Click the arrow to listen to the September 16, 2015 Orion teleconference. Audio source: NASA.
On January 14, 2004, nearly a year after NASA lost Columbia, President George W. Bush gave his Vision for Space Exploration speech.
In light of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, the Bush administration concluded that the Space Shuttle would fly again only to complete the International Space Station, and then retire the Shuttle.
Bush proposed “to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be 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.”
Using this craft, Bush said, “we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”
Talk is cheap.
Government space programs are not.
This didn't happen ... An early CEV concept proposed by Lockheed Martin. Image source: Wikipedia.
When the Vision was delivered to Congress two weeks later, it included what came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart.
Click here to download the Vision Sand Chart from the NASA web site. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.
The Chart showed a four-year gap between retirement of the Shuttle and the first flight of the CEV. During this time, NASA would rely on Russia for crew rotations to the International Space Station. Once CEV was operational, to pay for it NASA would decommission the just-constructed ISS and splash it into the Pacific Ocean.
Congress, in subsequent NASA budget legislation, would prohibit the agency from such a drastic act, but neither the Bush Administration nor Congress bothered to provide adequate funding for the program to stay on schedule.
Ever obsessed with protecting jobs in their districts and states, Congress in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act mandated in Section 502 that NASA had to “use the personnel, capabilities, assets, and infrastructure of the Space Shuttle program in developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle, Crew Launch Vehicle, and a heavy-lift launch vehicle.” No competition allowed. Job security was guaranteed, meaning ... no rush.
As early as July 2006, the Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that the Vision lacked a sound business case:
NASA’s current acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case. NASA plans to award a contract for the design, development, production, and sustainment of the CEV in September 2006 — before it has developed key elements of a sound business case, including well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, and firm cost estimates. The period of performance for the contract scheduled for award in September 2006 will extend through at least 2014, with the possibility of extending through 2019. This contract will comprise all design, development, and test and evaluation activities, including production of ground and flight test articles and at least four operational CEVs. Although NASA is committing to a long-term contract, it will not have the elements of a sound business case in place until the project level PDR in fiscal year 2008. Awarding a contract for design, development, production, and sustainment of the project as NASA has planned places the CEV project at increased risk of cost growth, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls.
When 2008 came, the CEV was now known as “Orion.” It would launch on a low orbit booster called the Ares I. A more powerful booster, called the Ares V, was on paper for the promised Moon missions. These vehicles collectively came to be known as Constellation.
The GAO still had little confidence in Orion. In April 2008, GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Cristina Chaplain testified to Congress about Orion and its Ares I booster:
... [T]here are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA’s plans for these vehicles can be executed within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost. This is primarily because NASA is still in the process of defining many performance requirements. Such uncertainties could affect the mass, loads, and weight requirements for the vehicles. NASA is aiming to complete this process in 2008, but it will be challenged to do so given the level of knowledge that still needs to be attained.
Chaplain testified, “In fact, we do not know yet whether the architecture and design solutions selected by NASA will work as intended.”
July 31, 2008 ... An Orion parachute test fails in Arizona. Image source: NASA.
Barack Obama took office as President in January 2009. Later that year, he appointed a committee headed by aerospace executive Norm Augustine to review the status of NASA's human spaceflight plans.
While that review was under way, the GAO issued yet another critical audit in August 2009. The report began:
NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case — including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase.
The audit cited “a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of work force and developmental activities.”
The audit cited several design challenges, some of which still vex Orion to this day:
- NASA attempted to replicate the Avcoat ablative heat shield used on the 1960s Apollo capsule. The audit noted the difficulty of manufacturing a shield to consistent standards using that approach. NASA recently announced that, after all these years, they have abandoned this approach. On future flights, the Avcoat shield will be attached in blocks — similar to how SpaceX does it with the Dragon capsule.
- For years, NASA has struggled to reduce the weight of the Orion capsule. The audit noted that NASA had abandoned a landing on land, going to landing in water to lose the weight of air bags. NASA recently found a way to reduce weight by another 500 pounds, removing panels from the cone section of Orion.
- NASA chose to go with a “pull” launch abort tower similar to that used by Apollo. SpaceX and Boeing will use a “push” system on their commercial crew vehicles, reducing weight. The abort system on the SpaceX Dragon uses propellant that will also feed the Super Draco engines used for a powered soft landing on a landing pad. The audit noted that Orion contractor Lockheed Martin was having difficulties finding “a subcontractor who could design and build a working attitude control motor that steers the system during an abort.” Orbital ATK is now developing the abort system, but its in-flight test won't be until near the end of this decade.
A chart in the report estimated that the date for the first crewed Orion flight had slipped six months, from September 2014 to March 2015. The Augustine report, issued in October 2009, estimated a more realistic date was in the range of 2017 to 2019.
The latest GAO audit and the Augustine report led the Obama administration to conclude that Constellation, including the Orion capsule, was not sustainable. In February 2010, NASA announced its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget. The proposal cancelled Constellation, using the savings to extend the ISS to 2020 and to prime the pump on the commercial crew program. If fully funded as requested by President Obama, it was projected that the commercial crew spacecraft would be flying people by 2015 — years earlier than projected for Orion.
Entrenched interests rebelled. Constellation contractors and the members of Congress they underwrite falsely claimed that Obama had ended the space program. Because of the blowback, in April 2010 Obama proposed salvaging Orion as an ISS lifeboat.
To protect the contractors and the voters employed by them, Congress imposed on NASA a new program called Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by critics, Congress mandated that NASA must use Orion on SLS — and launch the first test flight by December 31, 2016.
Funding for the commercial crew program, meanwhile, was slashed over the first three fiscal years by 62% from what Obama requested. Those cuts and subsequent reductions pushed back the first flights from 2015 to 2017. For Fiscal Year 2016, the House of Representatives has already voted to cut the program by 20%, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to cut it by 25%. These cuts forced NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to extend the current taxi contract with Russia to 2019.
The launch of Orion EFT-1 in December 2014. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.
The first Orion uncrewed test flight was on December 5, 2014, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV. Orion re-entered the atmosphere at about 80% the velocity of a cislunar flight.
The next Orion uncrewed test will be atop the Space Launch System. The congressionally mandated December 31, 2016 launch date was always a fantasy. In August 2014, NASA announced the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) test would be in the fall of 2018.
In March 2015, Administrator Bolden testified before Congress that although he remained confident SLS would be ready by the end of 2018, “the second flight for us will come in sometime after 2018” because he didn't believe Orion would be ready by the end of that year.
So that brings us to September 16, 2015, when NASA executives Bill Gerstenmaier and Robert Lightfoot held a teleconference to update the timeline for the next two Orion tests on SLS.
The emphasis was on Exploration Mission 2, which would be the first crewed flight. EM-2 will send a crew of four on a three week flight beyond the Moon. The executives stated they have a “low level of confidence” that the first human flight can be achieved by their August 2021 target date, but believe it can be achieved by no later than April 2023. “The team continues to make incredible progress towards that date,” said Lightfoot.
The pair did not discuss EM-1 until asked by a reporter. They said a firm confirmation could not come until the end of this year, when managers of the Orion, SLS and ground systems programs can meet to make a final decision. In any case, the executives insisted that any slip in the EM-1 date was irrelevant, because all that really matters is when Orion launches with people on EM-2.
They also said that the controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission was unlikely to be flown on EM-2. ARM was proposed to give Orion something to do, but most members of Congress have dismissed it as a waste of money. It appears that EM-2 will be little more than a three-week sightseeing trip for the crew, with nothing much to do than occupy the capsule and monitor its performance. But NASA continues to tell taxpayers it's confidently on the path to sending crew to Mars in the 2030s.
When Orion finally does fly with people, it will have been nearly twenty years since it was proposed by President Bush.
Compare that to the nine years from the formal approval in 1972 by President Richard Nixon for the Space Shuttle, to its first crewed flight in 1981.
Or the fourteen years from the 1984 proposal date by President Ronald Reagan for Space Station Freedom, until the 1998 launch of the first ISS module.
Commercial cargo and crew programs have not flown on schedule either, but the critical difference is that much of those vehicles are privately financed. Government programs are 100% taxpayer funded.
SpaceX spent 100% of its own money to develop the Falcon 9 booster and the upcoming Falcon Heavy. The cargo Dragon capsule cost $850 million to develop; $400 million was NASA seed money, while $450 million was SpaceX money. It was only four years from SpaceX receiving its first commercial cargo contract in August 2006 to the first test flight in December 2010. The first Dragon delivery was in May 2012. Dragon was designed with the eventual goal of using it for people, so the crewed Dragon V2 would seem likely to avoid much of the design delays that might plague other commercial crew companies.
Orion and SLS have no urgency, because there's no profit motive. The contractors get paid regardless of their pace or success; it's required by law. Their lobbyists ensure through generous campaign contributions that Congress will prohibit any competition. Representatives of NASA space centers populate the space authorization and appropriations committees in the House and the Senate; their priority, sometimes stated explicitly, is to protect the taxpayer-funded government jobs in their districts and states.
Maybe, someday, we'll actually see NASA crew climb into an Orion capsule atop a Space Launch System booster at Pad 39B. But it will be tens of billions of dollars after we see commercial crew companies do it for far cheaper.