INFRASTRUCTURE

The US government has a spacecraft again—but don’t believe the Mars hype

Obsession
Space Business
Obsession
Space Business

For starters, let’s be clear: The odds are against Orion going to Mars.

Today’s unmanned maiden flight of the new US spacecraft successfully tested its heat shield, parachutes and other systems. But though NASA, the US space agency, is billing this as the first step toward a Martian mission, for now it is simply returning the US to the realm of space powers after several years of reliance on Russia for human access to orbit.

Completing two unmanned orbits around the earth and returning safely to ground is an important milestone for the new craft and a demonstration of technical capability by NASA and Lockheed Martin, but there are many obstacles to overcome before the vehicle achieves more than that.

The problem is that Orion is neither fish nor fowl: It was originally conceived as part of a program to replace the Space Shuttle as a transportation to low-earth orbit, but that program was cancelled for cost-overruns and replaced with commercial contracts. Orion was revamped as a vehicle for exploration beyond low-earth orbit, but it actually isn’t big enough to allow people to make the three-year trip to Mars—that will require an additional craft, the as-yet-undesigned habitation module. Then there’s the issue of building a lander to get everything down to the surface of the red planet.

In the meantime, Orion could accomplish other missions within the area of the moon and earth, most likely a mission to wrangle an asteroid.

But it could face a lot of competition for jobs like that: This spacecraft has cost $60 billion to develop so far and likely won’t fly again until 2018, according to former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver. Meanwhile, NASA’s commercial space program has spent $3 billion helping Boeing and SpaceX develop manned spacecraft that will start taking humans to the International Space Station in 2017. That means it could be cheaper and faster to rely on commercial craft to accomplish near-earth space missions.

A test version of NASA's Orion capsule floats in the ocean during a recovery drill off the coast of California September 15, 2014. Orion is NASA's next exploration spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to destinations in deep space, including an asteroid and Mars. Picture taken September 15, 2014.
A September 2014 float test of the Orion capsule. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

That’s why Garver have been critical of this project, which she says (video) is more about placating contractors and members of Congress than accomplishing scientific goals. She argues that NASA should be more focused on where it can make technical developments—optical communications, for example—that would lower the cost of space access.

Congress, meanwhile, has questioned whether two commercial space contracts are necessary if Orion can also take humans to the ISS, but Orion is still several years behind the commercial programs. And yet the program is still underfunded: The heavy-lift rocket being designed to launch it has eaten up most of the program’s budget, and experts agree that there’s no way a Martian mission gets off the ground without significant increases in funding. Given the pressure on the US budget already, it’s hard to imagine a signifcant increase anytime soon.

And even if Orion is the spacecraft that will take people to Mars, that won’t happen for 20 years. Why then use technology that is decades old, and rockets that are even older?

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