The spacecraft Orion is an engineering feat, to be sure. But it’s hard to get excited about a test flight that cost taxpayers billions of dollars already, and will not carry a crew for another seven years. And that’s only if there is money for that. And if the party in power then is in favor of spending. And if … well, the list goes on.
It’s also hard to get excited about NASA’s new craft when, next to rockets from private sector developers, it’s a little lemon-like. Joe Pappalardo tells it best, in The Guardian:
If the new space race was like the movies, this week would be The Empire Strikes Back.
On Friday, after a weather delay, NASA launched a very cool space capsule, in what at first blush looked like another Apollo mission. It rose on a massive rocket spewing superheated exhaust like some creature from a Peter Jackson movie. All went well just now – and given the expertise of engineers performing what was essentially an update of a 1970s Apollo mission, that much was expected: a four-seat capsule called Orion will detach any minute now, and soar around the Earth twice, then descend into the atmosphere and finally splash down under some parachutes. There are no people onboard.
Orion is a long-shot demonstration mission that is aimed at no celestial body, nor the moon, Mars or even an asteroid. The United States government’s attempt is aimed at space startups that are trying to muscle their way into the spaceflight industry – and budge NASA out for good.
In one corner is what’s now commonly called “private space”. It’s an odd coalition of billionaires, businessmen and engineers who want to build, launch and operate their own manned space vehicles. The proposed uses of these spacecraft range from profound (asteroid mining by Planetary Resources) to the banal (daredevil trips to sub-orbit for the wealthy, courtesy of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic).
These startups are, as startups are wont to do, upsetting the status quo, so they earn the Star Wars mantle of Rebels. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the most successful of these companies – in fact, it is also making a capsule to carry people to and from space.
The Empire sits in the other corner. It’s a sprawling axis cobbled together over many years of hard battles for funding, for launches, for spaceflight in general. Until very recently, these were the true heroes who carried American spaceflight, of America as superpower. The Empire, of course, is NASA, a once noble but now creaky agency that has devolved from moonshots to renting rides from the Russians, all in the span of Buzz Aldren’s adulthood.
The space-industrial complex serves as a kind of palace guard for NASA. Talented, experienced and corporately shrewd, this group is headed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and its love child, the United Launch Alliance. They launch the rockets tipped with the government’s defense and scientific satellites. Supporting these players are a bipartisan brigade of Congressmen, unified almost solely by their political willingness to use the space agency as a make-work program and a repository for pork.
Members of the US House and Senate don’t dream wistfully of space exploration or epic human achievement, of clinging on to an asteroid or visiting Mars. Politicians love whatever makes more jobs and gets them re-elected. What makes it even better for them is that they can steer federal cash to their districts and chalk it up to love of science and patriotic zeal.
Take that, Putin: We can launch our own manned spacecraft again! Who cares if they don’t go anywhere?