

A predictable result

So how will the upcoming Biden government look to Orion? Currently, as part of the Artemis program, Orion will take astronauts from Earth to orbit, where two to four people will enter a separate lander, go to the surface of the moon, and then return to Orion for the journey back to Earth. . Such a mission could take place by 2026 or so, with adequate funding.

This moment echoes from 2008, when the incoming Obama administration faced the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon and found it to be over budget and well behind schedule. This transition team, led by Lori Garver, who would later become the space agency’s deputy administrator, convened a blue-ribbon panel of experts led by Norm Augustine to review Constellation. “Our concerns were confirmed by the Augustine panel of experts,” she told Ars. “After full deliberation, the administration requested cancellation of the program, including Orion.”

However, this attempt was ultimately rejected by Congress. The Orion program survived and NASA was ordered to begin construction of the SLS missile in 2010. NASA was also tasked with flying the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014 to demonstrate “progress” into deep space.

The same intense industry and NASA lobbying that led to the government’s decision to renew Constellation contracts created Exploration Flight Test-1 as an attempt to show progress during what we knew was a very long development period. would be, ”said Garver. “Recognizing that our hands were tied and preferred progress to protracted combat, we entered into an agreement to secure conference funding for the commercial crew program and moved forward with both programs.”

In the end, the commercial crew – thanks to two flights this year with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle – proved they were worth the investment. In the meantime, NASA and its contractors have spent the past decade working on Orion and the SLS deep space mission vehicle. Those programs are far enough, Garver said, that NASA should be given the opportunity to demonstrate whether they work.

“I look forward to seeing SLS and Orion fly as soon as possible and I urge us to incorporate the lessons learned from the experience into future NASA programs,” said Garver. “The workforce and the public deserve nothing less.”

The message that policymakers are taking home is quite simple, Garver said. Public-private partnerships and fixed-price contracts, such as those for commercial crew, have been found to work – and expensive, slow, cost-effective programs such as Orion and the SLS should be avoided in the future if possible.