Orion, like Elvis, is not dead

September 12, 2011

The Orion next-generation space capsule, what to me is a super-Apollo, was not killed by President Obama as previously thought. The whole Constellation program – Aries launchers, lunar lander, etc. – was, but this little puppy managed to sneak through. I believe some of it is being paid for through long-term contracts that couldn’t just be cancelled outright, and some by shuffling of money in NASA.

Anyway, Lockheed-Martin is building one – yep, one – flyable test article right now, so you know there isn’t a lot of money being thrown around. However, the company is building a docking simulator facility in Denver on its own dime, so management must think there is going to be more money coming for more vehicles sometime.

The article on Space-travel.com makes it sound as if NASA is building the vehicle. Huh? Do the people who write for this site (“staff writers”) have any idea who builds stuff?

NASA does research, some design, operations and support. Bending tin is handled by good old American companies, including the largest American defense contractor, Lockheed-Martin. That was the whole reason for the United Launch Alliance, to provide launch service personnel who were not directly NASA government employees. The welding discussed in the article was actually done by AMRO Fabricating Corporation and Arcata Associates, Inc., according to LockMart’s own web site.

I’m not being picky here. This is an important distinction. NASA gets damned a lot lately, and some of it is justified, in my view. But NASA is where the leadership, direction and funding is. When it comes to actually creating hardware (or software, for that matter) it has to be done by American companies. That’s a good thing. Let’s say NASA loses all the funding for Orion after building and testing the first flight article. Is that research and development lost? No, LockMart can spin it into a commercial vehicle, just as Boeing is with the proposal vehicle it designed for NASA in the original Orion bidding.

This can’t always be done with government-paid technology. I don’t know how much the technology developed to build a modern aircraft carrier can be directly transferred to commercial shipbuilding.  I’m sure we’ve received benefits in motorized vehicles far beyond just the commercial versions of Jeeps and Hummers. At least in Defense and in NASA, there are tangible things being built from which we may derive other spinoff benefits. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s true of most of the federal government.

But I thought it interesting that, while one side of NASA moans that we may have to abandon the ISS for lack of a spacecraft to get to it, construction proceeds apace on Orion, as it does on the SpaceX Dragon, and the DreamChaser, and Blue Origin…ah, politics!


One comment

  1. […] we have Dreamchaser, we have Blue Origin, we have Dragon, and some others. Then there’s this LockMart deal I referred to last week, Boeing is building their own vehicle, and even the Russians are dusting off an old design and […]

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