Tag Archives: Orion

Software issues threaten Orion/SLS schedule

Despite having more than a decade to develop the software for SLS and Orion, NASA now faces the possibility that the rocket’s first test flight in 2018 might be delayed because that software is not ready.

Specifically, a NASA advisory board has revealed that Orion’s flight software is behind schedule and might not be ready in time. This, combined with schedule problems for the capsule’s service module, being built by the European Space Agency, threatens the 2018 launch date.

NASA considers alternatives to Orion

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.

Orion faces more delays

Faced with looming schedule problems for Europe’s effort to build the service module for the Orion capsule, NASA has created a working group to attack the problem.

The European Service Module (ESM) element of Orion has been classed as a major schedule driver for the program for some time. The Service Module for Orion was originally going to be an all-American system, under the control of Lockheed Martin. However, a deal back in 2012 resulted in an alliance with the European Space Agency (ESA) to utilize hardware associated with its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

The deal made sense. NASA’s goal of international collaboration is deemed to be an essential formula for spreading the costs and increasing the viability of NASA’s exploration goals, building on the success of the partnerships that built the International Space Station. Also, the ATV is proven technology, having already proved its worth via a string of successful resupply missions to the orbital outpost.

However, the challenge of combining the technology into what is essentially an American vehicle has resulted in schedule pressures.

Let me once again point out that Orion was first proposed by President George Bush in 2004. Its first official flight, with service module, is now scheduled for 2018. That means it took NASA 14 years to build and launch a unmanned single complete capsule, assuming they can get the service module built in time. That it took that long to build this is shameful. That there is even the slightest possibility that 14 years won’t be enough time to build the service module is downright disgusting, and is another illustration of the complete failure of the federal government.

Note that the previous unmanned Orion test flight in 2014 really doesn’t count. That capsule was a engineering test capsule, designed to test the capsule’s heat shield, even though NASA had already decided before the flight to abandon that heat shield design. In other words, it was a complete waste of money.

SLS schedule changes impending

NASA’s refurbishment plans for the mobile launcher and SLS launchpad suggest that the first manned flight of SLS is increasingly likely to be delayed from its present 2021 launch date.

The situation is complicated. The SLS configuration that will launch an unmanned capsule in December 2018 will use a Delta rocket upper stage, and will only have the capability of launching about 70 metric tons into low Earth orbit. After this one flight NASA wants to begin using SLS’s own upper stage, which it calls the Exploration Upper Stage and which will raise the rocket’s payload capacity to 105 metric tons. Because these changes will make SLS taller, however, they have to refurbish both the mobile launcher that brings the rocket to the launchpad as well as the launch tower used to fuel the rocket during countdown. These changes, now scheduled, will shut down the launchpad from January 2019 until the end of 2020.

The problem with doing this is that SLS’s second flight, presently scheduled in 2021, is supposed to be manned. To use the Exploration Upper Stage untested on this manned flight is something NASA doesn’t really want to do. Flying another unmanned flight to test that upper stage however will require NASA to delay the first manned flight again, probably to 2023.

Based on the article at the link above, those delays now seem almost certain. Because NASA is moving to refurbish the launchpad right after that first unmanned flight in December 2018, this means all later SLS launches will use the Exploration Upper Stage. Since Congress has also ordered NASA to fly its upcoming Europa orbiter mission on SLS, it seems to me that NASA is now quietly moving to add a second unmanned SLS test flight between the rocket’s first flight in 2018 and the first manned flight and will use it to launch the Europa orbiter some time in 2021. This will in turn delay the launch of that first manned flight, probably until 2023, a date that is presently listed in many NASA documents as the latest SLS’s first manned mission will fly.

If this is the case, it means that it will have literally taken NASA two decades to build and fly a single manned Orion capsule, beginning when George Bush ordered the construction of the Crew Exploration Vehicle in January 2004.

Does no one but me see something wrong here?

Orion faces more budget and schedule delays

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.

Starliner and Orion drop tests

The competition heats up: NASA and Boeing have begun drop tests on land and water respectively of their Orion and Starliner manned capsules.

Both sets of tests are taking place at Langley. With Orion they are dropping the mockup in water to test how it will respond to a variety of circumstances. With Starliner they have finished the water drop tests and have begun drop tests on land.

The status of SLS for its first launch in 2018

Link here. The article gives an excellent and detailed overview of where construction of SLS presently sits, what the problems are that still remain, and what they have done to overcome them.

What struck me most however in reading the article was how long it takes them to do anything. For example, it appears they will assemble the rocket in the spring of 2018 for a December launch. In fact, the description of this assembly in this article partly explains to me why SLS will have the ungodly slow launch rate of at best once every two years.

In addition, the article describes how NASA has handled a number of engineering issues that have come up, and for each the approach seems to me to be more complicated than necessary. However, I am not an engineer and have never been part of this kind of work. Maybe everyone does it this way.

NASA finalizes more cubesat deals for first SLS launch

Lockheed Martin and NASA have signed a deal to put a science cubesat on the first SLS rocket, planned for an unmanned launch of Orion in 2018.

The adapter ring that connects Orion to the rocket will include 13 bays for CubeSats, shoe-box sized payloads that until now haven’t been delivered in significant numbers into deep space. Each of those payload operators is working to finalize contracts with NASA for the ride into space, and on Monday, Lockheed Martin announced a few details of its 6U CubeSat, called SkyFire. Lockheed’s payload will capture high-quality images of the Moon. And in exchange for the ride into deep space, NASA will receive data from the mission.

“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar characteristics like solar illumination areas,” James Russell, Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator, said in a news release. “We’ll be able to see new things with sensors that are less costly to make and send to space.”

This is without doubt a great opportunity for Lockheed Martin and others to test the use of a cubesat in interplanetary space. Whether it makes sense to use SLS to launch them is another matter entirely.

NASA delays asteroid redirect mission one year

NASA has decided to delay by one year the planned launch dates for both its unmanned and manned missions to an asteroid.

And why might you ask?

Mr. Gerstenmaier further stated that “We had trouble getting the funding together for this thing. So this slip of the one year that you see wasn’t caused by technical. It was really caused by budget availability. We just didn’t have the budget available to go do this.”

Also, the article notes that the launch rocket for the unmanned mission, now set for 2021, will be one of three possible rockets.

No elaboration was given as to what those “three rockets” are, though SLS, one of SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets, and Atlas V are understood to be the prime contenders at this time.

The unmanned mission might happen (though I wouldn’t bet on it). As for the manned mission, there is a reason NASA has had trouble getting funding. SLS/Orion cost too much. Congress simply doesn’t want to spend that much for the actual missions. They will dole out a lot of cash for development (and the pork that goes with it), but even they can’t afford the gigantic budgets NASA needs to actually fly real missions.

July 29, 2016 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

The podcast is now fixed and available! John Batchelor thanks Willi for spotting the problem.

Embedded below the fold. John Batchelor titled this appearance very accurately: “Condemning Orion.” He likes to say that I am sometimes cranky. I was especially cranky tonight in reviewing why I think the way NASA is selling Orion is an outright lie.
» Read more

GAO warns of more cost overruns for SLS/Orion

The Government Accountability Office today issued two reports, both of which said that the SLS and Orion programs are faced with more cost overruns and schedule delays.

The GAO found that cost overruns for Orion could be as high as $707 million and that work is “not being accomplished as scheduled.” It also found challenges with the capsule’s software and heat shield, and said that the space capsule’s cost and schedule “estimates are not reliable.”

Other than that, everything is peachy keen! These reports, (the Orion report is found here [pdf] and the SLS report here [pdf], especially the Orion one, also suggest that the first manned Orion mission, now scheduled for 2021, stands a good chance of being delayed again, possibly for two more years.

This just confirms what I have written in my soon-to-be published policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century. In fact, I need to add these GAO reports to my sources!

The Lie that is Orion

Several weeks ago NASA put out one of its periodic press releases touting the wonders of the engineering the agency is doing to prepare for its future missions to Mars. In this case the press release described a new exercise device, dubbed ROCKY (for Resistive Overload Combined with Kinetic Yo-Yo), for use in the Orion capsule.

“ROCKY is an ultra-compact, lightweight exercise device that meets the exercise and medical requirements that we have for Orion missions,” said Gail Perusek, deputy project manager for NASA’s Human Research Program’s Exploration Exercise Equipment project. “The International Space Station’s exercise devices are effective but are too big for Orion, so we had to find a way to make exercising in Orion feasible.

As is their habit these days in their effort to drum up support for funding for SLS and Orion, the press release was filled with phrases and statements that implied or claimed that Orion was going to be the spacecraft that Americans will use to explore the solar system.

…engineers across NASA and industry are working to build the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket that will venture to deep space for the first time together…

…Over the next several years, NASA’s Human Research Program will be refining the device to optimize it not only for near-term Orion missions with crew, but for potential uses on future long-duration missions in Orion…

These are only two examples. I have clipped them because both were very carefully phrased to allow NASA deniablity should anyone question these claims. For example, in the first quote they qualify “deep space” as specifically the 2018 unmanned lunar test flight. And the second quote is qualified as referring to missions to lunar space. Nonetheless, the implied intent of this wording is to sell Orion as America’s interplanetary spaceship, destined to take us to the stars!

Don’t believe me? Then take a look at NASA’s own Orion webpages, starting with the very first words on their Orion Overivew page.
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A description of SLS’s first launch

This article provides a detailed look at the planned 2018 first launch of SLS, describing step-by-step the launch process that will send an unmanned Orion capsule toward the Moon.

As my readers know, I am not a fan of SLS. I consider it an incredible waste of money that will never accomplish anything. Nonetheless, that first launch will be a cool thing to watch, as the rocket will generate comparable energy as the Saturn 5.

Europe announces a three month delay for Orion service module

Be still my heart: Delivery of the service module for NASA’s Orion capsule, being built by the European Space Agency, will be three months late due to engineering modifications.

Nico Dettman, head of ESA’s space transportation department, said the delay is partly a result of the fact that several components could not yet be assessed in the full critical design review and need more time to be integrated into the design. Dettman said another issue forcing the delay resulted from a reassessment by NASA of the stresses the service module needs to be capable of handling in orbit. These “in-orbit load” specifications have recently been tightened. But any design modifications will not affect the service module’s core structure, he said. “If it has an impact, it will be limited to the solar array wings, not the structure – nothing where flight hardware has been manufactured that we will have to touch,” Dettman said. “It’s a late modification, but not too late.”

Note that George Bush proposed Orion in January 2004. The first full up test flight, unmanned, is now scheduled for 2018. Thus, they only had 14 years to build this single capsule and service module.

It took NASA less than five years to build the first Apollo capsule and service module, and less than 8 years to fly seven to the Moon. Damn, it took the Allies less than four years to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II. Yet somehow the big government space programs of NASA and ESA can’t build a single manned capsule in less than 14 years.

Doesn’t anyone but me see something wrong with this picture?

Airbus begins assembly Orion service module

My heart be still! Airbus has announced that it is beginning assembly of the first Orion capsule service module.

Considering the cost to build about three Orion flight capsules, about $25 billion, one would think that would be enough to also build the capsule’s service module, especially since this is not cutting edge technology, having already been done with Apollo.

Not however when you are dealing with pork-laden government operations, where the customer, the taxpayer, is a good mark that you can suck for as much money as possible without any bad consequences. Make it sound cool and they will buy it, hook, line, and sinker!

The Orion fantasy

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.

Second SLS flight delayed until 2023?

Government in action! The second flight of NASA’s SLS rocket, originally scheduled for around 2021 as the first manned mission, faces a possible delay of two years to 2023 so that it can be outfitted to launch the lander/orbiter planetary probe to Europa rather than flown manned.

The upper stage will be a new design that has never flown before. Thus, it has to be flown at least once unmanned to test it. Moreover, Congress in its most recent budget mandated that SLS be used for the Europa mission, probably in a team effort with NASA management to find a purpose for this missionless rocket that Congress has micromanaged from the beginning.

NASA has not officially decided to replace SLS’s original lunar manned mission for this second flight with the Europa mission, but I fully expect them to do so. They can’t fly the rocket with humans on it without first testing that upper stage engine at least once. Furthermore, the entire goal of SLS is not to fly missions but to employ people in Congressional districts. Delaying the first flight two years to outfit it for an unmanned planetary probe serves that absurd mission wonderfully.

The situation thus is that SLS will have a launch rate of once every five years, with a giant standing army of NASA and contractor employees paid during those years to do practically nothing while waiting for the next launch. While the article notes the high cost of building anything for SLS, it doesn’t explain that the reason things cost so much is that the government is slow-walking the construction of everything.

Note also that this means that Lockheed Martin will have an additional five years or so to finish its third Orion capsule. By that point the company will likely have spent about $20 billion, to build three capsules. Only a fool and a Congressman would consider this a good buy for the money.

Experts: NASA’s SLS Mars proposals bunk

The death of SLS begins: At House hearings this week, congressmen listened to several space experts who lambasted NASA’s asteroid and Mars mission proposals.

Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and an expert on lunar science, was especially harsh.

“America’s civil space program is in disarray, with many aspirations and hopes but few concrete, realizable plans for future missions or strategic direction,” he said, adding that NASA lacks what it needs to pull off the mission (and throwing some shade at the agency’s strong Twitter game). “We pretend that we are on a ‘#JourneytoMars’ but in fact, possess neither the technology nor the economic resources necessary to undertake a human Mars mission now or within the foreseeable future. What is needed is a logically arranged set of short-term, realizable space goals–a series of objectives and destinations that are not only interesting in and of themselves, but whose attainment build space faring capability in the long term.”

The testimony claimed that it could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $1 trillion for NASA to get humans to Mars, numbers that are reasonable based on using NASA’s very costly and overpriced SLS/Orion rocket and capsule. The congressmen were of course interested in this, not because they want to get to Mars, but because they see gobs of pork for their districts in these numbers.

However, I expect that when SpaceX begins successfully launching its Falcon Heavy rocket in the next two years while simultaneously putting humans in space with its Dragon capsule, and does both for a tenth the cost of SLS/Orion, those same congressmen will dump SLS/Orion very quickly. Though they want the pork, they also know they don’t have $500 billion to $1 trillion to spend on space. The private sector gives them an option that is both affordable and of strong self-interest. The more realistically priced and designed hardware of private companies will give them a more credible opportunity to fund pork in their districts.

First SLS launch will carry 13 cubesats

NASA today announced that the first test flight of its giant SLS rocket, more powerful than the Saturn 5 and intended to make human missions beyond Earth orbit possible, will carry 13 cubesats in addition to its Orion capsule.

Because the mission plans on sending the unmanned Orion on an Earth orbit beyond the Moon, these cubesats will have an opportunity to go where no cubesat has gone before.

NASA ships a capsule

In what appears to me to be a overwrought attempt to make the minor shipment of one Orion capsule appear to be a major achievement, NASA on Monday transported the next Orion capsule from Louisiana to Florida.

They used the NASA’s Super Guppy cargo plane to do it, even though I suspect that the capsule really isn’t that large and could have likely been shipped by road in a truck for a lot less. The agency also apparently made a big deal about this shipment with the press, which like sheep went along with it.

The pictures here illustrate what I mean. I grant that the Super Guppy is a cool plane, and it is certainly fun to see how it is loaded and flies, but from a cost perspective this seems to be a very expensive way to transport the capsule.

As a result, the impression this all leaves me with is that NASA is really not doing very much with Orion, working at a snail’s pace to stretch out the payments, and thus has to sell every little thing to convince the public that this project is accomplishing a lot.

Orion: construction in slow motion

Today NASA announced completion of the welding of the next Orion capsule, a job that this story said took about three months to do 7 welds. The story also noted this:

After putting on the finished touches, NASA plans to ship the vehicle to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) aboard NASA’s Super Guppy airplane on or about Feb. 1. At KSC, engineers working inside the Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building (O & C) will spend the next two years outfitting Orion for launch in late 2018 by installing all the systems and subsystems for its inaugural flight to the Moon and back.

Overall this is the third Orion capsule that NASA has built, following the Ground Test Article (GTA), which did not fly, and the EFT-1 capsule which successfully launched just over one year ago on Dec. 5, 2014. [emphasis mine]

Three months to do 7 welds. Two years to outfit a capsule. Wow! At that pace they might launch before the end of the century.

Seriously, this is an absurdly slow work pace, illustrating the wasteful nature of the SLS/Orion program. Orion’s budget these days is about $1 billion per year, with a total cost expected to reach $17 billion by the time the fourth capsule is built and launched in 2023, for a project first proposed in 2004.

In other words, it will take NASA and Lockheed Martin almost 20 years to build four capsules for the cost of $17 billion. That is absurd. Compare it to commercial space: The entire budget for all the commercial crew contracts, including both cargo contracts and the manned contract, is about half that, and will produce four different vehicles, all of which will be built and flying by 2019 at the latest. And in the case of Dragon and Cygnus, more than a dozen capsules have already flown.

Is there no one in Washington with the brain power to read these numbers and come to a rational decision about SLS/Orion? It costs too much and isn’t getting us into space. Moreover, at its pace and cost it isn’t doing anything to help the American aerospace industry. Better for Congress to put money into other things, or save it entirely and reduce the deficit and thus not waste it on this pork barrel garbage.

Unfortunately, our elected officials today not only don’t have brains, too many of them are downright corrupt. They prefer to bankrupt the nation for their own petty gain rather than do things that might help the nation grow.

SLS still has no mission

At a meeting at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday, outlining the status of the Orion/SLS program, managers admitted that the program still lacks funding for any missions past its initial 2018 unmanned test flight.

Internally, a huge amount of work is continuing to take place on providing SLS with Design Reference Missions (DRMs). However, those are only for planning purposes and the outlook continues to change, resulting in uncertainty. Numerous factors are to blame, with funding once again mentioned as an issue during the KSC meeting – citing SLS is “lacking booked missions at this time due to tight funding.”

In other words, Congress has not provided NASA any funding for any real SLS missions. I also don’t expect Congress to ever do so, since the cost per launch ranges from $3 to $14 billion, depending on how you calculate the numbers. This is in comparison to the estimated per launch cost of about $100 to $150 million for a Falcon Heavy launch, capable of putting in orbit about two-thirds that of SLS. Even a stupid Congressmen can read these numbers and figure out that they will get a lot more bang per buck dumping SLS for Falcon Heavy.

Lockheed Martin ready to build Orion?

O joy! After more than a decade of design work, costing billions, Lockheed Martin now says it is ready to begin building the first Orion capsule for eventual launch only 8 years from now!

“The vast majority of Orion’s design is over, and now we will only change things when new requirements come into play,” said Michael Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion vice president and program manager. “Considering the incredible complexity of this spacecraft, the team is very proud to have successfully completed the design review and is looking forward to seeing it fly.”

For those who don’t detect my sarcasm, I find this project more than absurd. Bush proposed Orion in 2004. Lockheed has been spending billions for years just designing it. In about six to eight years from now they might finally get one capsule completed for launch in 2023, almost two decades after it was first proposed.

Two decades to build one capsule! With a cost in the billions. Let these facts sink in for a bit and then ask yourself: Why are we spending money on this pork project that will never fly?

NASA delays first Orion manned flight two more years

Surprise, surprise! NASA today announced that the first manned flight of the Orion capsule will likely be delayed two more years to 2023.

Orion has been under development since 2006, and is expected to have cost more than $17 billion when that first mission flies in 2023. SLS, once called Constellation but with a different configuration, has been under development since 2011, and has cost about that much through today. All told, I would estimate that by the time that flight occurs in 2023 (assuming it doesn’t get delayed again) NASA will have spent more than $40 billion.

This is a joke, but a very painful one. It is going to take NASA almost two decades to get one capsule off the ground. Compare that with the 1960s space race, where we went from nothing to landing on the Moon in a little more than eleven years.

If NASA had been spending this money on planetary missions, they might actually have been doing something worthwhile with it. Meanwhile, the private companies, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, Orbital ATK, are building capsules and rockets that are as capable, if not more so, and are getting them built now for less than a quarter that price, in the range of about $6 to $8 billion.

If our elected officials in Congress had any brains, they would shut Orion/SLS down now, and save the taxpayers an awful lot of money.

Orion might not be ready for 2018 test flight

Government in action! Last week NASA admitted that the Orion capsule and its service module might not be ready for its 2018 test flight.

Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate, told members of the [NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration] subcommittee the Orion capsule’s European-made service module, which is being developed by Airbus Defense and Space, will probably be the last piece of the critical test flight to be ready for launch.

NASA and ESA officials, together with contractors from Orion-builder Lockheed Martin and Airbus, have discussed shipping the Orion service module from Europe to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida before it is finished. European engineers could travel to the Florida spaceport to complete construction of the service module before its integration with the Orion crew capsule, which is to be assembled by Lockheed Martin at KSC’s Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

Engineers plan to introduce changes to the Orion crew module after a successful orbital test flight in December 2014. The upgrades include a switch from a monolithic heat shield made of ablative Avcoat material to blocks of Avcoat, a change intended to improve the manufacturability of the thermal protection system. [emphasis mine]

I have highlighted the last paragraph above because it is written to give the false impression that the decision to change the heat shield resulted from the December 2014 test flight. The truth is that NASA had already decided to change heat shields before the test flight. Why NASA engineers are still “planning” to introduce these changes illustrates why government operations are absurdly wasteful.

Orion was first proposed by President George Bush in 2004. The first Orion contract was awarded in 2006. It is now a decade later, and NASA is suddenly warning us that they might not get a single capsule and service module built by 2018, 12 years after construction began. During that time they have spent approximately a billion dollars per year on Orion. For what?

Kennedy proposed going to the Moon in 1961. Eight years later Americans were walking there. Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. The U.S. completed the total defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in slightly more than three years, by the spring of 1945.

Today’s NASA however can’t get a single capsule and service module built in 12 years. The contrast is striking. Anyone with the slightest bit of common sense would say that with a track record like this, this program should be shut down now.

Further SLS delays loom

A report by NASA’s inspector general finds that the planned first launch of the SLS rocket in November 2018 is threatened with delay because the ground facilities at Kennedy might not be ready.

In a report released Wednesday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General warned that Ground Systems Development and Operations, or GSDO, may be hard-pressed to have Kennedy Space Center’s launch facilities ready on time. Ground systems are a critical piece of the SLS-Orion infrastructure. All three elements are tightly integrated, with ground systems requiring significant input from the rocket and capsule designs. “GSDO cannot finalize and complete its requirements without substantial input for the other two programs,” said Jim Morrison, the assistant inspector general for audits. “And NASA is still finalizing the requirements for those programs.”

Gee, I guess SLS isn’t getting enough money, as its budget is only about $3 billion per year (about six times what the commercial space program gets per year, a program that has already created two freighter systems for ISS and is now creating two manned ferry systems for ISS). Why don’t we give them more, so that even more won’t be done with the money we spend?

Europe’s last ATV leaves ISS

Europe’s last ATV cargo freighter for ISS left the station and burned up over the Pacific Ocean this past weekend.

Because of a technical problem on the ATV, a camera designed to record what happened inside the freighter as it burned up during re-entry was removed prior to undocking so that it could be used instead during a later re-entry.

Meanwhile, instead of supplying ISS with cargo, Europe has decided to meet its contribution to ISS by building the service module for NASA’s Orion/SLS program, which has no plans to ever go to ISS. Note, however, that Europe has also not committed to building more than two service modules, so how Orion/SLS will go beyond Earth orbit after these two modules have been launched remains a mystery.

If you are scratching your head at all this, you are not alone. To me, this one decision alone illustrates quite neatly the utter stupidity of big government-run programs.

NASA safety panel questions safety of SLS

NASA’s safety panel has issued a report questioning the safety of the early launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), partly due to the very low launch rate and the lack of any planned unmanned test flights for the rocket’s upper stage engine.

“The ASAP and the Agency remain concerned about risks introduced in the currently scheduled frequency of SLS/Orion launches, ” according to ASAP’s 2014 Annual Report. “The plan indicates a launch about every 2 to 4 years. This would challenge ground crew competency. The skills, procedures, and knowledge of conducting the launch, mission, and recovery are perish-able. The ASAP believes that an extended interval requires the relearning of many lessons and skills, in contrast to Apollo and Shuttle, which had a relatively steady cadence.”

No space project can accomplish anything with launch rate this slow. Not only does this increase the risk that inexperience will cause errors, the long time gaps make it difficult for the project to get anything done.

And then there is NASA’s idea that it can put humans on this rocket without any previous launch testing of the rocket’s upper stage or the capsule’s life support systems. Why should NASA’s rocket get a pass on this kind of testing when the agency is demanding that the private companies do it?

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