OPINION: EFT-1 – a sign politicians need to pick up the pace
On the morning of Dec. 5, 2014, a Delta IV Heavy rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying the first Orion spacecraft into space. Although this particular Orion was unmanned, Exploration Test Flight 1 (EFT-1) was the first launch of a crew-capable spacecraft designed for deep space missions from Cape Canaveral since Apollo 7 in 1968. It is hoped that the Orion capsule will take astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) for the first time since 1972. Obviously this launch has garnered a lot of attention and celebration from the spaceflight community. But it might be a good to tamp down the optimism – with some historically-induced caution.
First of all, this is not the version of the Orion capsule that will fly with a crew. There is no service module—the vital component that supplies power, oxygen, propellant, water, and all the things that turn a ballistic capsule into a functioning spacecraft.
Secondly, the next scheduled flight is, at the earliest, slated to take place in 2018. EFT-1 is not the beginning of a new era; it’s a promissory note for a still-undefined program.
Third, the Orion capsule cannot fly to Mars alone. It will have to dock with a habitation module that will provide space for a crew to live and work for upwards of a year. Such a thing does not exist, and likely will not exist for years.
Let’s take a step back, some five years ago. Another jubilant day when the future looked bright, when after decades of stagnation we were finally moving forward again. It was October 28, 2009. After six years of development, the Ares-1-X rocket stood on pad B at Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center.
It was a glorious, cloudless morning, and the Constellation Program had finally come to fruition. The rocket that would be returning humans to the Moon lifted off the pad at 11:30 a.m. EDT, the first rocket, other than the space shuttle, to be launched from Kennedy Space Center since the last Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.
The Ares 1X flight proved the capabilities of the Ares 1 rocket—as one enthusiastic viewer commented, “The stick works!” Despite concerns that the rocket would produce unacceptable thrust oscillation, the test showed that oscillation was within normal rates for a space shuttle flight. Concerns that the rocket was top-heavy and would topple – were also proven to be inaccurate.
Yet just four months later, Constellation was gone. Without fanfare, without any advance warning, President Barack Obama cut the entire Constellation Program from his FY2011 budget, and the program was canceled.
There would be no Ares rockets. There would be no return to the Moon. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, renamed the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, was the only component of the Constellation architecture that survived the pejorative termination of a $9 billion, five-year program (some estimates place the total amount lost at $14 billion – due to the amount that had to be spent to cancel the agency’s agreements with the aerospace companies working on Constellation).
The decision to cancel Constellation, and to retire the space shuttles on schedule, has left the United States reliant on Russian for access to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011—and will remain so until one of the Commercial Crew spacecraft is ready for crewed flight.
In the meantime, NASA’s future – remains in the hands of politicians. Constellation was making slow but definite progress toward a specific and well-understood goal—returning to the Moon, establishing a base there, and sending a crewed mission to land on Mars—and it had the mission architecture to achieve that goal, albeit behind schedule. SLS’ objectives are less defined, but it has been stated that it is designed to enable a mission to Mars. If Constellation could be so quickly and summarily canceled, so can SLS. EFT-1 was something to see, and it was inspiring to see NASA doing something, but this was not the great leap forward.
Even if SLS does not end up on the chopping block—and anything could happen with a new Congress next year and a new President two years later—the fact remains that SLS won’t fly a crew until 2021 at the earliest.
What the Orion test proved, simply, is that the heat shield works. It was an important step. Now that the Orion capsule has been in space, maybe Congress will be emboldened to fully fund the development of the program. Maybe this has whetted the public appetite for ambitious space missions. Maybe we’re witnessing a happy convergence of good public relations events—last year’s movie Gravity, this year’s Interstellar, last month’s comet landing, and now the successful Orion test. But the public attention span is very short; even humans landing on the Moon in 1969 only held the world stage for a few months. The Orion test flight will shortly be forgotten, and it will, sadly, be a long time before we see any more tangible steps toward a resumption of American spaceflight.
Unless the next Congress, or the next President, demonstrate a shift in the priority they give to crewed spaceflight – it is likely that the path to orbit – will be a slow one. An increase in sped will likely only follow one of two events: a sudden international emergency that requires an immediate response in space, or a sudden swelling in public interest in space.
This is not meant to throw cold water on everyone’s much-deserved celebration. NASA’s return to space should be celebrated. It’s just a reminder that we’ve had cause for exhilaration before, only to have our victory cruelly snatched from us by politicians. What happened before – can happen again. Before the commercial crew community gets to comfortable – make no mistake – today’s SpaceX – can easily be tomorrow’s Constellation Program.
If EFT-1 had been a crewed launch, with more launches in the near future, then yes, this would be a day to celebrate America’s return to space. This is merely a reminder to be cautious in your optimism. While it is unlikely to take place, one can only hope that the folks on Capital Hill will realize that the pace of milestones – needs to be accelerated. To do that, NASA needs to receive more funding and more support.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.