An expensive Frankenstein in space

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The European Space Agency and NASA have confirmed that the Europeans will be building the service module for Orion.

Several points:

First, this is very expensive. Europe will spend $600 million to design and build the service module. Note that this is just the service module, not the entire spacecraft. Yet, the cost is about 60% of the entire budget of the NASA’s commercial crew program, which is funding three different spacecraft capable of putting humans in orbit.

Second, this is a great deal for Lockheed Martin. To quote the article, “While Lockheed Martin was originally contracted by NASA to build the service module, it will not be out of pocket. Instead, the funding that was to be used for this work will now be reallocated to other Orion and SLS programme activities.” In other words, this deal has raised the already expensive cost for the SLS Orion capsule by more than a half a billion dollars. And in doing so it has dumped more than a half a billion dollars of pork into Lockheed Martin’s pocket.

Third, anything that SLS now does has to be negotiated between NASA and ESA, making for an exceedingly complex project. For example, there is this story about how the deal will force NASA to put a European astronaut on the second Orion test flight, the one that will supposedly circle the Moon. In general, this partnership — combined with the micromanaging of SLS from Congress — makes SLS a kind of Frankenstein committee, whereby every new goal has to negotiated between multiple partners.

How would you like to create something this complex under these conditions?

All in all, this deal is to me is only one more nail in the coffin for SLS. It only increases the complexity and cost of an already too-complex and too-expensive project. Worse, considering the governmental budget problems in both the U.S. and Europe, it puts even more budgetary pressure on the project. I fully expect these funds to dry up long before the first flight.

And even if they don’t and that first orbital mission to the Moon does happen, don’t expect any worthwhile follow ups. There just won’t be money enough to do it. SLS will at best be like the Apollo landings, a one time stunt that will do little to establish the human race in space.

Note: I have given permission to to post this essay on their website, appearing here tomorrow at 6 am (Eastern).



  • wodun

    A commenter over at space politics was saying that ESA would only foot the bill and construct the first one and that any subsequent modules would have to be constructed here but to their standards. No idea how accurate that is but everything about SLS seems fishy.

  • Patrick Ritchie

    This may be a play to start building the case for keeping Orion (and by association SLS). Much in the way the space station freedom was ‘saved’ by turning it into the ISS and getting help from the Russians to build it.

  • Pzatchok

    I like the idea of a bunch of entities building modules for the station.

    It sort of forces a standardization of parts, power, and hookups.

  • Pzatchok

    Building modules for the Orion should be any harder.

    They already do it for aircraft. Making space craft can’t be that much harder.

    But we need those same companies to keep building the modules and parts. It can not be a one time affair just for fun.

    Mass production will be the future of space craft.

  • Tom Billings

    Certainly the old trick, attaching NASA’s “reliability in cooperation” to a project may help prolong SLS. That won’t help at all if it’s the ESA that has to pull out first, however. As bad as our budgetary problems are, the EU’s are much more tipsy.

    This is a gamble, that our budget will come under pressure sufficient that we hear the cries on the floor of the House to kill SLS/Orion before the Europeans see a collapse precipitated by the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain), whose stability depends on buying voters with borrowed money. The hope is that somehow we will recover enough by the time the ESA’s budget gets slashed or dumped completely that in the hope of another false “recovery” the full budget of Orion/SLS will be picked up by a Congress funding NASA. Even that is putting the hope of the SLS faithful in “kickin’ the can down the road”.

    The PIGS have been screwing around long enough to create plenty pork. If the PIGS end up toes up, however, it SLS bacon that may be fried fastest.

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