Orion EFT-1 atop a Boeing Delta IV Heavy at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37. Image source: NASA.
In their Sunday November 30 papers, Florida Today and the Houston Chronicle published articles about this week's uncrewed Orion test flight, scheduled to launch Thursday December 4 from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37.
Both articles addressed, in part, the pork-laden political path that led to this test flight, nearly eleven years after President George W. Bush announced on January 14, 2004 his administration's goal “to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014.”
As I wrote in January on the tenth anniversary, Bush's speech was a political response to the August 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board finding that “the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space.” CAIB showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. They also blamed “the lack of an agreed national vision” as an organizational cause for the accident.
So Bush's speech was titled the Vision for Space Exploration. “I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system,” The President described a grand vision to complete the International Space Station by 2010, then retire the Shuttle, and replace it with a Crew Exploration Vehicle “capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo command module.”
President Bush didn't match his vision with the necessary funding.
Achieving these goals requires a long-term commitment. NASA's current five-year budget is $86 billion. Most of the funding we need for the new endeavors will come from re-allocating $11 billion from within that budget.
We need some new resources, however. I will call upon Congress to increase NASA's budget by roughly a billion dollars spread over the next five years.
Two weeks later, on January 28, NASA Adminstrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the President's proposal.
O'Keefe presented a graphic that came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart, which detailed how these existing resources would be reallocated.
The Vision Sand Chart presented by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Click the image to view a larger version. Image source: NASA.
The plan, essentially, was to complete the ISS, only to end its operation around 2016. The Crew Exploration Vehicle wouldn't be ready until at least 2014; it was being built to fly to a destination that would be shut down shortly after completion. And until CEV was ready, NASA would rely on Russia for ISS crew rotations.
Despite the obvious funding shortfalls, reliance on Russia, and the proposal to build ISS only to splash it, Congress went along and eventually approved the President's vision, which came to be known as Constellation.
If you watch the video of the hearing, many of the Senators asked about Constellation jobs that would come to their states. Few showed any concern about the funding shortfall, and no one worried about sole-sourcing crew flights to Russia.
O'Keefe departed NASA and was replaced in April 2005 by Michael Griffin, an aerospace engineer by trade. O'Keefe had planned to have at least two contractors compete in a “fly-off” by 2008 to speed development and reduce costs, but that idea was scrapped by Griffin. According to a May 2005 Space.com article, Griffin wanted to down-select now, claiming it would reduce the four-year gap while also saving $1 billion.
An early Lockheed Martin proposed design for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Image source: Wikipedia.
In July 2006, the Government Accountability Office issued a report which concluded that Constellation lacked a sound business case. The report warned, “Implementing the Vision over the coming decades will require hundreds of billions of dollars and a sustained commitment from multiple Administrations and Congresses over the length of the program.”
The GAO faulted Griffin's acquisition strategy:
The CEV acquisition strategy is not knowledge-based in that it calls for maturing technologies, designing systems, and preparing for initial production concurrently — an approach that our work has shown carries the increased risk of cost and schedule overruns and decreased technical capability. Therefore, we disagree with NASA's statement that it has the appropriate level of knowledge to proceed with its current acquisition strategy and award a long-term contract for the project prior to obtaining sufficient knowledge.
A written response from NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale rejected the GAO's findings. “NASA is confident that its acquisition strategy and plans for selecting a CEV Prime Contractor are based on sound business case, will establish a firm foundation for the Constellation program, and are in the Government's best interest.”
Ignoring the GAO's advice, NASA selected Lockheed Martin's Orion design in August 2006. According to the press release:
Manufacturing and integration of the vehicle components will take place at contractor facilities across the country. Lockheed Martin will perform the majority of the Orion vehicle engineering work at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, and complete final assembly of the vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. All 10 NASA centers will provide technical and engineering support to the Orion project.
Jobs all around.
The release stated, “The first Orion launch with humans onboard is planned for no later than 2014, and for a human moon landing no later than 2020.”
A June 2009 conceptual image of the Orion CEV. Image source: NASA.
In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected President, and in January 2009 he was sworn into office. His administration appointed a committee headed by Norm Augustine to review the state of Constellation affairs.
The report, issued in October 2009, concluded that Constellation was not sustainable.
The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support the ISS in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015. An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach the ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be at least seven years.
As for Orion, the Committee concluded:
Many concepts are possible for crew-exploration vehicles, and NASA clearly needs a new spacecraft for travel beyond low-Earth orbit. The Committee found no compelling evidence that the current design will not be acceptable for its wide variety of tasks in the exploration program. However, the Committee is concerned about Orion’s recurring costs. The capsule is considerably larger and more massive than previous capsules (e.g., the Apollo capsule), and there is some indication that a smaller and lighter four-person Orion could reduce operational costs. However, a redesign of this magnitude would likely result in more than a year of additional development time and a significant increase in development cost, so such a redesign should be considered carefully before being implemented.
As the Augustine Committee concluded its deliberations, the GAO issued another scathing Constellation audit in August 2009. The GAO reported:
NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.
The GAO also noted “significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle.”
Now let’s discuss the Constellation Program. The Program was planning to use an approach similar to Apollo to return astronauts to the Moon some 50 years after that program’s triumphs. The Augustine Committee observed that this path was not sustainable, and the President agrees. They found that Constellation key milestones were slipping, and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost. Far more funding was needed to make our current approach work. The Augustine Committee estimated that the heavy lift rocket for getting to the moon would not be available until 2028 or 2030, and even then they found “there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever.” So as much as we would not like it to be the case, and taking nothing away from the hard work and dedication of our team, the truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon's surface. And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting to the Moon, we were neglecting investments in the key technologies that would be required to go beyond.
So this budget cancels the Constellation Program, including the Ares I and V rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle. NASA intends to work with the Congress to make this transition smooth and effective, working responsibly on behalf of the Taxpayers.
February 25, 2010 ... NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testifies before the House Science Committee.
Congress howled with outrage.
In his January 2011 monograph on this period, noted space policy analyst John Logsdon wrote in A New U.S. Approach to Human Spaceflight that the Obama administration strategy was “a pause in developing new flight systems, instead making substantial investments in developing and demonstrating new, 'game-changing', technologies for several years and only then embodying them in a new heavy-lift launch vehicle and a crew-carrying spacecraft for deep space missions.”
The Obama proposal came under immediate attack from members of Congress whose districts would be affected by the new strategy, firms that were threatened by the cancellation of their Constellation contracts, and space flight veterans, including several Apollo astronauts. The criticisms focused on the viability of relying on the private sector for crew transport to the ISS and the lack of specific goals and schedules for deep space exploration missions. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) succeeded in getting a provision written into law that prohibited NASA from cancelling any Constellation contracts and from starting the new programs proposed by the president until the Congress completed action on the FY2011 budget proposal and had either approved, rejected or modified the new human spaceflight strategy.
In an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Obama proposed saving Orion, but only as an escape vehicle for ISS crew members.
April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama delivers a space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.
But he also served notice that his administration intended to end the pork politics that had doomed one NASA program after another.
But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.
But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.
All that has to change.
Obama proposed increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years. Congress ignored that proposal and instead imposed upon NASA the Space Launch System, with Orion atop it, to replace Constellation. One pork program was replaced by another. SLS was dubbed the “Senate Launch System” by a Competitive Space Task Force column in March 2011, and the appellation stuck. Since then, many members of the Congressional space authorization and appropriations subcommittees have pitted SLS and commercial space in a zero-sum battle, accusing the Obama administration of scheming to undermine SLS to benefit commercial space.
Logsdon wrote in his monograph:
I have been observing space decisions in the USA for over four decades, and I have never seen such a confused situation, with NASA unable to articulate a convincing case in support of the new White House strategy and with such intense congressional involvement (reflecting the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake) in the specifics of the US program of future human spaceflight.
On September 14, 2011, Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called a press conference to unveil the SLS/Orion design. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was allowed to speak for a few minutes, but the rest of the event featured politicians from both parties and houses congratulating themselves for the jobs they'd protected.
No one said much about what it would be used for.
Nelson labelled his creation “the monster rocket,” the Frankenstein metaphor apparently lost upon him.
September 14, 2011 ... Senators Nelson and Hutchison unveil the SLS/Orion design.
Congressional legislation required NASA to fly Orion for the first time by 2016, but as you might suspect Orion and SLS fell behind schedule.
A July 2014 GAO audit concluded that “NASA has not established an executable business case that matches the SLS program’s cost and schedule resources with the requirement to develop the SLS and launch the first flight test in December 2017 at the required confidence level of 70 percent.” The report cited inadequate funding:
The SLS program office calculated the risk associated with insufficient funding through 2017 as having a 90 percent likelihood of occurrence; furthermore, it indicated the insufficient budget could push the planned December 2017 launch date out 6 months and add some $400 million to the overall cost of SLS development.
The GAO also faulted Congress ordering NASA to use Shuttle-era technology for SLS.
The SLS program could experience additional schedule pressure if unanticipated challenges associated with using heritage hardware occur when integrating it into the launch vehicle’s operational environment and modifying manufacturing process to incorporate new materials. The use of heritage hardware — legacy engine, booster, and propulsion systems — was prescribed in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, but the hardware was not originally designed for SLS. Therefore, the SLS program must ensure each heritage hardware element meets SLS performance requirements and current design standards prior to the 2017 test flight. Although the heritage hardware challenges have yet to affect the SLS schedule, each heritage hardware element shares the common issue of operating in the SLS environment that is likely to be more stressful than that of its original launch vehicle as well as unique integration issues particular to that element, which must be resolved prior to SLS first flight in 2017. For example, according to agency officials the engines from the Space Shuttle require additional heat shielding because of the increased temperatures they will experience in the SLS environment, and the avionics within the solid rocket boosters from the Constellation program are likely to require additional cushioning to protect them from increased vibrations. Until the core stage is demonstrated, however, the SLS operating environment can be defined only through analytical predictions. Further, eliminating asbestos as a key insulating material within the solid rocket boosters on the SLS has required changes to the booster manufacturing processes to meet safety requirements.
This is what happens when politicians think they are engineers.
As for Orion, an April 2014 GAO assessment of large-scale NASA projects reported:
The Orion program is developing and building hardware for its first exploration flight test (EFT-1) in September 2014, but development challenges continue to threaten the program. The mass of the spacecraft remains a top program risk. Despite mass reduction efforts, the spacecraft could be up to 2,800 pounds over the maximum lift-off mass requirement for the un-crewed first exploration mission flight (EM-1) of the Space Launch System in 2017. The program has made changes to the heat shield’s design in order to address the possibility of cracks between its ablative material and the underlying shield structure due to thermal expansion during its initial test flight in 2014; however, the spacecraft is expected to undergo more stressful temperatures during later launches.
So here we are, nearly eleven years after Bush's Vision for Space Exploration Speech, with an overweight capsule launching on a two-orbit demo flight, and no plans to fly people in it until the early 2020s.
But it protects jobs, right?
Sunday's Florida Today article by reporter James Dean sums up how Orion has soaked the taxpayers:
NASA estimates it will cost between $8.5 billion and $10.3 billion to get Orion ready for its first flight with astronauts in 2021. That estimate, however, excludes nearly $6 billion spent before the Constellation program was canceled.
NASA is spending roughly $1 billion a year on Orion, which adds up. At least 15 years will pass from Orion's contract award in 2006 to the first crew launch.
Nearly 3,300 people work on Orion, including 625 civil servants and 2,650 contractors. That's in the same ballpark as the entire staffs at SpaceX, United Launch Alliance or Orbital Sciences.
Orion's cost stands in stark contrast to the commercial vehicles developed to launch cargo to the ISS and now being readied to fly astronauts as soon as 2017.
NASA spent $396 million to help SpaceX ready Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules that have completed four station resupply missions. This week's test flight alone will cost $375 million.
NASA projects spending a total of about $5 billion to develop multiple commercial crew vehicles from start to finish, or a little more than half Orion's cost to reach its first test flight.
Yet SLS and Orion still don't have a specific mission.
President Obama in his April 2010 speech proposed using an asteroid mission as a stepping stone to human exploration of Mars in the 2030s. Congress has failed to act, although most members in hearings have dismissed the asteroid idea.
The “Journey to Mars” graphic on the NASA web site. Click the image to view a larger version.
But that hasn't stopped NASA from promoting the Orion test flight as the first step towards humans on Mars.
The first future human mission to Mars and those that follow will require the ingenuity and dedication of an entire generation. It's a journey worth the risks. We take the next step on that journey this Thursday, Dec. 4, with the uncrewed, first flight test of Orion ...
Orion is the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since the storied Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. It is designed to go farther than humans have ever traveled, well beyond the moon, pushing the boundaries of spaceflight to new heights.
At least one Apollo-era astronaut is skeptical about these claims.
In an interview with AmericaSpace.com, Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden was asked his thoughts about Orion:
AmericaSpace: NASA will soon launch Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which will test Orion’s capsule in flight and reentry. It has been described as being most similar to Apollo 4, which launched in late 1967. Many space buffs (unfortunately) were not alive or very young during Apollo, so they might not get (or understand) the link as far as space history is concerned. Do you think EFT-1 is as significant (or not) as Apollo 4, and why?
Al Worden: No, I don’t think it is that significant at this time in the space program. Apollo was really the first and most successful spacecraft we used. Orion is supposed to be the spacecraft to go farther out than anything before it. I am not a fan, so it is not very important to me. There are much better reentry shapes that could return from Mars and have the L/D [lift-to-drag ratio] to reenter the atmosphere without some tricks. This shape incidentally was developed because the people at Houston believed they knew how to do it, since they had done it before. However, not one person is still there who was involved with Apollo. We are reliving the past with Orion, and not adding to the technology to get us to Mars. Orion, with its limited L/D, will have to do an atmospheric braking maneuver before making the final reentry.
I don't wish ill upon EFT-1, but I wonder what would happen in the halls of Congress if the test flight results in the heat shield failing upon re-entry, or some other failure. How much longer will Congress perpetuate this charade? Would those members who represent districts with NASA space centers or contractors declare a success?
In June, I wrote a blog article titled “The Emperor's New Clothes” which documented Congress' interminable ability to deny reality to perpetuate the space-industrial complex.
Succeed or fail, EFT-1 will do nothing to change that.