In a November 9th press conference, NASA leaders have begun to publicly celebrate the end of seven months of Blue Origin litigation and disruption to its Human Landing System (HLS). A federal court’s dismissal of that lawsuit means that the space agency can finally get back to work with SpaceX on its Starship Moon lander.
Following the failure of that lawsuit, NASA administrator Bill Nelson says that it will take the space agency some time to fully determine what and how much damage Blue Origin has caused. In the briefing, Nelson and associate administrators Kathy Lueders and Jim Free confirmed that Dynetics’ protest and Blue Origin’s protest and lawsuit have delayed SpaceX’s first crewed Starship Moon landing to no earlier than (NET) 2025.
Painfully, though, the briefing primarily focused on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft and the latest news about the system and the space agency’s attitude towards it are not encouraging.
Namely, exemplifying just how broken and deceptive NASA’s cost “transparency” is when it comes to SLS and Orion, the space agency used the briefing to announce its first updated Orion cost projections in more than half a decade. All the way back in September 2015, NASA announced major Orion delays and revealed that it had already spent $4.7B on the spacecraft and was committing another $6.7B through its first crewed launch – then scheduled no earlier than 2023.
That’s likely where NASA is getting its magically diminished Orion cost estimate. In reality, including Bush-era Constellation Program development that began in 2006, Orion will have cost NASA and the US taxpayer almost $22 billion by the end of 2021 and before a single full-up launch. Effectively doing the bare minimum to acknowledge a sanitized version of reality, NASA now says that Orion will cost at least $9.3 billion to its first crewed launch, which has been delayed to NET May 2024. It’s entirely unclear how NASA is calculating that deflated figure but in the six years since the space agency’s 2015 announcement that it would spend another $6.7B before Orion’s first crewed launch, it’s actually spent at least $8.4B and will have blown past the latest $9.3B target by mid-2022. Barring drastic funding cuts, Orion development will actually cost the US about $12.6B from 2016 to Artemis II and ~$25.8B since 2006 (not including inflation).
In an even starker demonstration of cognitive dissonance, when a New York Times reporter asked a hard question about the possibility of sidestepping Orion and SLS to get astronauts onto SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander, Administrator Nelson – having just repeatedly discussed Starship – fell back on an old boilerplate statement that “there’s only one rocket capable of doing this” – “this” being launching humans to the Moon and returning them to Earth and that “one rocket” being SLS. Association admin Jim Free also exhibited similar confusion, stating that “the architecture…just wouldn’t work.”
In reality, as currently contracted with NASA, SpaceX’s Starship Moon lander is a highly capable crewed spacecraft that will be refueled in Earth orbit before propelling itself to lunar orbit, where an SLS-launched Orion spacecraft would join it and transfer over three astronauts. Starship would then use its own propulsion to change orbits, land on the Moon, and eventually boost back into lunar orbit to transfer that crew back to Orion for the return to Earth. Nothing short of sheer ignorance – willful or not – could prevent competent spaceflight engineers or managers from understanding the possibilities such an architecture raises.
If NASA is already committed to human-rating Starship’s propulsion systems, which it is, it doesn’t take a grand leap of imagination to consider the possibility of adding a few more burns to Starship’s extremely complex concept of operations. If, for example, Starship has enough performance to return to Earth orbit from the lunar surface, it’s not hard to imagine NASA’s Artemis astronauts boarding Starship in Earth orbit after a far cheaper commercial launch and then returning to Earth orbit to debark Starship and return to that crew-rated reentry vehicle. As it turns out, NASA already has a highly successful crew-rated commercial rocket and spacecraft that’s already operational and likely more than 10 times cheaper than SLS/Orion.
While there are obvious challenges and uncertainties with such an option, the point is more that failing to even acknowledge the possibility of alternatives is a brutal appraisal of several of NASA’s most senior leaders and confirms that the politics of a jobs program like SLS/Orion is actively disrupting their ability to engage with reality and properly manage complex, risky programs.
Ultimately, it’s great news that SpaceX and NASA can finally get back to work on their Starship Moon lander plans. However, it’s also clearer than ever that SLS and Orion will remain a noose precariously balanced around the agency’s neck, forever threatening the Artemis Program and stifling NASA’s ability to seriously plan for – let alone publicly entertain or even acknowledge – contingencies or fresh ideas.