The December dawn felt hopeful as we stood outside watching NASA’s Orion spacecraft rocket into the Florida skies. We can imagine America taking its first tentative step into the future of human exploration of the cosmos.
“This is the beginning of the Mars era,” said then-space agency administrator, former NASA astronaut Charlie Bolden, shortly after its December 2014 launch. And who could argue right now? Here was a spacecraft capable of flying to the moon and back, doing its first test in space.
Six years later, some of the shine is gone. Years of waiting for an encore to that flight wiped out much of the enthusiasm that followed this reconnaissance flight test-1 mission. We would have seen an Orion encore two years ago and an astronaut mission around the moon next year. Instead, Orion is unlikely to fly back into space before 2022 at the earliest.
And for the first time, astronauts will climb aboard the Orion – who knows? The launch slides more and more to the right.
An inefficient process
The Orion spacecraft dates back to 2005, when NASA made a “request for proposals” to industry with the goal of “developing by 2014 a new crew reconnaissance vehicle that could take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.” NASA sought out Orion as a building block for landing humans on the moon as part of what came to be known as the Constellation program. This program was later canceled, but Orion survived.
According to Casey Dreier of The Planetary Society, NASA has since spent $23.7 billion developing the Orion spacecraft. This does not include primary costs for the vehicle’s service module, which provides power and propulsion, as provided by the European Space Agency.
For this money, NASA got a bare-bones version of Orion that flew during the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014. The agency has also been awarded construction of an Orion capsule — which also doesn’t have a full life support system — to be used on the unmanned Artemis I mission to be flown in 12 to 24 months. So over its lifetime, and at $23.7 billion, the Orion program has delivered:
- Development of spacecraft Orion
- Reconnaissance Flight Test-1 Base Vehicle
- The Orion capsule for a new test flight
- Work on capsules for next missions
That is of course not nothing. But it’s far from much, even for a major government program. Let’s use an extreme example to see how efficiently this money could have been spent in theory.
SpaceX is widely regarded as one of the most efficient space companies. The company was founded in 2002 and has received funding from NASA, the Department of Defense and private investors. Over the course of its history, we can reliably estimate that SpaceX has spent a total of $16 billion to $20 billion on all of its spaceflight efforts. Think what that money bought:
- Development of Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missiles
- Development of the Cargo Dragon, Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 . spacecraft
- Development of Merlin, Kestrel and Raptor rocket engines
- Expansion of launch sites at Vandenberg (twice), Kwajalein Atoll, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center
- 105 successful launches into orbit
- 20 missions to resupply the International Space Station, two manned flights
- Development of vertical take-off, vertical landing, rapid reuse for first stages
- Spaceship and Superheavy Missile Development Program
- Starlink Internet Program (With 955 satellites in orbit, SpaceX is the largest satellite operator in the world)
Basically, SpaceX delivered all of that for billions of dollars less than what NASA has spent on the Orion program since its inception.
In his analysis of the cost of the Orion program, however, Dreier does not disregard Orion, NASA, or the spacecraft’s prime contractor, Lockheed. “I tend to have a slightly more sympathetic view of Orion,” he said. “Cost and pace are a feature, not a bug.”
The United States Congress, which plays an outrageous role in shaping space policy because of its budgetary power, simply does not intend NASA to be particularly fast with Orion’s development. Dreier noted that Congress has funded Orion with a relatively flat budget for the past decade, averaging about $1.6 billion a year. During the Apollo program, when NASA had a clear goal and deadline to reach the moon, annual funding for the Apollo Command and Service Module peaked at more than $7 billion a year. This ensured rapid development.
Orion, on the other hand, is a program supported by coalitions. One is political in nature, requiring funding to be spread geographically and shared among many NASA field centers and subcontractors. A fixed budget also ensures a stable workforce over a number of years. In contrast, in a private company, resources can be abruptly shifted from one program to another and jobs can be terminated.
Orion has also had to wait for the Space Launch System rocket. Although the capsule was launched in 2014 on a private Delta IV Heavy rocket, Congress has said it should be launched on the SLS booster for future missions. The SLS rocket is another program hampered by flat budgets and the need to create many jobs over many years, and it is also way behind schedule.
The SLS rocket is unlikely to be ready before early 2022, if not later. Congress’ insistence on using the SLS has prevented NASA from formally considering launching on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, or even its new Super Heavy booster, for manned Orion missions. Both missiles would offer much lower costs, the potential for reuse and multiple missions per year.
A predictable result
So how will the incoming Biden administration look at Orion? Currently, as part of the Artemis program, Orion will take astronauts from Earth to orbit around the moon, where two to four people will step into a separate lander, go to the surface of the moon, and then return to Orion for the travel back to earth. Such a mission could take place by 2026, with sufficient funding.
This moment has echoes of 2008, when the incoming Obama administration faced the Constellation program to return humans to the moon and found it over budget and way behind schedule. This transition team was led by Lori Garver, who would later become the space agency’s deputy administrator, and summoned a blue ribbon of experts led by Norm Augustine to assess Constellation. “Our concerns were confirmed by the Augustinian panel of experts,” she told Ars. “After full deliberation, the administration has requested cancellation of the program, including Orion.”
However, this attempt was ultimately rejected by Congress. The Orion program survived and NASA was told to begin building the SLS rocket in 2010. NASA was also tasked with flying the Exploration Flight Test-1 mission in 2014 to show “progress” into deep space.
“The same intense industry and NASA lobbying that led to the government’s decision to renew Constellation contracts created Exploration Flight Test-1 as an effort to show progress during what we knew would be a very long development period. Garver said. Recognizing that our hands were tied and favored progress over more protracted combat, we entered into an agreement to secure Congressional funding for the commercial crew program and moved forward with both programs.
In the end, the commercial crew — thanks to two flights this year by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle — proved to be worth the investment. In the meantime, NASA and its contractors have spent the past decade working on Orion and the SLS deep-space mission vehicle. Those programs are far enough, Garver said, that NASA should be given a chance to demonstrate whether they work.
“I look forward to seeing SLS and Orion fly as soon as possible and urge the lessons learned from the experience to be incorporated into future NASA programs,” Garver said. “The staff and the public deserve nothing less.”
The take home message for policymakers is quite simple, Garver said. Public-private partnerships and fixed-price contracts, such as those for commercial crew members, have proven to work — and expensive, slow, cost-effective programs like Orion and the SLS should be avoided in the future, if possible.