The Orion fantasy

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There is a commercial space conference going on in Colorado this week, which explains the plethora of breaking stories from the new commercial space companies both yesterday and today.

Two stories today from Aviation Week, however, are more about the old big space industry and the old way of doing things, and both reveal the hollow nature of that entire effort.

Both stories are about work Lockheed Martin is doing in connection with its Orion capsule, and both try to convince us that this capsule is going to be the central vehicle for the first missions to Mars.

Function starts in the bones of the spacecraft,” [Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager,] said in an April 12 interview at the 32nd annual Space Symposium here. “To be a deep space spacecraft, you have to build differently than you would if your requirements were to stay in low Earth orbit and be quiescent at the International Space Station for a few months. That’s driven Orion from the beginning. Any architecture you look at needs a crew capability, a long-term design requirement. So, you can debate a lot of different missions, but you need that fundamental capacity we have invested in Orion.”

I say balderdash. Orion is an over-priced and over-engineered ascent/descent capsule for getting humans in and out of Earth orbit. Spending billions so it can also go to Mars makes no sense, because its heat shield and other capsule technologies for getting through the Earth’s atmosphere are completely useless in interplanetary travel. Moreover, such a small capsule is completely insufficient for a long Mars mission, even if you test it for a “1,000 day” missions, as Hawes also says in the first article. To send a crew to Mars, you need a big vessel, similar to Skylab, Mir, ISS, or Bigelow’s B330 modules. A mere capsule like Orion just can’t do it.

Eventually, it is my hope that Congress will recognize this reality, and stop funding big space projects like SLS and Orion, and instead put its money behind the competitive private efforts to make money in space. Rather than trying to build its own capsules, space stations, rockets, and interplanetary vessels (something that NASA has repeatedly tried to do without any success), NASA should merely be a customer, buying the capsules, space stations, and interplanetary vessels that private companies have built, on their own, to make money, on their own.

Consider for example Bigelow’s B330. Each module is about as big as Skylab or Mir, and costs mere pennies to build and launch, compared to those government-designed stations. Moreover, Bigelow can build it fast, and repeatedly. Similarly, Orion has cost billions (about $16 billion when it makes its first manned mission in 2021 at the earliest) and will have taken 15 years to build. SpaceX built Dragon in seven years, Orbital ATK built Cygnus in five years, and Boeing is going to build Starliner in about four years, all for about $10 billion, total.

The contrast is striking, and though ordinary people with the ability to add 2 plus 2 can see it, it takes Congressman a little longer (as they need to use their fingers to count). Sooner or later they will get it, and Orion and SLS will disappear. Bet on it.


  • Matt in AZ

    I can see an Orion being used as a piloting/control center (preferably a backup one) while attached to a larger vessel of Bigelow-type modules, powerplant, engines, etc. Any talk of it being the primary or sole vehicle for an interplanetary mission seems more of a case of the NASA reps intentionally not mentioning the “super-expensive rest of the large vehicle” they know they’ll need, so it won’t be dealt with until much later budgetary debates, with the media and politicians not knowing any better or caring, respectively.

  • wodun

    Hasn’t it always been intended that the Orion partner with a hab built by ESA?

    “Moreover, Bigelow can build it fast, and repeatedly.”

    This is an important point. NASA builds one offs. They wouldn’t/couldn’t build a duplicate ISS. Bigelow habs can be mass produced creating efficiencies of scale and in maintenance costs through commonality. Bigelow habs can be shipped anywhere, plug into any system, or form their own station.

    We need a station at one of the lagrange points to support lunar and Mars activities. These Bigelow habs look ideal to form the backbone of such a station. They could also be used in Mars space. Left to its own devices, NASA would create one off idiosyncratic stations.

    But what we also need is a variable gravity station, anyone have any ideas how a Bigelow hab would perform in this capacity? It might remove a lot of their volume advantages and the engineering might not allow it to happen.

  • Dick Eagleson

    What follows is a repost of something that I put up over at Space News a little bit ago. For those interested in the whole story and all the comments, here’s the link.

    Orion, IIRC, can support four people for three weeks. Period. So tacking on a “habitat” module that relies on Orion’s life support is supposed to help get us to Mars, how? Unless someone has one of Heinlein’s torch drives laying around somewhere, there’s no way 12 person-weeks of life support is ever going to get anybody to Mars. This glorified tin can will be of no conceivable interest to anyone looking to do sustained operations in cis-lunar space either.

    In previous comments here and elsewhere, I have enunciated the concept of serial ghost towns in space. The idea is that each successive push into a new part of space is only going to be accomplished at the price of abandonment of all previous efforts so long as space is done on the U.S. government’s dime. Thus: 1) we couldn’t “pioneer” LEO without abandoning the Moon, 2) we can’t “re-pioneer” the Moon or “pioneer” Mars without abandoning LEO, and, 3) we for sure can’t “pioneer” both the Moon and Mars at the same time.

    In their habitat proposal, Lockheed-Martin have nicely encapsulated my concept in hardware. Their “habitat” looks like nothing so much as it does a pre-packaged space ghost town – go somewhere close by for a week or two, then leave and shut the lights off.

    Perhaps even this characterization gives the LockMart plan too much credit, though. Their proposed “hab” isn’t even a full ghost town. It’s more like a “line shack,” if I may invoke another Westernism – an isolated cabin with no well to which one must bring water, food and, in this case, air, in order to make it actually habitable.

  • Dick,

    This is simply more lobbying by Lockheed Martin for governments funds to keep the company operating. They have really no interest in actually accomplishing anything in space, which anyone with even the slightest skepticism can see clearly. It is all a Potemkin Village.

    Which happened to be the point of my post. I know you know this, but I think it should be said again. What they are doing, in league with corrupt elected officials, is stealing money from the taxpayer just to keep Lockheed Martin operating.

  • Cotour

    Related: Fantasy:

    Check it……

  • Wayne

    Is that actually “real?”
    No way that could actually work!
    (But, then again…I only play an engineer on the internet!)

  • Cotour

    Looks real to me, I have not seen the internals though, sounds like a turbine.

    This is also real

    The development of the mini turbine and miniature gyros and control systems are the key to these devices.

  • George Turner

    But the goal of these efforts is to develop museum qualified flight hardware. To get the museum qualification you have to fly the hardware on a space mission because few museum are interested in development junk that never flew.

    Make no mistake. The Orion display is going to look spectacular.

  • Wayne

    Thanks. I fully believe the jet-pack stuff ‘cuz I’ve seen one demonstrated in person. But that “hover-board” thing just looks tooo small to be reality.
    Any clue how that thing is powered?
    [har– “everyone knows hover-boards don’t work on water.”]

    This, is not real:

    Totally tangential– You ever get the feeling we are living in the Back to the Future II timeline, and Biff is running for President??

  • Wayne

    George Turner: — “…museum qualified flight hardware…”
    Love it! (although it occurs to me…you aren’t entirely joking…)
    What’s $19 trillion in debt among friends after all, as long as we have well-stocked Museums, eh? (and the well-paid Government employees, to run them.)

  • Cotour

    Its funny that you post the intro for the Jetsons, the kids that watched that show and other shows like Star Trek are the ones who are applying the new materials and technology to accomplish the manifestation of the cartoon and sci fi imaginings.

    See: Musk, Bezos, Branson, Jobs, etc. etc., and on and on it will go and will of course be fully realized with the final acceptance that Marxism and socialist modes of operation were in the end what really accomplished it all.

    Here is one of the indicators that are beginning to reveal the truth :

  • Wayne

    Cotour– great video!

  • Doug Jones

    Another video shows the takeoff from an elevated grid to prevent exhaust air reingestion. Looks mighty damn real to me.

  • Wayne

    Doug Jones:
    Thanks. Yeah…it does look real.
    How is this device powered?

  • Cotour

    If sci fi and modern culture is what drives these kinds of things where will it end?

  • “trying to build its own capsules, space stations, rockets, and interplanetary vessels (something that NASA has repeatedly tried to do without any success)” – without any success, that is, apart from landing on the Moon and operating the first US space station.

    Yes, of course this should all be being done by private enterprise now, but don’t forget the role that governments played decades ago in getting spaceflight started.

  • Dick Eagleson


    Right with you on LockMart’s space “hab” being an unworkable excuse to cadge yet more money from the already overburdened U.S. taxpayer. As per George T. we are unlikely to see any results from this unless someone decides to open a Museum of Stupid Things. The scary part is that, in terms of wasteful programs, this is pretty much penny ante even by LockMart standards. Orion, itself, is far worse – and don’t get me started on the F-35.


    Nobody disputes that the young NASA once did great things. But my “gratitude” to government employees has limits. Specifically, I feel no gratitude whatsoever to the legions of currently-employed NASA and contractor drones most of whom accomplish nothing beyond consumption of tax money in salaries and pensions. This is especially so when they invoke the memories of their far more accomplished predecessors as some kind of justification for all the egregious wastage going on in the here-and-now.

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