NASA today unveiled for the press the Orion capsule scheduled for the program’s first test flight in 2014.


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NASA today unveiled for the press the Orion capsule scheduled for the program’s first test flight in 2014.

Today’s unveiling was essentially a PR event designed to boost political support for the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule program. And though we should definitely give kudos to Lockheed Martin for its progress on Orion, it is also important to note that the building of this capsule took 8 years and about $6.5 billion. And it won’t go into space for still another two years at best. Compare that to SpaceX’s Dragon, which took about four years from concept to launch, with a cost of about $1 billion.

It is this contrast that is worrying the political supporters of SLS and Orion. Consider for example this quote from the above article:

But the Orion schedule assumes steady funding by Congress, which is an open question given the current debate over federal budget deficits, taxes and a general push to reduce federal spending. “We have to be concerned about that because we are in an era of government spending where you have to do more with a limited amount,” Nelson said. “That, of course, is going to be one of the main things we’re going to have to look at in the future.” [emphasis mine]

Nelson has been a big backer of SLS from the moment Congress decided to force it down NASA’s throat. It is very clear from his comments above however that he recognizes the political difficulties that this very expensive program faces.

As I’ve said before, I expect SLS to die sometime in the next three years. Faced with a ungodly federal deficit, the next Congress is going to look for ways to save money and — assuming the commercial space companies like SpaceX continue to have success — Congress will see this program as one of those ways.

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2 comments

  • Patrick

    Before WWII if you wanted to sell the government a plane you built it tested it and proved its worth BEFORE the government made an order.

    By the Korean war the whole picture had changed. The government paid for everything first. Then made an order that was way bigger than necessary. Then cut the order to tell you it was saving money by cutting back.

    NASA was the research spearhead of this whole problem. And it looks like they still have not realized that private industry no longer needs them and their over budgeted ways.

    There are new players in the game and they are setting the pace for the future.
    Much to the overtaxed relief of the US citizen.

    You are quite correct in thinking that the SLS will quietly be shelved and replaced with a private system reusing older proven technology.
    And if NASA doesn’t catch up and change then it to will be quietly mothballed and replaced with the research end of Darpa. Who seem to have their mind on the right track.

  • Craig Beasley

    Two things:

    SpaceX has been the benficiary of technology development in the past by its contemporary competition. Said competition is not in a position to do the same and is developing NEW systems. Don’t get me wrong, it is the proper thing for SpaceX or other companies to take advantage of such pre-developed solutions, but the costs are obviously very different when you consider that advantage.

    The time required to develop Orion has been very dependent on continual redesigns needed to absorb incredibly jarring changes in the launch environment. Once the program (finally) froze the major environment of the system and committed to a design, development has been very fast. SpaceX has been able to control both its laucher and its payload as one big program. Of course, it is proper to recognize that this is a larger cultural problem where NASA doesn’t often play well with others, or rather the children centers fight instead of working together.

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