Tuesday, 9 December 2014

NASA Sucsessfuly Tests The Orion Spacecraft- But It's Not Going To Mars

A Delta IV Heavy rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral carrying NASA's Orion Spacecraft on its first, unmanned test flight.
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Warning: There may be opinions ahead...

On Friday the 5th of  December the world watched as the most powerful rocket in the world blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atop the bright orange Delta IV Heavy was NASA's new human spacecraft, Orion, making its first flight.

Although there weren't actually any people on it- that won't happen until 2021 at the earliest. This was an uncrewed test flight only, looping around the Earth then boosting out to nearly 6000 km high.

Four hours after launch Orion hit the top of Earth's atmosphere traveling at 32000 kilometers per hour, 85% of the speed it would have had if it it had come back from the Moon. Protected by its heat shield, Orion parachuted down into the Pacific Ocean in a scene reminiscent of the Apollo program.   

The mission was a complete success, testing several of Orion's key systems such as the huge heat shield,  avionics and separation systems. It also looked spectacular, with the whole flight relayed live to Earth via camera on the spacecraft. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I was thoroughly enjoying it.

There was one bit I didn't like though. NASA have been promoting this launch as the first step on a "Journey to Mars", part of the agency's aim to land humans onto the Red Planet in the 2030s. But I don't think Orion will ever go to Mars. In fact, at the moment it doesn't look like it's going anywhere.  

Orion drifts down on parachutes: The future of space flight, or a step into the past? Image Credit: NASA
Orion first began development as part of the Constellation program. Announced by George W. Bush after the loss of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, the plan was to replace the space shuttle with two rockets that would land astronauts on the Moon.  The huge Ares V would do the heavy lifting, carrying the lunar lander and propulsion systems into orbit. A smaller Ares I rocket would then launch carrying Orion, The two parts would then dock in orbit and head off to the Moon.

Constellation looked very good on paper, an Apollo style return to the Moon planned for the early 2020s. Unfortunately it never received enough funding to meet its goals, and it was eventually cancelled in 2010 after just one test flight of a half-finished Ares I.

Instead of a return to the Moon, NASA was ordered to set its sights on Mars. It would turn to commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences,  to replace the role of the space shuttle in supplying cargo and crew to the International Space Station. This would free NASA up to focus solely on developing the technologies needed to take humans to Mars.

Unfortunately this didn't go down well with a number of US politicians, for whom the cancellation of Constellation would mean severe job losses in the Sates that they represented. After much debate Orion was back, this time to launch on a new rocket, the Space Launch System, cobbled together out of parts left over from the Space Shuttle Program.

But the destination remained Mars, and Orion simply isn't built to do that. It's far too small, no bigger than a large car on the inside. For a journey to Mars, which could take up to a year, a much larger spacecraft will be needed.

NASA have talked about a Deep Space Habitat, a larger spacecraft that would be assembled in orbit to make the journey to Mars- although this is yet to even make it on  to the drawing board. Orion would be used to ferry astronauts up to it, and to bring them home at the end of the voyage.

But in this case it's far too large and expensive, tasked with a job that would be much better suited to the cheaper, purpose built commercial crew ships such as the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST100.

Orion has found itself in the worst of both worlds, too small to make the whole journey to Mars and unnecessarily big as a crew transport. And no wonder, as it's perfect for what it was designed to do: Go to the Moon. 

Worse still is its projected time table. Orion is so underfunded that the next test flight isn't until 2018, the first time that the Space Launch System will be ready. And it still wont be carrying any people- the first piloted flight is planned for no earlier than 2021.

NASA doesn't have enough money to build the life support systems yet, so the test flight last week couldn't have carried people even if they'd wanted it to. With up to two new US Presidents between it and its first crewed flight, Orion's chances of ever flying with humans on board are shaky at best.

This isn't to say that we wont go to Mars, or that we can't. I think we should, and will have the technological capability to do so within my lifetime.

But I doubt that Orion will be a part of it.

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