In four days, if all goes well – if the weather stays acceptable and there’s no mechanical glitches – Orion, America’s new manned spacecraft, will launch into orbit.
It won’t have crew aboard. In fact, the cabin lacks a life support system. Like Apollo, Orion requires a service module with a large engine and maneuvering thrusters to be fully functional. On this unmanned flight, though, the module is a mockup. The real thing is being built by the Europeans and won’t be ready until 2018.
By the time astronauts fly aboard Orion sometime in the early ‘20s, commercial spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing should have been ferrying astronauts to and from the space station for several years. NASA wants to see SpaceX’s Dragon 2 and Boeing’s CST-100 flying beginning in 2017, so American astronauts will have been getting routine rides into orbit aboard American spacecraft long before Orion flies manned.
So why continue to build Orion when the Dragon 2 and CST-100 will be America’s workhorses when Orion will have only flown twice and both times unmanned? Because Orion will take astronauts where they haven’t been since the days of Apollo – out to the Moon and beyond. Along with Orion, NASA is building a rocket more powerful than America’s moon rocket, the legendary Saturn V. It’s called SLS, or the Space Launch System, an admittedly boring name for a booster that will have a thrust of 8.4 million pounds at liftoff. The Saturn V’s F-1 engines provided 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The SLS at 321 feet in height isn’t as tall as the Saturn V’s height of 365 feet.
Five F-1 engines powered the Saturn V’s first stage. Four space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) along with two updated solid rocket boosters will launch Orion. That’s right… the reusable liquid fuel engines of the space shuttle system will power the first several SLS rockets, and when they lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, NASA should be producing disposable liquid fuel SSMEs, known as Rocketdyne RS-25s, for the SLS’s huge fuel tanks.
Right now SLS and Orion lack a mission. President Obama has announced a mission for the early 2020s that calls for Orion to journey out beyond the Moon and rendezvous with an unmanned probe bearing a small asteroid or part of an asteroid. That mission has generated plenty of criticism and may not survive past the Obama administration. If a Democrat wins the White house, be it Hilary Clinton or someone else, the asteroid mission could survive or the new administration could choose a new mission, perhaps a return to the Moon, or no mission at all. If a Republican sits behind the desk in the Oval Office, he or she will definitely end the asteroid capture mission and probably direct NASA to resuscitate George W. Bush’s program calling for a return to the Moon.
As long as SLS and Orion don’t have a mission, calls to cancel the massive rocket and the Apollo-like Orion will grow. After all, we’ll have the Dragon 2 and the CST-100 launching to the International Space Station courtesy of the Falcon 9 and the Atlas V. That’s big enough of a space program for 21st century America struggling with an anemic economy. That’s the argument I predict we’ll hear. Already critics on Internet space forums say the SLS with its handful of test flight is just expensive to continue to develop and fly. These detractors are predominantly new-space proponents who don’t want the federal government building rockets and spacecraft; they want NASA to buy the rockets and spacecraft from nuspace companies like SpaceX. Some would prefer to see NASA dissolved – and they hate the old-space companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It’s kind of like the argument we hear from the Tea Partiers… we want the federal government out of our lives. In this case, we want NASA out of our lives.
So just what will SLS and Orion cost the American taxpayer? In 2011, the cost was estimated at $18 billion through 2017, with $10 billion for SLS, $6 billion for Orion and $2 billion for upgrades to the launch pad. The latest figures show SLS will cost $7 billion through November 2018. For its first test, SLS in November 2018 will fly out of low-earth orbit with an unmanned Orion – and that flight will see a fully functional service module.
The Obama administration as well as Democrats and Republicans say there’s an ultimate goal – Mars sometime in the 2030s. But it’s all cheap talk… no money has been allocated to build the habitation module and other modules and propulsion stages that will be needed for a Mars mission that’s more than pie-in-the-sky dreams. Remember, these are the guys in archetypal knife fights over the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and Benghazi. Firebrands on the right want to impeach Obama or put him on trial for treason while the hotheads on the left call for former president George W. Bush to face a war-crime trial before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Humans become a space-faring species? Sorry, hard not to laugh.
Still, space supporters keep trying to lead the rest of the human race into the future. It begins in four days when a Delta IV rocket will lift off at 7:05 a.m. EST from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, propelling Orion into orbit. In the four-hour test, Orion will circle the Earth at a distance of up to 3,600 miles before re-entering the atmosphere at around 20,000 mph. The craft will land by parachute in the Pacific Ocean. The flight has been modeled to test launch operations and high-speed re-entry systems such as attitude control, avionics, the heat shield and parachutes. The flight will cost $375 million.
Americans generally like NASA. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, about 75 percent of Americans view NASA favorably – second only to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among federal agencies. But look how fast support can evaporate. If you asked Americans what they think of the CDC today after the Ebola scare, their opinion would be far different.
Since the Apollo days many Americans have bought into the Star Trek vision of space exploration. But when it comes to reaching for their billfolds, they have second thoughts. Even in the early ‘70s – when the Moon landings were headline news – 56 percent of Americans polled by a Harris survey just one year after Apollo 11 thought Neil Armstrong’s first step from Eagle onto the lunar surface “was not worth the money spent,” according to an April Pew Research Center news release. But another Harris poll just a year later – in 1971 – found that 81 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “nothing can equal seeing the astronauts walk on the Moon as it happened live on TV.” Yet reality can’t be denied – the federal government shut down the Moon program, and two efforts to return to the lunar surface were abandoned. That doesn’t sound good for SLS and Orion, does it? Yet both the massive rocket and Orion are surviving vestiges of one of those return-to-the-moon programs, so in a roundabout way Bush Two’s Moon legacy lives in truncated form. If they’re not canceled, they will be there for a future President and Congress with the will to use them for manned exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroids.
Nowadays if a SLS critic wants to badmouth the rocket, he calls it a jobs program or the Senate Launch System. It’s a job program because its construction contracts are spread among companies located in big states with lots of political power in the Senate and the House. It’s the Senate Launch System because powerful senators from states like Texas, Florida and Alabama resurrected the heavy-lift rocket after Obama tried to kill it. Spreading the NASA wealth among the states of the Union is a legacy from NASA’s early days when President Kennedy selected James E. Webb to succeed Glennan as the administrator of the federal space agency. Just three months after Webb’s appointment, Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” An experienced manager, attorney and businessman (he’d served as director of the Bureau of the Budget), Webb made sure NASA dollars flowed into communities all across the nation, making many Americans direct participants in Apollo, the nation’s greatest jobs program. At the peak of Apollo, NASA employed 35,000 workers and watched over 400,000 contractors in thousands of companies and universities.
Let’s talk budget numbers. In Obama’s 2015 budget request, he asked for $17.46 billion for NASA, a 1 percent cut from the $17.6 billion Congress gave the agency for fiscal year 2014. The Congress doesn’t think that’s enough. The Senate recommends $17.9 billion; the House, $17.89 billion. But the Congress hasn’t been able to actually pass a 2015 budget, so federal agencies including NASA are running on a stopgap spending measure that extends 2014 funding levels through December 11.
Essentially, though, the Congress since the end of Apollo has funded NASA at about a 0.5 percent slice of the federal government’s budget pie. Congress could hike that percentage to 0.7 or 0.8 percent and fund NASA at around $19 billion – and the space agency could actually start work on some of the space systems like the hab module, advanced propulsion systems, remedial solutions for weightlessness-induced bone and muscle degeneration, and shielding solutions for space radiation exposure. But with survey results showing that only 20 percent of Americans actually want to see a hike in NASA spending, the agency’s budget wobbles along at a level that keeps Mars/asteroid mission planning alive but nothing more ambitious.
In other words, we keep getting paper studies that show us how to get to Mars in the 2030s, but no actual startup money gets allocated to build the interplanetary modules and crafts. We can keep calling Orion our transportation to Mars, but saying so doesn’t make it so. Orion is way too small to support astronauts on a multi-month mission to and from Mars or an asteroid.
Nonetheless, I will be rooting for a successful mission when the Delta IV lifts off in a few days and Orion gets its first test drive in orbit. Right now the gantry enfolds the Delta IV, concealing it and Orion. Soon, though, the gantry will be moved back and we still see the rocket and its Orion cargo in all their rumble-and-fire glory. I’d dearly love to be on hand in 2018 when the SLS bolts away from Launch Complex 39B. Might just fly to Florida to watch the launch. Just think… 8.4 million pounds of thrust. The shaking will sing my body electric.