NASA considers alternatives to Orion

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The competition heats up: Faced with long delays and an ungodly budget, NASA is now considering alternatives to replace the Orion capsule.

NASA has initiated a process that raises questions about the future of its Orion spacecraft. So far, this procedural effort has flown largely under the radar, because it came in the form of a subtle Request for Information (RFI) that nominally seeks to extend NASA’s contract to acquire future Orion vehicles after Exploration Mission-2, which likely will fly sometime between 2021 and 2023.

Nevertheless, three sources familiar with the RFI, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Ars there is more to the request than a simple extension for Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin. Perhaps most radically, the RFI may even open the way for a competitor, such as Boeing or SpaceX, to substitute its own upgraded capsule for Orion in the mid-2020s.

The article also has this juicy quote:

The new RFI states that Lockheed will continue with development of Orion through a second uncrewed flight set for late 2018 and Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed mission, as early as 2021. However, once this “base vehicle” configuration is established, the RFI signals NASA’s intent to find a less expensive path forward. “This RFI serves as an examination of the market, which is an initial step in pursuing any of the available acquisition strategies, including the exercising of existing options,” the document states.

The end of SLS and Orion is beginning.


  • wodun


    Talk about some expensive indecision.

  • LocalFluff

    It is not all wasted. At least it must’ve been fun for the engineers to have played historic reenactment with this 1960s retro Orion toy.

  • ken anthony

    For less than they’ve already wasted on Orion so far (and they are not done) they could have started up more than a half dozen SpaceX equivalents. Trump is going to find so much waste in the budget his biggest problem will be having the time to address it all.

  • Edward

    This article has been bothering me for a few days. I am having trouble sorting out my thoughts, but I seem to be thinking that Orion may not be expensive enough, per spacecraft, to be worth replacing with yet another expensive — and delaying — project.

    Not mentioning the production cost for each future Orion does not give us a good handle on any savings by developing another deep space spacecraft. The current expenditure is about $1.1 billion annually, but this is for a development program with associated qualification testing at many levels that may disappear or be reduced under a production program. If we assume that a production program would continue at the same level of cost, this would mean that for a biennial launch cadence (the proposed launch rate of the SLS), each would cost about $2.2B. However, the article states that Lockheed Martin (LM) has already found ways to reduce this cost by at least half, which would make each spacecraft at most $1.1B.

    from the article: “Now, as outlined in Lockheed Martin’s response to NASA’s RFI, we’ve identified savings that will reduce the recurring production costs of Orion by 50 percent – and we aren’t stopping there.

    With a reduced unit cost, is it worth the additional cost — and time — for NASA to develop yet another deep space spacecraft?

    However, the article does make a point of suggesting that Orion is not going to be replaced after all. From the article: “The most simple interpretation is that the RFI represents something of a ‘stalking horse’ to drive down Lockheed’s bid to build subsequent Orions during the operational phase of the spacecraft, when NASA begins to fly crews into deep space.

    If the purpose of the RFI was to have been to get LM to reduce costs then it seems to have worked, so perhaps we will get an Orion spacecraft that is almost worth the per-unit cost (although I doubt we will ever get enough use from it to justify the development cost).

    If Orion’s latest purpose is to deliver people to a cislunar deep-space habitat, as the article suggests, then Orion may quickly become obsolete by slightly redesigned Dragon or Starliner spacecraft, modified to accommodate the multi-day voyages to and from destinations in cislunar space. Of course, yet another Service Module will need to be developed in order to get the Dragon or Starliner to the required destinations (or maybe the proposed ULA ACES upper stage can be used for this purpose).

    Another problem I have with the article is that it does not adequately explain NASA’s frustration with LM. It suggests that this frustration comes from the costs of delays and the costs of requests for significant changes, but these delays and changes come from NASA and its management, not from LM. NASA understands that each of these causes additional costs, so this cannot explain the frustration.

    Although some costs can be reduced with a slowing of the development and manufacturing rate, other costs are fixed costs and cannot easily be eliminated and can at best only be partially reduced.

    From the article: “Some members of Congress have quietly been asking NASA why it is now funding the development of three capsules.

    Well, there are two for ISS work, because we should have learned the lesson of losing the use of the Space Shuttle. Always have a backup system.

    The third spacecraft has a very different mission. And was demanded by Congress itself after Obama tried to kill it. Are these members of Congress paying any attention?

    wodun asked in another thread: “Why hurry when a completed Orion would just sit around doing nothing for years and years?”

    Although the question was rhetorical, when a completed Orion would just sit around for years, the experts would still have to remain on staff, because they will be needed when Orion eventually flies. This is part of the fixed costs of delays. If Orion just sits around for years, some of these experts will be lost to retirement and other attrition, yet would not be replaced with new experts. Slowing the development allows for new experts to learn the system in order to replace those lost to attrition.

    This is a tremendous frustration for me, when a president willy nilly cancels a not-invented-here project, only to have a new version resurrected at great expense by Congress. Time and money have been lost that could have been better spent on the original project, which would have been in service by now, or better spent on other worthwhile projects, such as CCtCap (and its predecessor, CCDev), which also would have been in service by now — eliminating our continued, embarrassing dependency on Russia.

    These were some arbitrary thoughts, and I hope they were articulate enough to be worth reading.

  • Steve Earle

    Edward, I may not always agree with you, but you are always worth reading. :-)

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