Orion might not be ready for 2018 test flight

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Government in action! Last week NASA admitted that the Orion capsule and its service module might not be ready for its 2018 test flight.

Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate, told members of the [NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration] subcommittee the Orion capsule’s European-made service module, which is being developed by Airbus Defense and Space, will probably be the last piece of the critical test flight to be ready for launch.

NASA and ESA officials, together with contractors from Orion-builder Lockheed Martin and Airbus, have discussed shipping the Orion service module from Europe to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida before it is finished. European engineers could travel to the Florida spaceport to complete construction of the service module before its integration with the Orion crew capsule, which is to be assembled by Lockheed Martin at KSC’s Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

Engineers plan to introduce changes to the Orion crew module after a successful orbital test flight in December 2014. The upgrades include a switch from a monolithic heat shield made of ablative Avcoat material to blocks of Avcoat, a change intended to improve the manufacturability of the thermal protection system. [emphasis mine]

I have highlighted the last paragraph above because it is written to give the false impression that the decision to change the heat shield resulted from the December 2014 test flight. The truth is that NASA had already decided to change heat shields before the test flight. Why NASA engineers are still “planning” to introduce these changes illustrates why government operations are absurdly wasteful.

Orion was first proposed by President George Bush in 2004. The first Orion contract was awarded in 2006. It is now a decade later, and NASA is suddenly warning us that they might not get a single capsule and service module built by 2018, 12 years after construction began. During that time they have spent approximately a billion dollars per year on Orion. For what?

Kennedy proposed going to the Moon in 1961. Eight years later Americans were walking there. Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. The U.S. completed the total defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in slightly more than three years, by the spring of 1945.

Today’s NASA however can’t get a single capsule and service module built in 12 years. The contrast is striking. Anyone with the slightest bit of common sense would say that with a track record like this, this program should be shut down now.


  • Fred Kleindenst

    It is really kind of a joke. They didn’t like the quality control on the originally built, monolithic heat shield described here:

    “On the heat shield that we’ve got right now, we have a composite substrate, and we attach a honeycomb structure to that,” Bray said. “It takes us about six months to fill 330,000 holes with individual gunners.”

    So they plan to build heatshield blocks (by hand again), then Xray them and sand them with a robot. Thus increasing the time and expense to build a heatshield. This is phenomenally expensive and clearly a waste of money.

  • Edward


    Since quality control has resulted in several failed missions in the Russian space program over the past half decade or so, and since the most recent Falcon 9 launch ended in disaster due to low-quality struts, I am not laughing along with you.

    As noted in the article you linked to, NASA is fixing a safety concern, specifically inconsistent quality on a life-critical item. NASA has been excoriated in the past for not fixing safety issues that resulted in lost crews, so we should not complain when they fix one before the problem becomes fatal.

    Whether or not we think that the spacecraft (or its rocket) is a boondoggle, the crew deserves the best effort to protect them from harm.

  • Fred Kleindenst

    I agree with your point about crew safety.

    I don’t agree that the most efficient fix is necessarily to layer on extra bits of QA process.

    I think this particular heat shield production process clearly needs to be re-engineered to enable a consistent product with much, much less labor. They are re-engineering, but they are getting more complex ….

  • The longer Lockheed can draw out the development, the more money they get paid.

    Bob Clark

  • Egad

    The thing that seems to keep getting missed is that NASA is not just changing the manufacturing process that produced a monolithic heat shield. It’s going to a totally different shield design involving ~180 blocks with a few hundred gaps between them and that will have to be individually stuck to a substrate. True, the ablator will still be Avcoat, but everything else is significantly different. Which pretty much means that EFT-1 was a non-test of the EM-1 heat shield; that will be of a new design and, BTW, undergo more stressing reentry conditions than the EFT-1 monolithic one did.

  • This fact (that the test flight was not a test flight for the heat shield) has not been missed here at BtB. I have made this point before, during, and after the test flight, which was nothing more than a public relations stunt aimed at fooling people into believing that NASA is accomplishing something.

    I repeat: It is disgusting that it is going to take today’s NASA a minimum of 12 years to build this single capsule and rocket. It took us far less time to get multiple crews to and from the Moon in the 1960s.

  • Egad

    This thread has probably reached its end, but I’ll note a puzzlement:

    The monolithic -> 180 block design change first was reported as a possibility at the beginning of October last year (2014), got mentioned a couple of times, again as a possibility, in early 2015 and then got as confirmed as you can get about these things mid-May. After that, nada.

    Thinking that if the design change were as major as it seems, I made an effort to get one of the better space reporters interested, including a PDF with the published evidence, but, again, nada. No explanation for why not, just nada.

    So, I have to think that maybe the change from monolithic to block isn’t as confirmed as I think. Or as major as it seems. Or something.

  • The change is confirmed. The reason there is not much written about it is because NASA doesn’t want much written about it. It makes the entire SLS program look foolish, especially because they did a test flight knowing they were testing a heat shield they had already rejected.

    Most space reporters support NASA, so even if NASA was willing to feed them info (which it decidedly is not) they aren’t eager to report this story themselves. And the mainstream press is too stupid or ignorant to cover it at all.

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