Main Engine Cut Off

The 45-Day Study and Orion’s Future

Jeff Foust for SpaceNews, writing about comments made by Jason Crusan, head of NASA’s advanced exploration systems division, on the forthcoming 45-day report on NASA’s roadmap to the National Space Council:

He said that analysis will include how the proposed Deep Space Gateway, a human-tended outpost in cislunar space, could support missions to the lunar surface. “It can enable robotic missions that way initially, and then human return,” he said. “Or, do you pivot and just do human return directly?”

He cautioned that a direct return to the moon might not be sustainable in the long run. “It could be achievable, but you would gut a lot of things in the process to go do that very rapidly,” he said.

By “gut a lot of things,” Crusan means kill Orion, because, in its current form, it’s a useless vehicle for any lunar surface-focused architecture.

Today, Paul Spudis published a great piece on Orion, SLS, and the Deep Space Gateway that very much deserves your attention:

To support this scaled back mission profile, the current edition of the Service Module for the Orion (built by the Europeans) is smaller than the previous edition under Constellation. Unfortunately, that also means that the Orion can get into (but cannot then get out of) low lunar orbit, taking from Orion what little value it had for a possible lunar mission.

But can Orion be repurposed? In contrast to most informed opinion, I believe that of the three major human spaceflight pieces described here, Orion is the one that is the least useful and most likely to vanish. This should not be too surprising, considering that it is an orphaned, smaller piece of a larger system designed to return people to the Moon. Yet work continues on Orion, heedless of any possible change in mission – and has done so throughout the last 8 years as its mission gradually morphed from Moon-Mars spacecraft, to an asteroid spacecraft, to a “Space Station in Deep Space” spacecraft. This bureaucratic resilience suggests that setting Orion aside is a nonstarter – contractors and Congressional advocates may insist on its continuation, in a manner similar to the SLS “lobby,” which assured continuity of that development program.

Plain and simple: missions to the Moon are hamstrung by Orion—specifically by the European Service Module and its pitifully-small delta-V budget.