Orion: a last-ditch effort by a fading empire that will never strike back

nasa orion space launch

 

When a space startup has twice the force for a fraction of the cost, you know the US government has a problem

On Friday, after a weather delay, Nasa launched a very cool space capsule, in what at first blush looked like another Apollo mission. It rose on a massive rocket spewing superheated exhaust like some creature from a Peter Jackson movie. All went well just now – and given the expertise of engineers performing what was essentially an update of a 1970s Apollo mission, that much was expected: a four-seat capsule called Orion will detach any minute now, and soar around the Earth twice, then descend into the atmosphere and finally splash down under some parachutes. There are no people onboard.

Orion is a long-shot demonstration mission that is aimed at no celestial body, nor the moon, Mars or even an asteroid. The United States government’s attempt is aimed at space startups that are trying to muscle their way into the spaceflight industry – and budge NASA out for good.

In one corner is what’s now commonly called “private space”. It’s an odd coalition of billionaires, businessmen and engineers who want to build, launch and operate their own manned space vehicles. The proposed uses of these spacecraft range from profound (asteroid mining by Planetary Resources) to the banal (daredevil trips to sub-orbit for the wealthy, courtesy of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic).

The Empire sits in the other corner. It’s a sprawling axis cobbled together over many years of hard battles for funding, for launches, for spaceflight in general. Until very recently, these were the true heroes who carried American spaceflight, of America as superpower. The Empire, of course, is Nasa, a once noble but now creaky agency that has devolved from moonshots to renting rides from the Russians, all in the span of Buzz Aldrin’s adulthood.

Members of the US House and Senate don’t dream wistfully of space exploration or epic human achievement, of clinging on to an asteroid or visiting Mars. Politicians love whatever makes more jobs and gets them re-elected. What makes it even better for them is that they can steer federal cash to their districts and chalk it up to love of science and patriotic zeal.

Friday’s Orion launch was a galvanizing moment for the traditional, government-led spacecraft movement in the United States. This Bush-era program was decried as wasteful and directionless spending – a “rocket to nowhere” – and cancelled four years ago. But the Empire rallied and revived Orion and the massive proposed rocket that’s supposed to propel it to deep space. After all, the Death Star wasn’t built in a day; it was devised by some very talented engineers. And from their point of view, it’s a shame anyone would blow it up.

But there are some people out there who say Orion is too big not to fail. Earlier this year, the US Government Accountability Office took Nasa to the woodpile for fuzzy math, and offered its own accounting of how much it costs to develop Orion and its rocket through its first two flight in 2017 and 2021: $20bn, with a full $9bn spent on Orion.

And of course there’s that other curse haunting Orion: It won’t carry actual people until around 2022.

And that’s if the budgets hold out. The incoming Congress may not shut down a program like Orion, but they can starve it of fuel until it enters a netherworld of delays, life-support funding and lethargy. When it flies on missions, it will be outdated. Orion is particularly vulnerable since, you know, Nasa has not set a destination for it to go. If the first manned test flight is in 2021, when will the actual mission to Mars be funded and staged? It takes a very optimistic person to think the funding and tech will be ready by 2022 – or even 2025.

Full article: Orion: a last-ditch effort by a fading empire that will never strike back (The Guardian)

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