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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.