A One-Two Punch At Orion

In October in Las Cruces, Bob Bigelow, with the Lockmart rep sitting next to him on the podium, made it clear in no uncertain terms that he considered Orion unnecessary and the wrong solution for BEO exploration. Today, at the NASA/SpaceX presser, Elon essentially compared Dragon to Orion and found the latter wanting, with less capability (at least in terms of thermal protection) than the former, and more than an order of magnitude difference in cost. I wonder if anyone in Congress will be paying attention to this next year when it’s time to get out the knives for the rescission bills? Lockmart is clearly worried about it, which is why they came up with the 2013 Delta IV launch demo.

[Update a few minutes later]

Clark Lindsey has transcribed highlights from the press conference, and has a roundup of links on the flight.

48 thoughts on “A One-Two Punch At Orion

  1. MPM

    A smaller Orion developed by LM without too much JSC involvement (“Agile Orion”) as part of the commercial crew program and therefore also available to Bigelow could be a good solution.

  2. Michael Kent

    MPM wrote:

    A smaller Orion developed by LM without too much JSC involvement (“Agile Orion”) as part of the commercial crew program and therefore also available to Bigelow could be a good solution.

    So you want to kill commercial crew? That’s what giving a $10 billion subsidy to one of the competitors will do.

    Mike

  3. MPM

    No, I don’t want to kill commercial crew, I want to promote it. I think everybody knows that significant activity beyond LEO isn’t likely in the next few years, whatever they may say in public. Not because it would be a bad idea, not because there are technical obstacles, but because of politics.

    This is the scenario I’m afraid of:

    The SLS + Orion crowd also know their preferred plan is unlikely to happen, it is just a pretext to maintain a vertically integrated NASA. They will find excuses to turn the LEO “backup” into the main LEO system and then go on to claim it will be cheaper (“because we want to go beyond LEO anyway”). They will want to launch huge Bigelow modules on SLS (“see, we need big fairings”, “cheaper than with 20 launches”) so they can claim to be friends of commercial space. It will also give them an excuse to keep ISS purely government run (“no false competition with commercial stations”). Then when they’re ready to go beyond LEO, they’ll dump the ISS and say what a pity that Bigelow didn’t work out, but that’s the risk of going commercial. And then they will have their old monopoly back.

    What I would want to do is to divert the forces that support the old regime into a more productive direction, judo-style. Shuttle/SLS is a big problem because it has no commercial prospects. If it did, it could be privatised. But it doesn’t, so it has to go away.

    With Orion the situation is different. It can be turned into a capsule that will be available for commercial clients too. That requires removing all JSC involvement beyond what would be required of other commercial crew providers. It also means the “Agile Orion” would have to fit on a more cost effective launch vehicle, i.e. an EELV Medium and/or Falcon. That in itself will require substantial modifications, so I’m not so sure there would be much of a head start, especially if some of the more onerous requirements were maintained. I think those should be dropped, although LM could still offer such capabilities as a selling point if it thought it could do so cost-effectively.

    And if you require three providers, then that still gives others like Boeing or SNC a chance. But even just Dragon and Agile Orion would give us redundant commercial manned access to space and that’s what matters.

  4. Al

    If we’re discussing variant upper stages, I’d much rather have a brute-force propellant tank “depot”.

  5. MfK

    Today’s flight was a knock-down punch for any NASA-developed Orion/Whatever. The coupe de grace will be the next mission, which is significantly more complicated. If SpaceX pulls that off, it will leave those who want Constellation back without a leg to stand on. Today’s flight only cut off one leg.

    But today’s flight was a stunning achievement nevertheless…

  6. Trent Waddington

    Everyone knows I’m a huge SpaceX fan. I’m also a fan of Elon Musk. With that said, please take this in the kindest possible way: he’s misinformed.

    “Orion is designed to support four astronauts for 18 days going to and from the Moon, with a 180 day unoccupied period in lunar orbit while the astronauts are at the lunar outpost, plus 30 days of contingency loiter capability for a mission extension.”

    Dragon can’t do that. Now, if you want to argue that we don’t *need* to do that, I agree.

  7. Marcel F. Williams

    The ULA ACES 41 LOX/LH2 concept is a better Service Module concept than the Orion’s hypergolic Service Module since it could utilize fuel depots. Sun shades could be used to reduce cryogenic boil-off during deep space missions.

  8. MfK

    What’s wrong with a hypergolic duel depot? It has more applicability to today’s propulsion systems, and has essentially an infinite shelf life with little technology development.

  9. Coastal Ron

    Trent, it was an interesting comment from Musk today about Dragon vs Orion. It would be nice to see the detail behind what he is saying, like a comparison chart of features.

    In looking at the Dragon spec sheet, it does say that it’s mission duration is up to 2 years, so that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Regarding supporting 4 astronauts for 18 days, Dragon actually has 10% more pressurized volume.

    However, keeping 4 astronauts in that small a volume for 18 days was a sure sign of bad planning on NASA’s part, and shows that they were more concerned with getting to the Moon than building the proper space transportation infrastructure to do a lot more. Different subject.

    In any case, I’d like to hear more about the Dragon vs Orion, because that could really start a fur-ball fight… ;-)

  10. Bennett

    “Orion is designed to support four astronauts for 18 days going to and from the Moon”

    Trent, I’ve read enough of your comments to know you come armed with documentation, so whay does a moon missing need 18 days to go to and return from the Moon? Wouldn’t 8-10 days be sufficient? 3 there and 3 back plus margin?

    Is Orion so much bigger than Dragon? Could SpaceX build a Dragon that had these capabilities, if they wanted to?

  11. Trent Waddington

    Bennett, yes, that’s exactly the argument Musk *should* be making. Something like: Orion can do missions that Dragon can’t but what good are those missions, really? And, if you really want them, we could do them too.

    As for 2 years duration.. that’s in LEO. Lunar orbit is a different kettle of fish.

    In regards to the 18 days, the purpose is loiter. If you can’t go to lunar orbit and wait until lighting conditions are good for landing, then you’re restricted in how frequently you can launch to a particular site.

    That’s the theory anyway, my opinion is that a lunar outpost mission doesn’t have lighting requirements.. you land using instruments because there’s a beacon at the base that you can fly towards. For sortie missions you should be able to land *almost* by instruments once you put up a proper “GPS for the Moon” infrastructure.

  12. Dean

    The Boing CST-100 is the ‘Agile Orion’ to compete with Dragon, if it can. To give a rational for the LM Orion, ULA ACES 41 or hypergolic duel depot and to push the eveloution of Dragon, NASA should settup a competition to develope BEO systems. Don’t try to pick a single winning technological solution, try to encourage multiple solutions which reinforce each other. Missions to the various earth lagrange points provide a way to demonstrate capability.

  13. roystgnr

    How easy is it to put up a satellite constellation handling “GPS for the Moon”? I was under the impression that Lunar mascons made low lunar orbits unstable and Earth’s gravity made high lunar orbits unstable. Would Lissajous orbits around L1 and L2 give good enough coverage?

  14. Trent Waddington

    roystgnr, I’ve seen some designs for lunar location systems that use an EML1 sat, an EML2 sat and some base stations to provide sub-foot accuracy. Combined with the many high accuracy maps of the Moon we have now, it’s a heck of a lot easier than Apollo was.

  15. Marcel F. Williams

    “MfK Says:
    December 8th, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    What’s wrong with a hypergolic duel depot? It has more applicability to today’s propulsion systems, and has essentially an infinite shelf life with little technology development.”

    What extraterrestrial resources are you going to use to resupply the hypergolic fuel at space depots or do you propose to resupply space depots only from the enormous gravity well of the Earth?

  16. Trent Waddington

    Marcel, any permanent habitation of space will require a nitrogen source. The poles are full of hydrogen and oxygen. What’s so hard about making storable propellants on the Moon or asteroids?

  17. Brad

    Wasn’t the Orion’s primary difficulty accommodating the problems with the Ares rockets? That and the elephantine specifications NASA forced upon Orion?

    In the post-constellation context I bet Orion can fair much better than before.

  18. Brad

    Of course the Dragon LES should still be developed, but why wait for it’s availability before flying crewed missions? Why not cut two years off the manned spaceflight gap by flying crewed Dragon missions without the launch escape system? I doubt crew would be in any more danger than they were flying the Shuttle!

  19. Edward Wright

    “Orion is designed to support four astronauts for 18 days going to and from the Moon, with a 180 day unoccupied period in lunar orbit while the astronauts are at the lunar outpost, plus 30 days of contingency loiter capability for a mission extension.”

    Dragon can’t do that. Now, if you want to argue that we don’t *need* to do that, I agree.

    I’d go further than that. Not only don’t you need to do that, you shouldn’t even try. Leaving your only way home in lunar orbit, unoccupied, for 180 days, is a singularly bad idea. What happens if HAL decides not to “open the pod bay doors” after all that time?

  20. Brad

    And yet the Astronaut Office has no problem letting people fly the Shuttle after Columbia burned. Funny how that works.

    If necessity is an adequate reason to put people on the late Shuttle, why not an early Dragon too?

  21. Stellvia

    “What’s wrong with a hypergolic duel depot? ”

    Not much, until a refuelling goes wrong, and you have to do an EVA to hit a stuck valve with a spanner, and end up bringing a hydrazine-contaminated suit back into the spacecraft.

    Just out of interest, what are the issues in storing kerosene on orbit? Thermal control, to stop waxing/freezing obviously… what else apart from that?

  22. Paul D.

    The chemical processes for making hydrazine are nontrivial, even if you have the hydrogen and nitrogen. Hydrazine derivatives, even more so.

  23. ken anthony

    who’s gunna fly on it?

    In the [fantasy] land of liberty, anyone that wants to.

    Solid fuels makes sense for ICBMs because of readiness. They make a lot less sense for human flight. While we don’t have enough flight data to make any strong assertions, I’d think a Dragon w/o a LES is considerably safer than the shuttle… and probably a much nicer ride as well. It’s definitely safer to land.

    No LES also means more flight performance which might come in handy on occasion.

  24. Gregg

    If this was reported accurately, then I’m a little concerned:

    “Given the complexities of manned missions, SpaceX’s founder and his supporters say that plans to devise additional emergency systems on the capsule could falter unless Congress agrees to foot most of the estimated $1 billion bill.”

    Once you let Congress in, financially, trouble is sure to follow

  25. Cecil Trotter

    emergency systems on the capsule …..estimated $1 billion bill

    Why would the LES alone cost as much / more than SpaceX in it’s entirety (facilities, Falcon 1/9, Dragon etc.) has cost thus far?

  26. Bart

    Brad Says:
    December 9th, 2010 at 1:19 am

    “If necessity is an adequate reason to put people on the late Shuttle, why not an early Dragon too?”

    Because the Shuttle is already a condemned system. A failure of the replacement system would be… really bad.

  27. Ed Minchau

    One thing that struck me about the press conference was something Elon Musk said about the vertical integration of SpaceX — that it was necessary because the supply chain for space hardware is shallow, often with only one supplier for a given part. This indicates a huge potential market for small businesses to enter, supplying parts for the bigger space companies.

  28. Michael Kent

    Trent Waddington wrote:

    “Orion is designed to support four astronauts for 18 days going to and from the Moon, with a 180 day unoccupied period in lunar orbit while the astronauts are at the lunar outpost, plus 30 days of contingency loiter capability for a mission extension.”

    That’s the as-yet unfunded Block II Orion. Constellation is building the Block I Orion, which is good only for carrying a four-man crew to the ISS.

    MPCV may end up having specs similar to the Block II Orion, or it may not. That’s still to be determined, as is the funding for it.

    Mike

  29. Michael Kent

    MPM wrote:

    No, I don’t want to kill commercial crew, I want to promote it….

    …And if you require three providers, then that still gives others like Boeing or SNC a chance.

    Giving one of the commercial crew competitors but not the others a $10 billion taxpayer subsidy is a mighty strange way of promoting commercial crew. After the EELV fiasco, it is highly unlikely Boeing would even bid the job under such a scenario and almost certain they wouldn’t put their own money into it.

    And with having to compete against that kind of money, I’d be surprised if any of the smaller companies could raise any kind of money at all for it.

    You can’t have a commercial competition when you give two orders magnitude more money to one and only one of the competitors.

    Mike

  30. Larry J

    I’d love to see congressional hearings next year on why taxpayers are paying billions for Orion when SpaceX is building the same or better capability for a tiny fraction of the cost.

  31. Neil H.

    Gregg, that quote from Andy Pasztor’s WSJ is pretty much just trolling, like most of his space-related articles. Here’s what Musk said last time Pasztor made the same “$1 billion for SpaceX to develop an escape system” claim:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Pasztor#SpaceX

    “Andy Pasztor’s article in the Journal was, I’m sorry to say, rife with errors. He was off by a factor of ten on what it would cost SpaceX to develop a launch escape system. Also, under no circumstances would SpaceX be seeking a financing round from the taxpayers. That doesn’t make any sense.”

  32. Marcel F. Williams

    Trent Waddington Says:
    December 8th, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    “Marcel, any permanent habitation of space will require a nitrogen source. The poles are full of hydrogen and oxygen. What’s so hard about making storable propellants on the Moon or asteroids?”

    While the lunar poles appear to have some nitrogen resources, they might be too limited and too valuable to use for fuel. So it might be better to conserve the moons nitrogen resources for fertilizer for growing lunar crops and even recycle the nitrogen from biowaste for reuse. I wouldn’t even be surprised if large lunar colonies ended up importing nitrogen from the Martian atmosphere (3% nitrogen). Hydrogen fueled space canons might someday cheaply transport ammonia into low Martian orbit for transport by light sails to cis-lunar space.

    Nitrogen resources are even more limited in asteroids. While asteroid compositions vary, a typical C-type asteroid only contains about 0.1% nitrogen compared to 2.4% hydrogen and 40% oxygen content in such an asteroid. So it it seems to me much easier to manufacture hydrogen and oxygen fuel from an asteroid than to attempt to manufacture hypergolics.

    A hypergolic lunar shuttle would also be 15% heavier than a LOX/LH2 vessel. A single stage lunar vehicle capable of landing 25 tonnes on the lunar surface from lunar orbit would weigh approximately 69 tonnes while a single stage LOX/LH2 vehicle would weigh about 60 tonnes. While the empty hypergolic vehicle itself would weigh less than an empty LOX/LH2 vehicle, the hypergolic vehicle would require 44% more mass as fuel.

  33. Robin Goodfellow

    Orion is a terrible vehicle, just awful (for reasons that have been enumerated countless times already). It would be better for the advancement of space exploration if all of the money that would be used to develop Orion were just left in a hole in the ground somewhere.

  34. MPM

    Giving one of the commercial crew competitors but not the others a $10 billion taxpayer subsidy is a mighty strange way of promoting commercial crew.

    Too late for that, there’s no legitimate reason for excluding LM from the commercial crew program. And I think it’s $4.5B, not $10B.

  35. Larry J

    And I think it’s $4.5B, not $10B.

    Given LM’s track record (e.g. F-22, F-35, SBIRS), their chances of coming in on budget for Orion are pretty slim. When it comes to cost-plus contracts, LM’s motto might as well be “Overruns R Us!”

  36. Dick Eagleson

    This indicates a huge potential market for small businesses to enter, supplying parts for the bigger space companies.

    Would that it were so, Ed. During the Apollo era, that’s how things worked. So. California had a huge base of small and medium shops turning out all manner of high precision bits and pieces in various flavors of unobtanium. Most of these businesses have folded long since. Elon’s notion of keeping things in-house was a rational response to the tenuous financial condition of the rump of small aerospace fabricators that remain. To meet his self-imposed schedules, he couldn’t afford to rest any significant weight on outside suppliers who might implode unpredictably. From what I understand of the matter, SpaceX is not 100% self-reliant for fabrication of all Falcon/Dragon parts, but it’s pretty close. I know of at least one outside shop with which SpaceX has done at least some business, but it’s a pretty big operation and specializes in outsize componentry, not nuts and bolts.

    Much as I’d personally like to see it happen, I don’t think the good old days of a thousand little shops in L.A.’s South Bay cranking out bright, shiny spaceship parts is ever likely to come back.

  37. Ed Minchau

    Much as I’d personally like to see it happen, I don’t think the good old days of a thousand little shops in L.A.’s South Bay cranking out bright, shiny spaceship parts is ever likely to come back.

    I don’t think it will be exactly as it was back in the 60s. The capabilities of a small business today are much greater than the capabilities of a small business 50 years ago. There are one-man shops with a few CNCs that can do high-precision work that would have taken entire machine shops 50 years ago.

    And as I said it is a potential market, not an immediate one. Many of these space transportation companies are still in a prototyping stage, with SpaceX being the closest to being in full production. Once in full production these companies will find it advantageous to farm out components — circuit boards, for instance — for high-volume runs.

  38. Larry J

    While the costs of CNC machines have come down considerably, they’re still pretty expensive when it comes to the equipment necessary to handle materials like titanium to aerospace tolerances. It’d be hard to make the case to buy that machinery just to make a small number of very expensive parts. Companies like SpaceX can afford to buy the CNC machines and make a wide range of parts in house. This gives them complete control over costs, quality, and availability.

  39. Dick Eagleson

    Once in full production these companies will find it advantageous to farm out components — circuit boards, for instance — for high-volume runs.

    What Larry J said.

    Looking at the currently public SpaceX manifest, they have five Falcon 9 missions scheduled in each of the next four years. That’s an impressive number of big rockets to crank out – including 200 Merlin engines – but it also represents no projected year-to-year demand growth before mid-decade at the earliest. And this assumes no first stage reusability being achieved over that time; probably not a safe assumption. It looks to me like SpaceX has no need for expanded production capacity for at least five years. In the happy event that proves to be incorrect, the pacing items for ramping up production will be assembly fixtures and not machine tools.

    Sorry, Ed. It seems possible to me that SpaceX might, at some point, try bringing in-house the few percent of things they don’t currently make on Crenshaw Blvd. and achieve complete – rather than near-complete – vertical integration for all non-catalog parts. But I see no basis for believing they have any need or desire to go in the other direction either now or in the foreseeable future.

  40. Trent Waddington

    Dick, that’s their schedule as it stands… it’s populated with the “true believers”. I imagine quite a lot of orders are coming in now that wouldn’t have been coming in last month. If their next launch is successful you can expect more again.

  41. Ed Minchau

    SpaceX isn;t the only launch company out there. Orbital, Blue Origin, XCOR, Virgin, Armadillo, Masten, and others will be right behind them. Once it becomes clear how big the market potential is, you’ll see companies like Saab and Kvaerner and Ford and Bombardier starting or expanding their space divisions.

    But you don’t need to agree with me. There are others who will, and some will see a potential for themselves in a niche market and will put money and sweat into it — in fact, I believe that’s what Jon Goff is doing already.

    Anyhow, when I hear a billionaire CEO complain that the supply chain is too shallow, I see business opportunity, at least in the not-too-distant future. Deep down he may want a completely vertically integrated company and that’s fine, but if the company is structured that way because it has to be that way logistically, then there is opportunity for smaller support businesses to fill niche markets within the space industry. That’s how an industry grows.

    Also, it follows that small startups filling the supply chain for bigger players will happen for the very same reason SpaceX is getting paid by NASA — so that it doesn’t have to do it all itself. As SpaceX grows and hits the steep part of the S-curve it will find it more efficient to farm out certain parts, even while their own CNCs are running at maximum. For some smaller parts it’ll be cheaper to hire a guy with his own CNC for a limited run than it is to buy another CNC of their own. Or, maybe they will like Unreasonable Rockets’ LOX valve more than their own and Armadillo’s GNC more than their own and buy them off the shelf.

  42. Pingback: Space Cheese and Other Breakthroughs - Reason Magazine

Comments are closed.