Saturday, September 22, 2007

ORION - Once Again Awaiting the Scorpion

The Orion Constellation was probably first visualized by the ancient Greeks in the nighttime sky. Today we are left with several stories relating the mythology of Orion. In one of them, Orion wanted to kill all the wild animals on the earth. The earth goddess, Gaia, would not allow this to happen. So Gaia called on a giant scorpion to stop Orion. To make the long story short, the scorpion stung Orion to death and was placed for all eternity in the nighttime sky constantly chasing after Orion in the heavens.

Lesson learned? Don't try to take on every little thing, least you feel the scorpion's bite?

Hold that thought...

Constellation's Orion (a.k.a., the Emperor's Chariot) is the keystone of NASA's transportation architecture being developed to replace the Space Shuttle and provide the United States with the means to carry humans to low earth orbit and beyond. Right out of the box, however, this Orion got a black eye. The Emperor called it "Apollo on Steroids." Now that's a great line for all of our schoolchildren and future astronauts to recite, isn't it? Perhaps the Emperor was hoping to entice Barry Bonds to promote the space program?

From the start, the Emperor and his minions had their own vision for what Orion should be. That vision was inviolable, no matter how any trade study or any analysis came back in defiance of its basic premises. Keeping in line with Apollo, Orion would be a "Back to the Future" capsule. Keeping in line with the steroids theme, Orion would be BIG. Two and one-half times the volume of Apollo BIG.

Originally, Orion was sized to be five and one half meters in diameter. The biggest capsule ever built by far. Why so big? Well, at that size, the existing fleet of EELVs (e.g., Atlas and Delta) could not lift the Orion off the launch pad. Of course, the Emperor also did not want to be beholden to the Department of Defense for launching his astronauts into orbit. So he mandated the development of a new launcher, ARES-1, a.k.a. "The Stick." Unfortunately, the Emperor's new toy couldn't get the job done either!

Orion would be sized to carry six astronauts to low earth orbit, four for missions to the moon. But the seats for Orion would be bigger than those that you find in any Apollo capsule now residing in your local museums. You see, the minions wanted to be able to carry 99.9% of the population of the planet in those seats. Generally speaking, bigger guys and gals eat more food, drink more water, need larger clothes, and make more waste than their smaller brethren. All of that makes the Orion capsule bigger and heavier than one would think it should be. Bigger capsules need bigger parachutes that weigh more than smaller ones. The list goes on. Do you really think the six foot five folks are going to feel offended if they have to find a ride elsewhere?

Never mind that NASA just announced its only going to select astronauts five foot two to six foot three in the next go around, quite a smaller percentage than the 99.9 Orion is being designed to carry. Why the discrepancy? Well, with the space shuttle retiring in 2010 (maybe), the only way to get to the space station will be via the Russian Soyuz capsule. So the next set of astronauts will still have to fit in those seats while waiting for Orion to make its first flight. But wouldn't the current corp of astronauts be able to fill that gap? After all, they were previously selected to fit Soyuz. Maybe the Emperor doesn't believe his own schedules and thinks that we may be flying on Soyuz beyond 2014, well after the last astronaut in the current corps retires?

To recap, the Emperor wanted his own rocket, so he made Orion too big to fit on anything else. Yet at the end of the day, Orion was still too big to fit on the Emperor's rocket. So the self-anointed "Chief Engineer of the Universe" allowed Orion to stop taking some steroids and it shrunk back to five meters in diameter. Would that be enough weight loss to allow the ARES-1 to do its job?

In addition to those large astronauts, Orion also carries a fairly good sized galley, no doubt outfitted with a separate cabinet to carry Marsha Ivins' cookies, and a more or less private bathroom. And volume for lots more. Makes you wonder. Why do you need to carry all of that for a short trip up and down through the atmosphere? Answer: you don't, unless you want to make a capsule so big that no existing rocket can carry it. Yet, even at it's now smaller size, Orion was still 6000 pounds too heavy to get off the ground on ARES-1.

Which brings us to today. The Emperor's minions are struggling mightily to get weight out of his Chariot so that it can be matched to ARES-1's capability. They have thrown just about every requirement (including safety and system redundancy) into a "parking lot" where the individual systems must fight their way back into the capsule. Who decides what stays and what goes? Why the Emperor, of course! Never mind 50 years of human space flight heritage and a pretty good understanding of what works and what doesn't.

So you see, like its namesake in the nighttime sky, this Orion is trying to take on every little thing. Will it, too, feel the sting of failure?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an interesting, if somewhat sarcastic, take on NASA's current vehicle efforts. I just finished doing the math. If we separate the capsule from the service module, send them up separately, and have them dock in LEO (anyone remember Gemini-Titan and Atlas-Agena?) we could use pairs of existing EELVs - at least as a stopgap to keep us flying beyond 2010.