Orion’s first flight is good news – but can NASA sell the space dream?

I checked the latest space news on Saturday with bated breath. NASA had a lot riding on this week’s Orion flight. In a climate of limited budgets and little real public enthusiasm, failure wasn’t an option.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.
Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

The problem is where Orion goes next. By Cold War standards ambitions are vague; a couple more test flights, fly around the Moon or go to a captured asteroid by 2021-25, and then on to Mars some stage in the 2030s….eventually. Maybe. Both these aims and the time-frame stand at odds with Apollo-era determination when goals, budgets, public support and intent all meshed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orion flounders before it gets much further, purely because of that mushiness vs public apathy vs budgetary realities.

Which is a pity, because it’s a good spacecraft and the flight on Saturday demonstrated – after two tragic ‘private enterprise’ failures – that the Apollo-era NASA ‘business model’, which rested on private contractors and commercial suppliers – still works. Rocket science is just that – it’s risky, difficult, and stretches materials science. Cutting corners, private-enterprise style, may save money. But when it comes to spaceflight there’s no room for error.

EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.
EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.

The other point is that Orion is not – as some critics suggest – a retrograde step. Sure, Orion looks like a 1960s capsule. But it isn’t – it’s stuffed with twenty-first century tech. Don’t be fooled by its 2002-era PowerPC 750FX-based computers, either; space computer hardware has to be well proven and rugged. If it fails at the wrong moment, you die. Armstrong and Aldrin’s Raytheon AGC fly-by-wire computer partly crashed when they were descending to the Moon in 1969. But not totally – and it was safe to land.

What’s driving the illusion of Orion being ‘retrograde’, I think, is that we’re conditioned to imagine space ‘progress’ as ‘advance’ from one-shot cone-shaped ‘capsules’, to multi-use winged spaceplanes designed to fly, literally, into space. They were the future, way back when. Except they weren’t. The problem is that the laws of physics don’t co-operate. Mass is everything in spaceflight – dry mass to fuel mass ratio, in particular. The Shuttle orbiter had to lug a LOT of mass into orbit that was useless up there – wings, tail, landing gear, hydraulics, heat shield and so forth. Dead loss for your fuel budget. And that’s apart from the risks of strapping the spaceplane to the side of its booster.

Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.
Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.

For anything beyond low-earth orbit, you need a vehicle that lacks the encumbrance of aircraft-style flight hardware – but which can still make an aero-braked descent to Earth, because it’s not practical to carry the fuel you need to slow down by rocket. Ideally the spacecraft also has to generate a certain amount of aerodynamic lift, both to steer the descent and to reduce deceleration forces on the crew. The resulting shape is specific, and Apollo, Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and Chelomei’s 1970s-Soviet era VA re-entry capsule all use virtually the same truncated cone design. McDonnell Douglas’ Gemini, Space X’s Dragon, the Soyuz and Shenzhou offer only minor variations on the theme.

Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.
Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.

Orion, in short, is a recognition of the physics of rocket-propelled spaceflight. Budgets permitting, the 2020s should bring a flurry of similar spacecraft into low-earth orbit – Space X’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100, servicing the space station. The Russians (hopefully) will be in on the mix with their late-generation Soyuz. And there’s the Chinese manned programme.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain.

Beyond that, Orion will be on hand to fly to the Moon, a nearby asteroid, and eventually Mars. Orion will not, of course, fly by itself on long-duration missions. It’s good for 21 days in space – enough for an Apollo-type jaunt around the Moon – but for longer flights it’ll be docked to a habitat module. This mirrors the 1968 plan to send astronauts on a Venus flyby using Apollo hardware – the crew would have spent most of the 396 day flight inside a modified S-IVB stage, using the CSM only for the launch and re-entry phases.

Orion with propulsion and habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.
Artist’s impression of Orion with propulsion and small habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

Orion, similarly, will be docked with various habitats and propulsion stages depending on mission. The whole stack will become the ‘interplanetary spacecraft’. But all this assumes budget and enthusiasm, among other things (‘other things’ includes finding ways of dealing with radiation, of which more some other time). Bottom line is that state-run space efforts can be killed with the stroke of a political pen.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, then, will be re-selling the excitement of the space dream to a wider public, both in the US and beyond. And this, I think, is where the focus needs to be for the foreseeable future. Space flight is, after all, one of the greatest ventures in the history of the world.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


4 thoughts on “Orion’s first flight is good news – but can NASA sell the space dream?

  1. I’m growing more optimistic about Orion actually reaching the point of being a flying craft, lately. It seems, and I say this without following closely, to be avoiding the major dramas and sudden unexpected crashes of budget or time that strangle earlier programs. If it’s able to stay nice and, well, boring, then I imagine that its tolerable budget demands and schedule (and the prestige need of having some US-designed spacecraft bringing people up) should let it carry on through to actually carrying people into space.

    1. I agree – keep it boring and under the radar. I’m sure Orion will fly, and very successfully, if the funding persists. Still think it’s weird that the US ended up without a manned spacecraft, having basically led the world in it for half a century, especially given the number of other nations that are getting in on the game. We’re even developing our own rocket booster here in New Zealand – recently announced, capable of orbiting micro-sats up to 110 kg http://www.rocketlabusa.com/

      I worked out that this could, accordingly, loft Justin Bieber into orbit. Albeit without any weight reserve for niceties such as spacesuit or even a space capsule, but hey…

  2. LOL your suggestion to hoist Justin Bieber into orbit! BTW, have you read “The Martian” yet? Just finished it and thought of you.

    1. Thanks! I haven’t read “The Martian” – must look out for it. I gather it’s being made into a movie, which isn’t bad for a book that started off self-pubbed (another authentication of the self-pub environment, which is getting more mainstream these days).

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