A look at the costly and slow-moving development of the Orion spacecraft

NASA’s Orion spacecraft has been in the news quite a bit lately because of the essential role it will soon play in sending astronauts to the moon. However, most don’t realize that Orion is 15 years old and has gone through a complex and expensive development, even coming close to being canceled at one point.

Back in 2005, NASA stated that it wanted to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts beyond low Earth orbit by 2014. This came in the form of a “request for proposals” that NASA had issued to the industry. Orion was born from the request as part of the Constellation program, which had the goal of “returning to the moon no later than 2020.”

Unfortunately, the Constellation program was ultimately canceled after President Barack Obama took office and determined it to be too costly and behind schedule. However, despite being part of the program, Orion was allowed to stick around, and the development of the spacecraft continued.

Since then, NASA has spent an astounding $23.7 billion on the development of the Orion spacecraft. That number may not seem so high considering what it’s being used for, but that outlook changes when you look at what it has produced:

  • The development of the Orion spacecraft
  • Exploration Flight Test-1 basic vehicle
  • The Orion capsule for use on another test flight
  • Progress on capsules for subsequent missions

While we don’t want to undermine the importance of these accomplishments, what the $23.7 billion has produced is a drop in the bucket compared to other space companies. For example, this is what SpaceX was able to produce with around $20 billion:

  • The development of Falcon 1, 9, and Heavy rockets
  • The development of Cargo Dragon, Crew Dragon, and Cargo Dragon 2
  • The development of Merlin, Kestrel, and Raptor engines
  • Creation of launch sites at Vandenberg, Kwajalein Atoll, Cape Canaveral, and Kennedy Space Center
  • 105 launches to orbit
  • 20 supply missions to the ISS (2 crewed)
  • The development of vertical take off, landing, and reusable first stages
  • Starship and Super Heavy development programs
  • Creation of Starlink

The main reason why Orion has required so much time and money is simply because the US government is heavily involved. Congress sets space policy and has no intention for Orion to be developed in a quick manner. Thus far, Congress has granted an average of $1.6 billion each year to Orion’s development, a flat budget not allowing fast progress.

Other political aspects have also caused Orion’s development to move slower than usual. One of which is that the funding is required to be spread out among many different NASA field centers and subcontractors. The program is also required to create jobs over a long period of time.

Nori Garver, the former deputy administrator at NASA, stated that policymakers need to learn from the Orion spacecraft development. It has been too slow, expensive, and political—all in all, programs like these need to be avoided in the future.

Via Ars Technica

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