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The ever shrinking and delayed Orion/SLS

NASA is considering changing the first Orion crewed mission so that, instead of orbiting the Moon, the spacecraft will merely whip past it on a course that will take it directly back to Earth.

In a presentation to a Nov. 30 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in Palmdale, California, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, discussed what he described as a new proposal for Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) that would last eight days. The concept, called the multi-translunar injection free minimum mission, would initially place the Orion spacecraft and its Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) into an elliptical orbit around the Earth with an apogee of 35,000 kilometers. After spending one day in that orbit, the spacecraft would separate from the EUS and use its service module engine for a final burn to send the spacecraft towards the moon. Orion would fly on a “free return” trajectory around the moon without going into orbit and without requiring another engine burn. The mission would end with a return to Earth eight days after launch, but with an option to extend the mission to up to 21 days.

The entire SLS/Orion project is idiotic and incredibly dangerous, not because it is going to the Moon but in how they plan on doing it, with literally no preparation flights beforehand. With Apollo, NASA was very careful to test each part of the package first, then proceed with a more ambitious mission. The only exception to this process was Apollo 8, which went to the Moon without a Lunar Module. That happened because they were in an intense space race with the Soviets and were under pressure to achieve Kennedy’s commitment to land before the end of the decade.

With SLS/Orion there is no such pressure. What is driving their lack of testing is a lack of money, caused by the project’s ungodly cost. They not only can’t afford to build multiple rockets to fly a variety of missions building up to the Moon, Congress hasn’t given them the money. Right now all they have allocated is enough to fly one unmanned mission in 2018, and this one manned flight in 2021 (which by the way is almost certainly going to be delayed until 2023).

The worst aspect of SLS/Orion is its stuntlike nature. They aren’t building anything that will have any permanence or allow for future colonization. It costs too much. Instead, SLS/Orion is designed to do one or two PR missions that will look good on some politician’s resume, but will do little to further the colonization of the solar system by the U.S.

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.

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"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


  • LocalFluff

    Very good point, that SLS/Orion is driven by cost, not by achievement. Some accountant decides where that money hog will go. And that target is the literal nowhere of vacuum.

  • ken anthony

    So the problem is cutting costs and keeping jobs. How do we move most of these jobs to actual productive work?

    I assume we can RIF many without too many problems, but that leaves quite a large number to deal with. Any good ideas? I’d just fire them all, but that’s not the correct political move.

  • Thanks for explaining the conceptual flaw in the Orion/SLS project.

    So in terms of plans, by 2018 SpaceX hopes to start uncrewed cargo flights to Mars with the first passengers on the way by 2024.

    In contrast, by 2021 NASA hopes to stretch to the point where they can repeat the accomplishments of the mid-60s Apollo flights.

    By mid-decade of the ’20s SpaceX may have people on Mars while NASA will not yet have repeated the 60 year old achievement of getting in orbit around the moon.

    Even though I am a numbers-driven accountant, that doesn’t seem like a good plan for Orion/SLS.

  • wayne

    This is a “dumb” idea & I’m not metaphorically on-board with the whole scheme.
    This is an incredible waste-of-money, time to cut our losses.

    > Interesting blog.
    Big fan of Prof Russell Roberts at Econ-Talk. Highly recommend his series on reading Theory of Moral Sentiments.
    -Briefly skimmed your posts on historical wage-rates. (good stuff)

  • pzatchok

    I can see NASA wanting or even needing a super heavy lift rocket. Something that in the future will be ready to lift the largest Bigalow modules they have planned. The 330 can’t be their biggest sizes planned.

    But I would like the whole idea to be closer to a modular system.
    Modular fuel tanks, engines, And control systems.
    Have a standard payload ring connection and let the private payload companies build to fit it.

    As for Orion. Sell it off and dump the idea. Private companies are doing better.

  • Edward

    Because it has no destination or mission, there is no known purpose for Orion or SLS. SLS seems to have been demanded by Congress just to have a large lift rocket. Orion’s original mission, back when Constellation was a program, was to return people to the surface of the moon — not directly, but as another mother ship for the actual lunar lander. Had the goal been to create a permanent base on the Moon, then perhaps there would be some justification for the cost (enough to keep it funded?), but as it is, it just looks like a huge waste of good money that could be funding actual useful projects.

    Congress has moved money from the CCDev and follow up programs to add funding to SLS, and this has resulted in commercial crewed spacecraft to the ISS being delayed from last year to next year at the earliest and an additional dependence upon Russia to get us there in the meantime.

    Congress has squandered money, engineering talent, progress of space capabilities, and American prestige.

  • wayne

    going tangential…
    Any opinion’s on Dr. Spudis and his approach to space?
    Specifically referencing his whole step-wise, building-block, incremental, approach, targeting the Moon

    [pzatchok: Spudis is big on “modular systems.”]

    “Value of the Moon”
    Dr. Paul Spudis
    Lunar and Planetary Institute- October 2016

    I’m totally sold on his whole approach & rationale. (And he presents extremely well.) Just discovered him from the Space Show not too long ago.
    Nobody is going to mine gold from asteroids any time soon, but all that water-ice on the Moon looks mighty tempting & do-able, in a “relatively” sooner-esque, time-frame.
    (and nobody is going to live on Mars, any time “soon.” People will probably die on Mars, or die en-route, “soon,” but Mars is just “too damn far,” right now, to live upon. (not to mention the radiation dosing in-flight, and the jello-muscles when you get on the Martian surface.)

    Not to be a defeatist, ‘cuz I do advocate & support Space.
    Let us get our (American) hands firmly on the Moon, first.

    Referencing the whole “tether/space-elevator” ‘thang(s). I’ve sporadically/intermittently looked into them & have/do, read your commentary/explanation upon them;
    It’s a Bridge Too Far, right now. I’m no engineer but it’s off the edge of the envelope for our current technology.
    We need to develop stronger materials (correct?) & from what I understand, this approach would work infinitely better in different gravity-setting’s than what we have on Earth.

    Anyone recall the movie “Outland?” from 1981.
    >It’s “High Noon,” on a mining-colony on Io

  • Edward

    A few months ago I read Spudis’s book “The Value of the Moon.” I liked the way that he phrased several concepts. He spent a lot of time on the usefulness of the polar water and not so much time on the many other uses, but I suspect that lunar water will be the first or an early use of the Moon.

    A couple of weeks ago, we here at BtB were discussing satellites causing streaks on long-exposure astronomical photography, and with so few artificial satellites orbiting the Moon, optical telescopes there would have less of this problem. Radio astronomy stationed on the far side (even just around the edge, or limb) could study almost the entire spectrum without interference from Earthly/manmade radio sources.

    There are plenty of reasons to put permanent bases on the Moon, and I am confident that commercial interests will figure out a way to make many of them profitable. Musk and SpaceX may be targeting Mars, but others will target the Moon for the reasons Spudis states, and more.

    If NASA or any other government were to do it, they would see the Moon/Mars manned missions as an either/or proposition, as the expense would be too much to do both. The Moon first/Mars first argument has been made for the past half century, because of these funding limitations.

    But as commercial interests, some companies can target one while other companies simultaneously target the other. Whether Musk gets a permanent base on Mars before someone else starts a permanent base on the Moon is an interesting question, but I expect that both goals will be worked on simultaneously over the next decade or two. I do expect an eventual lunar base for mining water for use as propellant to go to Mars, when we are regularly going there, and for galavanting to the other planets and to various asteroids. The reduction in transit cost due to the availability of this lunar water should open up the solar system to much more exploration than we have done up to now.

    Whether America or China gets to the moon first is another question, and some people are pondering what it would take for America to beat China back to the moon. Bill Whittle, three years ago, expressed a dream to make an advertisement, on this topic, that shows two tiakonauts (Chinese astronauts) stepping off their lunar lander and making famous words for being the first Chinese on the Moon. The camera changes view to a lunar rover and an American commercial-space astronaut jumping out of it saying, “Welcome to the Moon, gentlemen. Can I take your bags? Hop on in, and I’ll drive you over to the Hilton Hotel, over there.”

    Space elevators should be more useful for deeper gravity wells than for shallower ones, as they do very well at getting around what Spudis called “the tyranny of the rocket equation.” It is too bad that Earth has so much junk in orbit (passing through LEO are something like 80,000 objects, active or dead that are larger than 5 cm). All this debris makes it unlikely that Earth space elevators will be safe until after much of this debris reenters the atmosphere or otherwise is cleaned up.

    “Outland” was kind of fun. Grace Kelly notwithstanding, I liked it better than “High Noon.”

  • Ken Lundermann

    Bob, what’s up with your white paper on Orion/SLS for the Center for New American Security? Would I be too cynical if I suspected somebody is delaying or squelching it to prevent it from impacting the imminent formulation of a Trump administration space policy?

  • wayne

    Edward– good deal on reading Spudis’s book, I’ve seen 3-4 of his recent presentations on video & listened to all his interviews on The Space Show.
    I’m totally sold on his idea’s. Love the incremental, building-block, approach.

    What is the budget for NASA? I thought it was in the $20 billion/year range? (Is that a ball-park number?)
    Free Obama-Phones, cost $4 billion a year. (Carlos Slim, among others, are the chief beneficiaries of free-cell-phone spending.)

    forgot the link to the Outland trailer—

    Outland (1981) Trailer
    – Sean Connery, Peter Boyle

    High Noon, in Space. Connery goes to investigate mysterious deaths at a mining colony on Io, and discovers the miner’s have developed a taste for a hi-tech amphetamine substance, which is causing psychosis.
    Intrigue follows…

  • Edward

    Good ballpark number. This year NASA budget is $19.3 billion.

  • wodun

    @ken anthony So the problem is cutting costs and keeping jobs. How do we move most of these jobs to actual productive work?

    This was the issue that first brought me into the space cadet community back when Constellation was being cancelled. What was going to happen to the space shuttle’s workforce? Turns out those workers got unparalleled job training and placement programs. But what about the nebulous form of “jobs” and not just actual individual workers?

    I am sure you have read comments all over about changing the emphasis of different NASA centers. There are some good ideas out there. And my position is that we need to convince these Senators that a thriving space based economy will be just as good in terms of donations and political support than just catering to a few government contractors. Not sure how to do that other than for these newish companies to be successful.

  • wayne

    Edward- thank you.

    Totally facetiously….
    “Discover how to convert Moon rocks into methamphetamine, and the Mexican Drug Cartel’s will announce their new Space Program, tomorrow.”

    Heisenberg Song: Breaking Bad

  • wodun

    @pzatchok Have a standard payload ring connection and let the private payload companies build to fit it.

    As for Orion. Sell it off and dump the idea. Private companies are doing better.

    A standard payload connection ring across all launchers would be nice. It would certainly help people who want their payloads launched. But how much modifications are made launch to launch now just on a single launcher line?

    As for modular, we could use the space based equivalent of the cargo container and pallet.

    If Orion is actually built, they could send it up and never bring it back. Leave it as an emergency escape capsule. Otherwise, just a redundant command and control center or safe room for a space station or cislunar cycler. Assuming they could replenish the perishables that limit its life.

  • wodun

    @wayne Any opinion’s on Dr. Spudis and his approach to space?
    Specifically referencing his whole step-wise, building-block, incremental, approach, targeting the Moon

    It makes a lot of sense but we might also discover that after shaking things out in cislunar space that other destinations make more sense than Mars in terms of a long term strategy, like space around Saturn or the trojans of Jupiter. Or it could be that people and companies will pursue all of these options concurrently based on what they think is important if there are the right conditions.

    Cislunar space could be the gateway to the solar system.

  • wayne

    good stuff.
    …especially like the”cargo container and pallet” thought.

    For me, private folks can pursue whatever they think is correct.
    If we spend tax money, I want it spent in pursuit of Spudis type-plans.
    Just a civilian, but it feels like ‘we’ do too many one-off designs & projects.
    If we’re spending tax money on Space, I want useful infrastructure that has a life-span & helps future activities.

  • Edward

    wayne wrote: “I’m totally sold on his idea’s. Love the incremental, building-block, approach.

    His ideas seem consistent with other proposals, such as ULA’s Cislunar-1000 idea/plan: (7-minutes)

    An incremental approach has a lot of good business sense. I have been involved with some business simulations, and I learned that building too much too fast causes problems financially and limits flexibility when an anticipated opportunity goes south while a different one comes along, for which you are no longer able to participate in. SpaceX did this by doing their versions of Falcon before working on their BFR rocket. Had they gone straight to the BFR, they would have crashed and burned a decade ago.

    In another thread, LocalFluff linked to a webpage presenting a nice idea of making a space elevator from the Moon to L2. Although ULA may prefer using their own spacecraft to perform the same function, this idea could be very efficient. We are not yet ready for this space elevator, but it could be an excellent incremental step in our expansion into cislunar space and beyond.

    wodun wrote: “A standard payload connection ring across all launchers would be nice.

    Depending upon what you mean, this may already exist. Modern commercial satellites have a standard mounting/release ring (called the adapter ring), and cubesats are a standard size and weight (plus some common variations, such as the 3-U size) to allow for standardized launch and deployment mechanisms.

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