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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?

ROCKY on Orion

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.

I’ve done a review of all of NASA’s documents on its own Orion webpage, and they all follow this same pattern. For example, the Quick Facts pdf makes the claim that

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 comfortably 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.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Wayne

    Mr. Z;

    That, is one damn fine piece of writing!
    (a hearty “well said.”)

  • THIS.

    The blindingly obvious course (which means it’ll never happen) is for NASA to quit pissing away billions on SLS/Orion and focus on R and D. Imagine what could be done if that money went towards building and testing the kinds of advanced propulsion & life support systems they’ll need to actually go to Mars. Commercial Crew can take them to & from LEO.

    But they’re stuck in a vicious cycle which Congress wouldn’t let them break out of even if they wanted to. What a mess.

  • Doug Lais

    Did I moss something, or are you not aware that NASA is planning to add a habitat for living space on trips to Mars?

  • Doug Lais: I am very aware of their desire to add a habitat, but NASA does not have one dime appropriated to build it, no less design it. Moreover, they don’t even have the funds to build Orion’s service module. (Europe is building the first 1.5, but after that there are no funds for any more.) Worse, NASA has no funding for any flights at all beyond Orion’s first manned flight in 2021 (likely to be delayed to 2023). Considering how costly Orion and SLS have been so far, do not bet any of your savings that Congress will agree to fund any of this, especially the habitat.

    Meanwhile, their own website does not mention this imaginary habitat. Instead, as I carefully document, it goes out of its way to sell Orion as the spacecraft they will use to go to Mars. All in all, I therefore think my criticism of NASA here is completely reasonable and legitimate.

  • Dennis Berube

    Agreed. our fool government will piss away money while commercial really makes the strides needed for space travel. If the government wants real progress they should fund SpaceX and the likes, plus allow them free movement for their desired goals. To often our government stifles progress, with their damn rules and regulations!

  • Peter

    “Doug Lais: I am very aware of their desire to add a habitat, but NASA does not have one dime appropriated to build it, no less design it.”
    Then what would you call NASA’s Centennial Challenge of last year?
    “NASA and the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, known as America Makes, hosted a $50,000 competition to design a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration, including the agency’s journey to Mars.”
    Not Mars specific but Mars inclusive.

  • Hell it all good dudes.say I’d like a retired space shuttle.the brakes , tires and radios will really trick out my new car to the max!!!

  • Egad

    With regard to the habitat, it isn’t just finding the money to go out and build one as if the blueprints are already on the shelf. The life support system (ECLSS) in particular is going to need to operate far outside of current regimes and will probably require several years to develop, test and finally validate in a crewed, autonomous, full duration (500 to 1000 days) mission in LEO or, better, cislunar space. That’s all doable, but it won’t be cheap or fast.

    On a different topic, I see that the recent GAO report on Orion says that the redesign of the heat shield is *still* a work in progress, with questions about the bonding of the AVCOAT blocks to the substrate and gap-filler performance unresolved.

  • Egad

    P.S.: The recent NASA HEOC meeting had a presentation on habitat development. Lotta stuff to do.

  • Edward

    Dreams, ideas, and plans. It seems that some people are confusing these concepts with each other.

    NASA has suggested that they would use an additional habitat to go to Mars, but this is not a plan to do so, at best it is an idea. NASA has much more often expressed the dream of making a large vehicle, close to the size and weight of the ISS, to make the manned journey to Mars. This dream is shown as the vessel “Hermes” in the realistic science fiction movie “The Martian.” Each of that movie’s Ares missions looks similar to NASA’s dreams for Mars exploration.

    If it isn’t funded, it is not planned. At best it is a proposal, but more likely it is an idea or a dream.

    An idea need not consider cost, but a proposal does. Congress holds the purse strings and is interested in the cost of any programs it is going to fund. In the early 1990s, they balked at the idea that NASA would spend half a trillion dollars on a grand scheme to go to Mars. In the late 1980s, they balked at a proposal for the US space station when they learned that, including Shuttle launches, it would cost $32 billion (ironically, the ISS cost three times that much to complete).

    I almost commented on this ROCKY device, earlier, but I cannot figure out what to make of it. If NASA’s idea is to add a habitat or build a large transport vessel, then why do they think that they need a small exercise device for a craft that is not designed for missions lasting much longer than Gemini VII or the Space Shuttle? A larger device, such as the one being used on the ISS, would be a better device and would likely fit in a habitat or large transport vessel.

    Orion is not well suited to doing much science or exploration. Think of living and working in your car, for two weeks, without an airlock to let you outside without everyone else putting on space suits so you can depressurize the inside to open the door. Orion does not seem well suited to any mission that it may be assigned.

    This is why I (and many others) recommend choosing a mission, then designing a system to accomplish that mission; the system is much more likely to be suitable to perform the mission. Instead, NASA has been instructed to build some parts so that some sort of system can be tinkered together later, thus the mission becomes limited by the pre-designed parts.

    A good example is the ECLSS, the current one being developed seems to be intended for a Mars mission. They chose a mission, now they develop the technology. However, since no Mars mission has yet been designed, it is hard to be sure that the ECLSS will not be a limiting factor to a future planned mission.

    Rather than saying that Orion is the craft the US will use to get to Mars, they should say that it is part of the system that will get us to Mars. As it is, we all get the idea that we only need Orion to get there, and that is misleading.

    That habitat is intended for the surfaces of planets or moons rather than for the journey to the destination:
    “Shelter is among the most basic and crucial human needs, but packing enough materials and equipment to build a habitat on a distant planet would take up valuable cargo space that could be used for other life-sustaining provisions.”

    I would put this habitat into the category of “idea,” as there is not yet a plan to fund the actual building of a habitat on a planet or moon, just some ideas to go there. This spending is similar to the spending in the 1960s for many ideas that NASA had for future exploration, including NERVA engines, which were developed and tested on the ground but never used.

    The presentation shows that this space habitat idea is what they are pondering for many future long duration missions. They have a budget for developing the capabilities of such a space habitat, and this makes it more than just a design-by-Power-Point project.

    They included a list of the types of missions that could be used by such habitats and a list of “Human Factors & Operations,” which seem to be vague capabilities. I did not see gravity simulation, which makes me ponder whether the specific capabilities are also being figured out. Many believe that astronauts arriving at Mars after several months in zero G will not be able to adequately work on the surface for a week or so, thus some form of simulated gravity (e.g. a rotating section of a space vessel) may be an important capability of any mission to Mars.

  • Egad

    > Many believe that astronauts arriving at Mars after several months in zero G will not be able to adequately work on the surface for a week or so, thus some form of simulated gravity (e.g. a rotating section of a space vessel) may be an important capability of any mission to Mars.

    Mr. Gerstenmaier doesn’t seem to be among those many:

    Wayne Hale: what about artificial gravity? Gerst: fine to discuss in movie world but not in my world. No studies show we need it.

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