One of the most repeated and vehement critiques of NASA and the American space industry is that ” it has no mission, no goal”.
Bolstered by imagery and nostalgia of the Apollo lunar missions, this statement has been used by space enthusiasts and elected officials alike to support the idea that there is no future in space exploration. Further complicating the issue was the 2010 executive order to cancel the Constellation program- a robust, but woefully under-funded endeavor to develop a series of launch vehicles and spacecraft aimed at human missions to the Moon (and in theory, one day Mars as well). touted by many as the resurgence of the NASA of old, the Constellation program suffered for many reasons, not the least of which was the misfortune of having been implemented by the previous presidential administration.
Political maneuvering aside, some elements of the Constellation program survived. Perhaps the most significant is the MPCV- or Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, better known by its popular name, Orion. Orion, a product of the Lockheed-Martin corporation, is return to the capsule type vehicle design used by expendable spacecraft like Apollo before it. It is to be launched atop a heavy launch vehicle (HLV) rocket, and configured to be employed as part of a mission-specific architecture. Serving as the astronaut’s method of returning home, the capsule features a heat shield and parachute recovery system that will allow the occupants to safely make a watery splash down.
Counter arguments about the viability of the Orion vehicle point out that little or no new technologies are being used, that “we’ve done this before” and such a craft is inadequate for the Mars exploration NASA intends to conduct. In sense, all those claims are true. The Orion vehicle does take advantage of existing technologies and materials, reducing the development period. The expendable nature while far from ideal, reduces the performance-reducing weight incurred by retaining such components as the service module and launch abort system. And yes its true that the Orion capsule alone is completely incapable of carrying astronauts to Mars and back. And that’s the point.
Orion is just one piece of what would be a large, modular craft that can be used to explore beyond-Earth orbit (BEO) destinations. I specifically say that so as to avoid the implication that a particular destination is required. Because it isn’t.
It is easy to rally around the idea of pointing at a certain light in the night sky, saying “We are going THERE!” Every orbital body in our solar system has its fans. The ranks of industry advocates are laden with “Return to the Moon!” and “Next step: Mars!” slogans. Unfortunately, this rhetoric only further divides the issue.
What makes Orion significant is it is ‘destination-ambiguous”. It can be utilized as a lunar orbiter or a crew return vehicle from a larger Martian exploration craft. Instead of a specific destination, NASA must continue to support and develop systems that allow for open architectures. Universal docking hatches. Common communications and network protocols. Modular components.
This will likely be criticized as naive- that the engineering requires carefully defined requirements, that funding won’t support it, or that only destination focused missions can garner public support. I believe it’s short-sighted to dismiss the idea without further analysis. Destination-ambiguous vehicle designs can provide the space agency with more options, even when political restraint begins limiting its resources. Common architectures between systems mean that NASA wouldn’t be limited to only the Moon or Mars arguments. Instead, it makes it possible to discuss both destinations (and others too).
For further reading on this debate and possible solutions, I recommend James Vedda’s “Becoming Spacefarers: Rescuing America’s Space Program” .
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