Orion faces more budget and schedule delays

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A new inspector general report of NASA’s Orion has found that the program still faces significant budget and technical problems in meeting the planned August 2021 launch date for its first manned mission.

The report makes it clear that this launch will almost certainly be delayed until 2023, meaning that from the date President George Bush proposed Orion in 2004, it will have taken NASA a full two decades to launch the first manned Orion capsule.

Let me repeat that: Two decades to build and launch a single manned mission. Does anyone see something wrong here?

As for what will happen after that first flight, the report itself [pdf] makes it pretty clear that not much is likely. From page 11:

For Orion missions after 2023, NASA has adopted an incremental development approach. According to the Program Plan, the approach is cost-driven and will provide a core vehicle the Agency can upgrade to provide additional capabilities for missions beyond cis-lunar space. Each incremental upgrade will build on flight experience to ensure the vehicle’s design is based on viable technology and capabilities. Consistent with this incremental approach, NASA has not committed to specific missions after 2023 and therefore has not developed detailed plans, requirements, or costs for such missions. According to NASA officials, the Agency will instead focus on building capabilities through defined roadmaps that identify technology development paths and capability requirements for deep space exploration missions. Officials explained the Agency will fund basic research, pursue development of the technologies that appear most viable, and build capabilities based on available funding. Missions will be selected based on the progress and maturity of the developed technology.

A translation of this gobbly-gook into plain English can be summed up as follows: Congress has given us no money for future missions, so we can’t plan anything.

Considering the cost and the ungodly amount of time it took NASA to get to this one flight, and considering how badly this record compares with the numerous flights that private commercial space will achieve prior to this single flight, don’t expect Congress to fork up more money after 2023. SLS and Orion are going to die. Unfortunately, their slow death will have cost the American taxpayer billions of wasted dollars that NASA could have been better spent on other things.


  • Matt in AZ

    While it’s a waste, would it -really- have been better spent on other things? This is the national budget we’re talking about here. Without an equivalent busywork-pork alternative to Orion/SLS, I doubt much of that money would have been kept in the NASA budget. The money could have been absorbed into general spending as if it had never existed…

  • Tom Billings

    ” The money could have been absorbed into general spending as if it had never existed…”

    While true, relatively improbable. NASA was allocated a certain amount each year, as a whole. The political advantages of large projects come in the political costs for getting each line item through the committee level of the process. Votes for line items are horse-traded as favors. A few large projects require fewer favors to get it all onto the floor. If the 3 $billion for SLS and Orion are distributed among the 20 or so different technology development projects needed to advance technology for settling the Solar System, then Senators Shelby and Nelson have to expend 10 times the number of favors to shepherd them through the full committee process and past a floor vote.

    They, and their comrades in the House, find it to be, …politically inconvenient, …to expend that many more favors for the same amount of money sent into their districts, even if it all goes to the same people, and inside NASA, it wouldn’t. The expertise to develop large launch vehicles is *not* the same needed to develop lunar landers. It is not the same needed to develop In Situ Resource Utilization technology demonstrations, or propellant depots. Marshall Spaceflight Center’s upper echelons have been specializing in large launch vehicles since 1959, and those are the NASA people Senator Shelby and his staff listen to most intently. They would have relatively little clout in an MSFC that was *not* developing big boosters, and would have a smaller retirement income as well.

  • Edward

    Matt in AZ wrote: “would it -really- have been better spent on other things?”

    Yes. It would have been spent on the commercial crewed transportation contracts. We are scheduled to launch the first one in 2018 instead of 2015, because Congress chose to reduce the funding on the CCDev related projects in order to better fund Orion and SLS. This means that the US relies on Russian transportation to the ISS for three years longer than originally expected. And this assumes that the 2018 schedule holds, yet the overall schedule seems to slip with each new NASA budget.

    Because Orion and SLS are actual, funded projects, other manned space activities and projects were not proposed and no requests for proposals have been made. There are plenty of possible things we can do in manned space, but the reality of the current funding prevents any new ideas from being considered.

    The only requests for proposals have been for unmanned uses for the SLS rocket.

    On the bright side, it looks like commercial manned companies will get a five-year head start on NASA in producing new ideas for manned space. If Bigelow can hold out until 2018 or so, then we should quickly see space habitats being served by manned and unmanned commercial spacecraft.

    Robert asked: “Does anyone see something wrong here?”

    Yes. There is a lack of urgency in NASA’s manned space program.

    Our current president did us no service when he cancelled the moon program and left NASA with an abundance of strategic confusion (a phrase I read somewhere), a space agency with no direction — adrift in space, as it were. The Obama administration is either timid, lacks imagination, or (most likely) both.

    Even our space probes have been lacking in originality, as Obama’s greatest direction to NASA was to make a copy of Curiosity. The talents at NASA and its contractors have been squandered for half a decade, and probably much longer.

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