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Fri, Jul 18, 2008

NASA Might Be Lucky To See Orion Fly In 2015

Tech Concerns Strain Earlier Target; Politics Threaten Later Date

Plan on 2015. That's the word from NASA this week, as the agency admits it "very likely" will not be able to meet its ambitious goal of started manned spaceflights with its Orion spacecraft in five years. But even that date is in flux.

NASA already warned not to expect a manned Orion flight before March 2015... but the agency was also working to meet an internal schedule that would have moved up the first flight by approximately 18 months. It's now extremely unlikely that optimistic schedule will be met... but the agency only said so publicly after the agenda to this week's meeting of program managers in Houston was leaked on a NASA watchdog Web site.

The Associated Press confirmed the news with Doug Cooke, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration. "We're probably going to have to move our target date" from late-2013, Cooke said.

Reasons for the expected delay in the agency's internal timeframe for Orion are a mix of technological and financial issues.

According to the 117-page report posted Wednesday on NASAWatch.com, Orion has incurred an $80 million cost overrun this year tied to problems with an attitude control motor under development by Lockheed Martin and Orbital. That's one of 24 technical issues currently cited by Orion program managers; other worrisome areas include the spacecraft's heat shield, and continued vibration issues with the Ares I launch vehicle.

One difficulty brings up uncomfortable echoes to the darkest days of the Apollo program: a hard-to-open access hatch, which was one of the contributing factors to the loss of three astronauts in the January 1967 Apollo 1 launchpad fire. Orion engineers are also concerned with NASA's plans to supply astronauts with just two liters of water each per day... at least a half-liter less than what medical experts say they need.

Cooke says such issues aren't uncommon at this stage of development, however, and he remains confident those technical problems will be corrected. "What you're seeing is sausage-making," he said. "I'm really satisfied with the work that's getting done."

There's a more ominous threat to Orion, however: budgetary constraints. In the report, Orion engineers were told to plan for continuing the program under a FY 2009 continuing resolution, which would hold NASA's budget at 2008 levels... with none of the additional funding contained in the $20.2 billion NASA budget approved by the House of Representatives in June.

NASA is concerned that budget won't make it out of the Senate... and if it does, that the Bush admistration will veto it. Such a defeat would push Orion back even further, making even the March 2015 target a nebulous one.

"We have a government that is dysfunctional," said Syracuse University technology and public policy professor W. Henry Lambright. "I'm not blaming NASA. I think NASA is a victim of a political situation we have in this country."

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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