Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What's Next for Orion

Aviation Week reports that "work is deliberately slowed" on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle "to avoid the 'unsustainable' cost growth that scuttled NASA’s plans to use it to send astronauts to an outpost on the Moon."

One of the few surviving elements of NASA’s Constellation program of human exploration spacecraft, Orion is now recast as a multi-destination deep-space crew vehicle with an asteroid tentatively tapped as its first target. The U.S. space agency already has spent more than $5 billion on the capsule, and is on track to run its first orbital flight test early in 2014.

If all goes as planned, a Delta IV heavy rocket will send a high-fidelity test article on a two-orbit mission designed to simulate loads the capsule will encounter returning from the Moon or points beyond, and to exercise techniques for recovering it at sea. That first “Exploration Flight Test” (EFT-1) will be followed by an ascent-abort test similar to the Little Joe tests of the Mercury and Apollo capsules.

“We don’t have the money every year to do every system,” says Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager. “So EFT-1 is a great example. We decided to focus our money on the high-risk things, TPS [thermal protection system], crew module structure, parachutes, entry, navigation and guidance. So that’s where we’re putting our money in ’11 and ’12.”

The end of the article discusses attempts by management to keep Orion costs from bloating as do many NASA programs.

NASA Program Manager Geyer says the push to hold down development costs goes beyond phasing the work to fit the funding profile, and includes attempts by NASA to mimic private-sector management practices.

“We’re trying to increase our efficiency in oversight,” he says. “[We’re also] really trying to reduce the reporting products . . . . There’s a lot of stuff that drives costs for taxpayers that derives from financial reporting—values, [work breakdown structure] levels, institutional requirements and how stuff is reported. It can be a very large overhead, so we are working with headquarters on streamlining that and reducing the number of unique formats and reports that are generated that frankly, in my mind, don’t necessarily really help us manage the program.”

Not surprisingly, the Orion program has met with some resistance to its cost-cutting efforts inside NASA. “It takes time to convince them as to why there’s another way to do this, Geyer says. “It’s not some evil intent, some evil bureaucrat who just wants to slow things up. [Sincere, dedicated] workers believe their piece is critical, and sometimes people act as if affordability is for the other guy.”

UPDATE January 11, 2012Florida Today reports that NASA hopes to increase its Lockheed Martin contract to fund a 2014 unmanned test flight for Orion.

NASA intends to increase Lockheed Martin’s $6.4 billion Orion spacecraft contract by $375 million to compensate the company for conducting an early orbital flight test of the capsule in 2014.

The extra money will enable the U.S. aerospace giant to procure a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket and launch services for the mission, which will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station ...

The 2014 flight test will launch an unmanned Orion on two highly elliptical orbits of Earth. Then the spacecraft will reenter the atmosphere at a velocity that is 84 percent of the speed of a capsule returning from a moon mission.

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