Orion can Launch Safely in 2013 says Lockheed

Article written: 6 Feb , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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(Editor’s Note: Ken Kremer is in Florida for Universe Today covering the upcoming Endeavour launch attempt.)

“We can fly Orion in 2013”, says John Karas, the VP and General Manager of Human Space Flight for Lockheed Martin. Lockheed is the prime contractor for NASA’s Orion capsule.

“There is no doubt in my mind we can do this. And Orion is very safe”. He strenuously repeated this statement to me several times with absolutely no doubt in his mind during a wide ranging interview. I spoke at length with Karas today (Feb. 6) at the NASA Press Center shortly before the scheduled Feb. 7 launch of shuttle Endeavour on the STS 130 mission to the ISS.

Lockheed Martin has issued an official statement saying, “We are keenly disappointed in the Administration’s budget proposal for NASA that would cancel Project Orion as part of an elimination of NASA’s Constellation Program. Orion’s maturity is evident in its readiness for a first test flight in a matter of weeks. In fact, Orion can be ready for crewed flights to low Earth orbit and other exploration missions as early as 2013, thus narrowing the gap in U.S. human space flight capability when the shuttle is retired later this year”.

Karas questioned the complete lack of vision and realism by the Obama Administration and NASA in deciding to terminate Project Constellation, which includes the new Orion Capsule, the Ares 1 booster rocket for Orion and the Ares 5 Heavy Lift booster required to reach the Moon, Mars and beyond. “I was very surprised by the cancellation. We expected and felt that a middle ground with some changes to Constellation was reasonable. We did not expect to be left with nothing”.

“Where is the US Leadership in space if we don’t have a heavy lifter soon ? or a deep space crewed capablity ?

“Russia, China, Japan and India will all have boosters equal to or better than the US expendable fleet. Why would anyone have an incentive to work with us if they already have their own boosters and crew vehicles for LEO. The nations of the world will look elsewhere, not to the US”, Karas told me emphatically. “Its not international cooperation, its international dependency !”

“We will not maintain Space leadership if the US will only be spending money on commercial LEO technology development under the new proposals by the Obama Administration, and not on an actual rocket program that builds, tests and launches flight hardware. Other countries have vehicles and technology programs too.”

“For now, I told the team that Job 1 is to stay calm and keep focused. We are not terminated yet. We are continuing the Constellation program according to our contracts with NASA. By law, the Congress must still have its say. The program cannot be terminated without congressional approval. We have some hope there and are working with NASA and Congress.”

“We have numerous Orion related tests upcoming including the LAS or Launch Abort System test in 60 days. And we have test hardware at Michoud and other sites in Louisiana, Texas and Florida. We have successfully completed the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) on Orion last year. We are headed for the critical design review (CDR) beginning in the August 2010 time frame and running into next year. Orion is the most mass efficient ever built. And its full of innovations”.

Karas was confident about the early readiness of Orion and vehemently disagrees with the conclusions of the blue ribbon Augustine commission which evaluated Project Constellation and stated in their final report that the Orion capsule could not launch prior to 2015 to 2017. Karas stated, “We can have an Orion capsule built and ready to fly by 2013. It would likely utilize a 5 segment Ares 1 rocket and probably be capable of launching with 4 astronauts aboard. To acccomplish that, we first need to complete several high altitude abort tests with the capsule. This would be followed by an unmanned orbital test in 2012.

There are some alternatives to using Ares 1 as the booster rocket if Lockheed decides to bid on NASA’s commercial route to human spaceflight. There has been speculation about launching with a 4 segment Ares 1 first stage which might also work, but with certain modifications to reduce the weight of Orion. Some systems or components would have to be simplified, reduced or pulled off such as the Service module size, avionics and unspecified life support hardware resulting in less redundancy and robustness in case of failures,” Karas said.

The Delta 4 Heavy and Atlas 5 are among other booster possibilities. Along with this of course is the fact that some capabilitities would also have to be sacrificed. For example making Orion only LEO capable and thus giving up on the Moon, Mars and other Deep Space targets such as Asteroids. But, he cautioned me by saying that much work remains yet to be done to define these alternative options. “Focusing on LEO is not space leadership. The nation should have a balanced approach” says Karas. Capabilities sacrificed today could potentially be added back in later.

Money could also obviously be saved by designing and constructing a capsule with less built in safety capability. Fear of that happening has been expressed by many.

Let me be completely clear, Karas was NOT advocating any option to curtail on crew safety. Just stating that compromises to crew safety would be a direct consequence to cutting development costs by cutting operational systems from the Orion capsule to meet a commercial competition.

Indeed, Karas is extremely concerned that by going the commercial taxi route, astronaut safety is exactly what will be sacrificed. “I am very concerned that safety and safety standards are at risk. There is a lot of rhetoric about commercial providers”.

In fact, no one has built any manned capsule yet and many comentators think their fast timelines are unrealistic. Some commercials providers have claimed they will have a manned capsule ready in about two years. But they have not even flight tested the unmanned cargo carriers yet.

“What happens if the commercial providers fail to deliver ? and the market for manned capsules fails to materialize ? Then the US will be left with no capability to launch its own astronauts into space for perhaps a decade or more.” The looming “Gap” will thus grow even longer, further threatening US Space Leadership”, stated Karas.

Orion (now cancelled) approaches the International Space Station in Earth orbit. Artist Concept Credit: NASA

“Significant investment has already been made by the nation and private industry in Orion, which is human rated to provide a level of safety unmatched by any previous or currently proposed crewed vehicles”, according to Lockheed.

“Over 4000 people are working on Orion and those jobs are at risk. Lockheed and its partners have spent $300 million of its planned $500 million investment in Orion,” Karas told me.

Over 7000 jobs at the Kennedy Space Center are now at risk as well as thousands more across the US as a result of the retirement of the Space Shuttle at the end of 2010. The cancellation of Project Constellation adds even more uncertainty and the probable loss of another 500 jobs at the Cape.

On Feb 1, NASA awarded $50 million to commercial firms to begin development of concepts and technology demonstrations for commercial human spaceflight.

“Its just prudent for the tax-payers to have a backup plan.”

“We have done all the analysis, and others have verified it independently, making Orion inherently more safe than the alternatives,” Karas concluded.

Earlier STS 130/ISS articles by Ken Kremer

Russian Cargo Freighter Docks at ISS; 1 Day to Endeavour launch

Endeavour astronauts arrive at Cape for launch of Tranquility

ISS Crew Twitpics from Orbit; Live Streaming Video Soon !

Path clear for STS 130 to attach Tranquility module

Endeavour aiming for on time launch with coolant hose fix ahead of schedule

STS 130 flight pressing forward to launch as NASA resolves coolant hose leak

STS-130 Shuttle flight facing delay due to Payload technical glitch

Shuttle Endeavour Rolled to Pad; Countdown to the Final Five Begins

Tranquility Module Formally Handed over to NASA from ESA


13 Responses

  1. Astrofiend says

    It’s not surprising that John Karas would be bullish about his own company’s prospects and dismissive of the competition.

    I think his best and most valid point is that the US has already sunk considerable amounts of money into this project, and now they are canning it. I know that there could be a good argument advocating this position based on throwing good money after bad, but it is simply amazing how often the US seems to heavily invest in a project only to kill it off later. The Superconducting Super Collider comes rapidly to mind. How can businesses involved with these big projects have any confidence to embark on such ventures when the government seems to kill off as many projects as they see through simply from lack of foresight, planning and political convenience?

    Governments on both sides of politics are guilty. They are abysmal!

  2. Alexicov says

    It would be a waste to cancel the Lockheed contract. Lockheed Martin helped put two rovers on mars, amongst many other achievements. Hopefully Congress still has some sense in them not to throw away the $9bil already spent on the project.

  3. Richard Kirk says

    It’s not my country, so I can’t comment on the particular administrations involved. Nevertheless, they are forced to balance the books after trillions went down the tubes with the recent bank problems. If you have spent money on a project then it’s like a poker bet: the money on the table is no longer ‘yours’. You’ve spent it and it’s gone. If you think the game is not going your way, then you fold. But if you think “it’s my money down there, and it’s all going to go if I don’t do something” then you won’t play a good poker game, and you won’t do a good job of managing R&D. I am not implying that the decision to ‘fold’ is necessarily ‘bold’ or ‘strategic’ or ‘correct’ in any particular case – just that the common perception is to err in the other direction.

  4. Hauerg says

    If Lockheed Martin can make Orion fly in 2013 then where’s the problem??? Offer it to NASA for competitive prices and first flight in 2013 and everybody else (like SpaceX) is dead meat. LM only has to put the money where it’s mouth is.

    In the end Boeing an LM will bundle therir recources (Delta 4 & Atlas 5, the new Boeing 7 seater capsule and a kind of Orion lite) within the USA framework. But their flights will be still way to expensive. Their only hope is that SpaceX does not deliver. Therefore all those “safety mantras” from the providers of the Shuttle system (=inherently faulty design.)

  5. Maxwell says

    I’m fairly certain their capsule wont survive this.
    Its planned carrier rockets are dead and whatever new system evolves probably will have its own quirks to adapt to.
    This means that if Orion isn’t culled outright for simply having been part of constellation, or replaced by a cheaper commercial alternative, its descendant wont look much like what they are making.

    This actually begs the question: what was the holdup on Ares I?
    The two things that haunted the program were slipping launch dates and escalating prices. If they could have made things move faster, why didn’t they say so before the Augustine commission was announced and NASA’s keester was put in the fire?

  6. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    My immediate reaction is that canceling Orion as a Constellation hardware is the rational option. Some kind of support is demanded by any project leader, but the reflexive and strong rejection of Karas only serves to confirm this.

    If Orion is viable, it can enter any commercial process for LEO hardware. (Until a larger booster opens up NEO exploration.) That Karas rather want to keep the contract instead of entering a proposed market speaks volumes.

    Russia, China and India will all have Heavy Lift boosters better than the US.

    Opinion or fact? Currently there is no such booster, which is presumably why US would like to rally some international cooperation to get one. And I don’t know of any work going into one. It’s not like these nations didn’t feel the economic downturn too.

    If US is really serious about NEO exploration, I’m sure there are plenty of nations that would like to shoulder the economic burden and participate for the scientific and technological gain.

    There is a lot of rhetoric about commercial providers. They haven’t built any manned capsule yet and their fast timelines are unrealistic.

    Well, look who’s talking! 😀 [He stated rhetorically.]

    More rationally, of course risk management is part and parcel of a commercial market. That is the point.

    That, and the lower cost that comes out of managing flexibility and choice.

  7. Olaf says

    @Torbjorn Larsson

    “That Karas rather want to keep the contract instead of entering a proposed market speaks volumes.”

    What is wrong in trying to get your people in business instead of throwing then out of the company in a global crisis?

    What is wrong in defending all the work you have done for so many years and when you see that you are finally get there it is cancelled?

    Do you really believe that private companies will do a better job? Do you work in a private company?

  8. Olaf says

    I just want to add, I work in a private company, and our R&D team where I work in gets funded by the government to create new technologies. Just like Obama proposes. I have been working for 25 years now in private companies so I do know how they operate.

  9. Member
    Aqua says

    Back in the late 70’s/early 80’s I worked at a LARGE southern California defense contractor. I was in a pool of subcontractors working on several gov’t projects. WE WERE TOLD to ‘slow down’ several times when it was found that to get ‘matching funds’ our annual budget HAD to meet or exceed the previous year’s spending… ONE development project, in particular, spent an extra $280 million due to unnecessary cost over runs! I went to my section head and told him that if he gave me 10 guys and 3 months I could finish that project WELL under the scheduled due dates. His response was.. “You don’t understand… We’re not here to meet a budget.. we’re here to provide JOBS!” That shut me up…

  10. RUF says

    Can Orion be launched despite NASA? Atlas or Delta is the way to go. Ares I was a bad move from the beginning.

  11. Astrofiend says

    Aqua Says:
    February 7th, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Only too true Aqua – I’ve been in the same situation. Companies I have worked for don’t want to set a precedent for coming in under budget and on time, because they fear that they will then be expected to do more with less. Why would you do that then when the other option is getting more for delivering less? Maybe when companies deal with other companies this is not the case, but when companies deal with government contracts, hell yes it happens.

    But yes, you start to see their point when ruthless efficiency on their part would mean slashing your job…

  12. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Richard Kirk said: February 7th, 2010 at 2:24 am
    “It’s not my country, so I can’t comment on the particular administrations involved.”

    Of course you can. Changes with the global recession from mistakes made by previous Federal administrations and the poor behaviour of corporate / financial institution America have and continue to directly effect other economies throughout the world.

    An example is in 2010 Australia, where NASA spends $A610 million ($US550 million) and locally employs 130 people, mostly at Tidbinbilla (as they also do almost to the same level in Madrid in Spain.) As such, Australia also spend australian taxpayers monies in supporting such endeavours, though Space Sciences and Technology research through the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) I.e. CSIRO and NASA: four decades of collaboration The monies, of course, are mostly spent on the Deep Space Network – the ones giving information from interplanetary spacecraft across the Solar System – under the Space Vehicle Tracking and Communication Agreement; whose agreement is now under threat of the now imposed budgetary constraints by US bungling of its economy.

    Apologists should never be deterred by the grand illusion that everything that happens in the US is absolutely sacrosanct and unrelated to the rest of the world. As such, you have every right to comment on it – especially when questions and decisions made by these “administrations”, as it directly affects them. .

  13. trclark81 says

    Orion was never the problem. Orion was sound engineering as far as my own opinion and those in the industry that I’ve spoken with and read commentary from. Ares I was the issue. And not even on the rosiest of time frames was it going to fly in 2013. 2015 was the absolute earliest it was set to fly and there was some serious doubt it would make it by 2017.

    That said, I hope they do keep the Orion alive. It had potential and was lergely already developed. And in response to an earlier post, it was convertible to EELV systems. In fact, Bigelow Aerospace propose exactly that with their Orion Lite program. I don’t know enough of the technical specs to say if an Atlas or Delta could have sent it to the moon, in fact I doubt it, but it could be a viable capsule. And as yet another poster pointed out, they’ve already taken in $9 billion in development money and are making the 2013 claim, well then by all means finish the job and compete for the contract.

    Or wait, maybe they could only finish it with a steady stream of guaranteed funds off of my 1040. I say hand it over to Bigelow or partner with them and figure out how to make it work. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

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