The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: This essay, written in July 2016, might provide modern readers with some background and context into the uselessness of NASA’s over priced, over designed, and behind schedule Orion capsule. The only thing that has changed in the four years since is that NASA has stopped claiming Orion is an interplanetary spaceship. They now freely admit that to get to Mars they need to build and assemble much larger ships, of which Orion will only be a tiny part.
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.
For the first time in a generation, NASA is building a new human spacecraft that will usher in a new era of space exploration. A series of increasingly challenging missions awaits, and this new spacecraft will take us farther than we’ve gone before, including Mars. Named after one of the largest constellations in the night sky and drawing from more than 50 years of spaceflight research and development, the Orion spacecraft is designed to meet the evolving needs of our nation’s deep space exploration program for decades to come. It will be the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built, and it will be flexible and capable enough to take us to a variety of destinations.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before.
Boy, am I ready to buy a ticket! Wouldn’t you like to sit in a cramped Orion capsule with three other astronauts for one to three years as it safely and efficiently takes you to Mars?
The graphic to the right, included with the ROCKY press release, illustrates how absurd this all is. It shows an astronaut in Orion exercising with ROCKY. Just imagine the fun he and his crewmates are really having, having folded down the seats, unpacked the exercise equipment, and asked his other three companions to squeeze themselves against the capsule’s walls so that he has room to do his stretches. What fun! Imagine also that in weightlessness we have found that ISS astronauts each need to do about 2 to 3 hours of this exercise per day on long duration space missions to prevent serious deterioration of their muscular and cardio-vascular systems. So, for 8 to 12 hours each day no one will be able to do anything else but either exercise or watch. Orion simply isn’t large enough for much else. Should make for a interesting space flight, eh?
The truth is that Orion is nothing more than an overpriced and over-engineered ascent and descent capsule, whose primary function is to get humans to and from Earth orbit. As a mere capsule, no bigger than a small passenger van, it is totally inadequate for use on a many month long mission to an asteroid, to Mars, or to any distant interplanetary destination. NASA itself recognizes this on their own Orion webpages, if you read carefully between the lines. In the quote above, in the very next sentence after claiming Orion will “take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before,” NASA very carefully adds:
Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.
This list of Orion’s capabilities says almost nothing about interplanetary travel, but instead is mostly focused on capsule’s ability to get people into space and then back to Earth.
Orion is America’s next generation spacecraft that will take astronauts to exciting destinations never explored by humans. It will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to distant planetary bodies, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel, and provide safe reentry from deep space.
Yet, this same Quick Facts pdf itself provides no evidence that Orion is an interplanetary craft. Instead, it only describes Orion as
capable of transporting four crew members beyond low-Earth orbit, providing a safe habitat from launch through landing and recovery.
Other fact sheets focus on the Orion Launch Abort System [pdf], Orion Recovery Operations [pdf], and Launching Orion into Space [pdf], all operations dealing with the ascent and descent to and from orbit, not interplanetary travel.
Only one fact sheet on the NASA Orion webpage exclusively discusses the engineering problems for building an interplanetary vessel, and here they confine the question to just one of a myriad of problems we need to overcome, that of radiation protection.
Orion is designed for both short missions to nearby destinations and long-distance missions to Mars that will last more than three years. As the average long-duration spaceflights for Americans have lasted about six months and have taken place entirely within low-Earth orbit, NASA must be prepared to deal with significantly more radiation than astronauts have experienced in the past. Orion will use the mass that is already on board to protect its crew by creating a temporary shelter in the aft bay of the spacecraft, which is the inside portion closest to the heat shield. This location minimizes the amount of equipment to move around while maximizing the amount of material that can be placed between the crew and the outside environment. The mass that will be used includes supplies, equipment and launch and re-entry seats, as well as water and food. By using the items already on board, the astronauts benefit from additional shielding without adding to Orion’s mass. [emphasis mine]
This is a completely inadequate solution to the problem, especially for a crew of four traveling for possibly three years together in the high radiation environment of interplanetary space. What an interplanetary crew needs is a comfortable and prepared safe haven room in their large ISS-sized spaceship, where they can comfortable wait out any high-radiation storms that sweep past them. Huddling against a capsule’s heat shield after scrambling to move equipment about to make room is simply not going to work.
This whole charade, that Orion is somehow America’s first interplanetary spaceship, reminds me of the same charade NASA pulled for most of the first decade of construction of the James Webb Space Telescope. There, the agency repeatedly claimed that Webb was the next generation space telescope designed to replace the Hubble Space Telescope. This was a lie, as Webb is not an optical telescope like Hubble but an infrared telescope optimized not for general observations but for deep space cosmology. It can do other research, but it is definitely not a replacement for Hubble. Yet, for years NASA sold it as a Hubble replacement, and too many journalists, knowing nothing and too lazy to do a little research about the very subject they were writing about, bought into the lie, thereby helping NASA sell it to Congress and the public.
The same thing is happening now with Orion. Too many mainstream journalists, who should know better, nonchalantly accept NASA’s claims about Orion, and help sell this lie to the public. It is a lie, nonetheless, and the only thing it is accomplishing is to fool us into thinking we are solving the challenges of building the first interplanetary spaceships, when in fact we are merely wasting money on building a very fancy ascent/descent capsule.
What NASA really needs to do is to drop the charade and focus on reality. Consider what SpaceX is doing with its Dragon capsule. They also want to send it to Mars, but they have freely admitted, right off the bat, that the capsule is inadequate for manned interplanetary flight. Instead, each Dragon-Mars mission will be simply an engineering test, providing them with useful test data for use in the design of future manned vessels. Rather than make believe they have built an interplanetary vessel, as NASA is doing with Orion, SpaceX will be using Dragon to find out what they really need to do, so that when it finally comes time to build that interplanetary spacecraft, you can bet that SpaceX’s vessel will look nothing like Dragon, or Orion, but will be based on the real needs of the mission.
Until NASA begins doing the same with Orion, it will simply be spinning its wheels, while wasting a lot of tax dollars at the same time. More importantly, the agency will not only be doing nothing to get Americans closer to Mars, or any other interplanetary body, it will be building empty Potemkin Villages here on Earth, wasting valuable resources that could be better spent figuring out how to really solve this problem.
From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him. The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today. He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future. Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.