Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mixed thoughts about Orion

Orion has launched into space and I am ambivalent.

Though this first launch was un-crewed, Orion signifies at a least a step towards returning America to manned missions in space. More than that, the intention of the Orion spacecraft is to take humans to the Moon and eventually Mars. Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, paraphrased Vice President Joe Biden by calling the Orion project a "BFD." 

And I suppose it is. After all, this is the first test of a spacecraft solely designed to take humans into deep space. A NASA launch is tentatively scheduled for 2020 where humans will orbit the Moon and return. Then it will be on to Mars. Last week's test flight was considerably more underwhelming than that, but then again it needed to be. It was, after all, a test run.

The Orion was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. As one of my student's described it, this rocket is "basically a Saturn V [the rocket that took men to the Moon] on steroids." The Orion capsule flew to a height 15 times that of the International Space Station. The capsule separated and then orbited the Earth twice before splashing down in the Pacific where the Navy recovered it. Data is now being analyzed from the test flight, determining how well Orion's heat shield handled the 4K+ degree temperatures. Sensors were also to record just how much radiation astronauts are exposed to when passing through the Van Allen radiation belt.

So why am I left so flat by Orion?

Overall, however, it seems like NASA just recycled the Apollo program. Yes, Orion is larger and it will carry a crew double that of Apollo, but this just betrays, to me anyway, a startling lack of originality and vision. Is this the best that NASA can come up with?

I don't mean to capriciously portray myself as any kind of philosophaster. I'm not sure exactly just what it was I expected from a new space program. I want human space exploration to continue. I want us to return to the Moon and to go on to Mars. I also won't quibble over the definition of "deep space." This is, overall, a good thing.

Maybe it's because of the actions of the private sector and for once I mean that in a good way. It seems that folks like Elon Musk are demonstrating greater innovation and vision when it comes to moving out into space, especially when it comes to Mars. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a privately funded and crewed mission arrives on Mars a decade or so before NASA can even get out of Lunar orbit.

But Orion is better than nothing.

I guess.

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