Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Emperor's New Spaceship

Two years ago, almost to the day, I was writing about the travails of the Orion spacecraft's weight issues. Well, the Ares I booster had its Preliminary Design Review (PDR) not too long ago, and it wasn't a happy occasion. Two years ago, my general thoughts were that the Orion could probably stand to lose a bit of weight. Now? Now, it's becoming rather painfully evident that the Ares I booster is woefully underpowered.

The kicker, for me, was this item from Universe Today back in April, saying that the Orion capsule could be down-graded from a crew of six to a crew of four. This is necessary because the Ares I cannot lift the six-man version ... which basically makes this iteration of Orion just about useless for ISS crew change-out. For those of you who haven't kept up, recent expansions have bumped the Space Station's permanent crew capacity from three to six.

Taken together, the obvious conclusion is that Ares I and Orion are in trouble. The schedule will slip to the right, which is no big deal. What is a moderately big deal is that Orion will not be able to perform the job originally advertised. At a crew size of four, it still works as a cis-lunar transport for the lunar landing mission, but comes up short by several seats for ISS emergency crew return.

Now, one might wonder: why, if I've known about the PDR hijinks since late last year, and about the crew downsizing since April, why haven't I been kicking up a fuss? Why haven't I, a space enthusiast since I knew how to read, been shouting from the rooftops?

Short answer: because it really doesn't matter so much. Sure, if that were the only egg in our basket, I'd be worried. But it's not.

Last year, I said that within fifteen to twenty years, the center of gravity of the American space effort would be in private industry, not in government. I have seen nothing since to disabuse me of that notion. Indeed, I may have to revise those numbers downward. In September of last year, the SpaceX Falcon 1 launcher became the first privately-owned spacecraft to enter Earth orbit. Its big brother, Falcon 9, is undergoing tests, and later this year will do its first flight with a Dragon space capsule attached. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to use the Dragon capsule to deliver cargo to the ISS, once the system is proven out. Further, Dragon comes in two flavors: all cargo, or cargo plus crew.

It's almost a certainty that a man-rated Dragon will taste hard vacuum long before any version of Orion does, and by a margin of not less than eighteen months.

So ... given those facts, why worry?

Mind you, we still need Orion, along with the Aries lander and the heavy-lift Ares V launcher. Going back to the Moon, and onward to Mars, is a goal well worth pursuing. But the Stick is as useless as lips on a brick, and needs to go. It'd be great if the new Administrator, Charles Boldin, would put it out of its misery quickly once he takes office. But like any other fatally-injured Federal program, it'll probably limp along like a gut-shot mule for another year or two before quietly expiring while no one's watching, sometime after the 2010 elections. That's just the way the world works.

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