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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.

Pioneer cover

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.


  • Orion314

    Having watched the poli-sci debates so far, I have yet to hear a single question on the space program…still holding my breath….

  • D K Rögnvald Williams

    Obama has zero interest in the space program. Therefore, there is no JFK or LBJ to keep things moving.

  • mike shupp

    Trump evidentally views space as dispensable — nice but not as important as road repairs and other infrastructure spending. Jeb Bush has several times said space is “aspirational” and that the country needs aspirations, without being specific. Memory says Hilary Clinton basically echoed the sentiment.

    Cruz has several times stated that NASA ought to concentrate on deep space and ignore earth observational programs — I’m guessing NOAA could continue weather satellite development under such guidelines. Cruz is chairman of the Senate subcommitee that monitors NASA; whether he sought this position specifically or just happened to inherit it when Republicans took over the Senate I don’t know. I’d guess that Rubio has made some remarks, as a minimum, appreciating the hard work Floridans have put into the space program, but I haven’t seen them in the campaign coverage.

    The other guys (and guy) … I dunno. A couple had opportunity to raise space issues in previous campaigns and conspicuously didn’t. Bernie Sanders I expect voted for or against specific funding bills as part of the Democratic majority — he’s not a maverick at ALL the issues.

    Speaking generally …. space isn’t a high priority for most voters, compared with abortion and immigration and gay marriage and health care plans and economic issues. And in fact, voters who want to hear again and again about putting up fences to keep illegal migrants out and other emotionally stirring slogans would be resentful of campaigners who “waste their time” by discussing the fine points of NASA and NOAA and CGS and other alphabet agencies. So whatever their actual inclinations, the campaigners concentrate on the topics that concern the majority of the voters. That’s a tad tedious to space buffs, I concede.

  • Cruz took the job specifically to kill NASA’s Earth observations that were backing Climate Change! He says NASA should stick to Deep Space to keep them out of his corporate slave owners profits!

    Now, back to SLS. As a SpaceX fan boy, I’ve dissed NASA vs them. But to the people that say NASA should dump SLS for what SpaceX HAS… REALITY CHECK… SpaceX has NOTHING yet. All they have are a few shots to LEO with a small rocket. They have NOT proven anything NEAR Saturn class boosters. Yes, I think they WILL and it will be great, but ‘think’ doesn’t get you anything. They can’t cancel SLS on promises and press releases. That would be irresponsible and SpaceX has NOT approached NASA to propose that. Musk doesn’t push for this, just us fanboys.

    Now the glacial PACE of NASA drives me NUTS!! YEARS between launches; decades to get going; big announcements for tiny progress (weld announcements? really?? it IS different kinds of welds than ever attempted, its ain’t my dad’s welds); parsing out jobs to existing facilities rather than starting new and efficient, the thing that REALLY gauls me, but that’s Congress forcing THAT. Oy. For a Billion a year!

    While EVERY other area of the national budget has GROWN over the decades, NASA has been STATIC and its portion of the budget has SHRUNK. NASA is an easy target for ‘we need more food for our starving’ and ‘roads!’ Its money is SO tiny, and would go back to the Military Industrial Complex for some more $400 toilets. The Military budget is 33%ish of the budget. NASA, 0.5%. 660 times bigger!

    NOW, think about THAT, omg $17 billion! Oh the waste? Wait a minute… in 2010 dollars, Apollo cost $110 BILLION!! The reason NASA is on a glacial pace is that the money is just dribbling in. Its like building a car and getting money for 1/2 an hour of work a day. Thus, announcements about welds being done.

  • Now Tom I know NASA has a shrinking budget hence the excuse for its lack of productivity. The past two presidential administrations have shown a growing lack of interest in orbital and extra-orbital affairs in correlation to the American space program. However, whenever the SLS is bought up, EVEN since its adoption from the failure Constellation program I cant help but think, “Oh God, waste of money, 80s era avionics”. And it isn’t far from the truth either. The SLS will use a derivative of Space Shuttle first stage boosters, and a Aeres/Saturn Second and third stage integration. That seems might powerful, except the fact that SpaceX is already in the process of moving far past this. You say that we cannot hold our hopes to empty promises, which I couldn’t agree more, however when the plans for the Falcon XX, and XX Heavy are released later this year, the mainstream aerospace industry will pounce on this opportunity to back SpaceX in funding rather then the colossal waste of resources in this 21st century that is the SLS. Additionally it’s just a matter of time before the Falcon hits the imperative 70% +/- success rate of reusability, once that occurs, it can build a 60 million, 200 million, or 1 billion dollar rocket, so long as it can have a 2/3 return on investment everyone would agree that is much better then a 0% return. I will be the first one to admit I’m wrong if something worthwhile can actually come out of the SLS but don’t hold your glass up to them yet, I’m still rooting for the home team (SpaceX) until then.

  • Steve

    Tom D’Alimonte
    January 26, 2016 at 11:37 am
    “…Cruz took the job specifically to kill NASA’s Earth observations that were backing Climate Change!…”


  • Edward

    13 weeks to perform 7 welds seems too slow, however, as they were changing from a 33 weld design to a 7 weld design, they probably are being especially vigorous in inspecting the weld results.

    Twice I almost commented on this, but since the expected pace of the production design is so slow, it is difficult to say that they will pick up the pace during production. I wish I could. One of the problems with government projects is that they too easily become jobs programs, and the intended productive outcome becomes secondary in importance. NASA’s JPL still gives good results in a timely manner with a reasonable budget. They have not yet become a “jobs program” but remain a space program.

    As for Tom’s SpaceX comments, he has a point that any promised future rocket should be considered “vaporware” until it actually flies successfully. Although SpaceX has a good flight record, and they seem serious about being in the commercial space business (not all companies do), We have to remember that not all designs perform as intended. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is a good example of a rocket that did not scale up well.

  • This article gives the cost of the Apollo Command Module as $934 million in 1960’s dollars:

    This is about $6.8 billon in current dollars. It included 11 flight spacecraft, so about $618 million per spacecraft in current dollars. In contrast for the Orion it’s about $4.25 billion per spacecraft in current dollars.

    Actually though, to get a more valid comparison the costs should be broken down between the development costs and the spacecraft production costs.

    Bob Clark

  • Edward

    Robert Clark wrote: “to get a more valid comparison the costs should be broken down between the development costs and the spacecraft production costs.”

    I’m not sure that the cost per Orion would change very much, and certainly not below the cost per Apollo Command Module. Orion has only two planned manned (non-development) flights. To be fair, however, the $934 figure for Apollo module (“11 mockups (facsimile models), 15 boilerplate capsules (test vehicles), and 11 flight-ready spacecraft.”) was the original contractual price in 1963 and does not include any cost overruns (which must have happened after the fire, the anniversary of which, coincidentally, is today). Still, I doubt that the Apollo Command Module went far enough over budget to compare in price to Orion.

    Perhaps this is the difference between a program with a definite goal with a deadline and one that Congress treats as a jobs program. Or perhaps NASA has added too many layers of bureaucracy in the intervening half century (assuming that is not a redundant statement).

    Good find on that history. I look forward to reading the rest of it tonight.

  • Bill

    New to this blog….I’d be interested in hearing if it wouldn’t be better to have a private space company handle Orion?
    Certainly wouldn’t be a “job program”.

  • Several private companies (SpaceX, Blue Origin) are already doing Orion/SLS, and doing far cheaper and faster.

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