On the fourth day of March, 2014 a barge arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Aboard that barge were two of the three Common Booster Cores, or “CBCs” that are to make up a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Unlike other Delta IV Heavy boosters, this one is slated to loft a payload that is very important to the future of United States human spaceflight; it is the first flight version of the Orion spacecraft. The arrival of the CBCs is considered to be a major step toward a mission called the Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1 which will qualify the Orion’s space worthiness and reentry capability at lunar return velocity.
For those of you who may not recall, the Orion was supposed to be the replacement vehicle for the Space Shuttle. Additionally, it was supposed to be the manned spacecraft that would take us back to the Moon and then on to Mars under the Constellation Program. Although Constellation enjoyed wide support in the Congress, the Bush administration directed their Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to under-fund Constellation by an annual amount of approximately 3 billion dollars. This resulted in delays and soon a “gap” between the Shuttle and Constellation formed resulting in the United States having to rent seats on the Russian Soyuz until Constellation could get the Orion flying. That gap was projected to be from 2010 to 2017 when Barack Obama was elected as president, one of his campaign promises being that he would “close this gap” and “minimize reliance on foreign space capabilities” and that he would, “…expedite development of the Shuttle’s successor…” which was Orion and the Ares V heavy lift booster. Instead he did the opposite. He canceled all of Constellation, including Orion, and instead gave all of US human spaceflight over to “commercial” operators, most of which were start-up companies. In doing that he protracted the gap indefinitely and along with it he also protracted our reliance on the Russians indefinitely. The Congress, however, saw fit to step in and revive the Orion as well as the heavy lift capability in the form of the Space Launch System (SLS).
Now, in spite of the Obama administration, Orion is being developed to flight readiness. Its test booster will be the Delta IV Heavy and the launch is currently set for mid-December. To me, however, the successful flight of the EFT-1’s Delta IV Heavy booster brings to mind some other considerations.
Looking at EFT-1, I considered that in the United States our only access to space at this moment is aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicles upon which our Russian “partners” have been kind enough to lease us passage at an ever-increasing rate that will soon in a 70 million dollar, per seat rate. I also considered that if any of NASA’s other foreign partners, such as the Canadians, Italians, French, British and so on, want access to space aboard Soyuz, the American tax payers have to foot the bill at that same 70 million dollar per seat rate. Additionally I considered that given current events involving Russia and its expansion toward its former existence as the Soviet Union. What could that mean to our dependence on them to allow us access to the 100 billion dollar space station, about 80 billion of which was paid for by the use of United States tax dollars? Why didn’t we use the EFT-1 mission to man-rate Orion boosted by the Delta IV Heavy and then use that booster to remove the Russians from the American tax dollar gravy train?
Perhaps there is some technical reason why future NASA crews could not be boosted to the International Space Station (ISS) atop the Delta IV Heavy? Perhaps I am just not well enough acquainted with the Delta IV Heavy system to know why that booster cannot become NASA’s standard orbital booster for Orion.
Thus, I decided to contact a few of people working on the Delta IV Heavy and ask them a very simple question, “Is there any reason, technical or otherwise, why the EFT-1 could not have been used to man-rate the Delta IV Heavy as a booster for Orion?”
Each person that I spoke to, in different venues and at different times, gave me one, direct and simple answer as to what was the only reason why the Delta IV Heavy cannot be man-rated for boosting a crewed Orion.
You see, the Obama administration has dictated that all manned flights to the ISS will take place on “commercial” vehicles. In addition they have also set in motion the process of NASA having those “commercial” providers compete with one another to earn the right to do the job of flying NASA and foreign partner nation’s astronauts to the ISS. Currently, those providers have been narrowed down to SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing to provide the spacecraft with SpaceX being the only one with its own booster, the Falcon 9. This “commercial” concept was not invented by the Obama administration. It was a product of the Bush administration that was adopted by current administration. The difference being that the original concept was never intended to be America’s only access to space. That little lose end was quietly trimmed away by the Obama administration. Now, all of NASA’s human spaceflight eggs are in the “commercial” basket- like it or not.
Man-rating the Delta IV Heavy and pressing it into service as a booster for Orion and stepping up Orion’s flight readiness to meet a 2017 operational date, which I have been told is well within the realm of possibility, would not only cut the Russians off, but it would also take the new “commercial” providers out of the game- and the Obama administration would never allow that.
Do not get me wrong, I am not at all opposed to the concept of true commercial spaceflight. I even have my favorites in the running. Yet, “commercial” was supposed to close the gap because they were supposed to be more efficient, more innovative and less expensive. At this moment, they have demonstrated all three of those traits, yet the schedule for again taking US crews to the ISS aboard US vehicles launched from US soil by 2017 is now in doubt as it has moved farther to the right with the gap widening rather than closing. Why is this? The most commonly heard answer to that question is reductions in Federal funds due to shrinking space budgets and Continuing Resolutions. This, however, begs the question- if these providers are that dependant on tax dollars, are they really “commercial” as had been intended, or are they simply Federal contractors? It is a debate that will go on for many years to come as we await those first "commercial" flights with astronauts.
My concern here is what appears to be a possible onset of a new Cold War in which the chess playing Russians could castle the ISS by simply canceling the contracts for our citizens to ride aboard their vehicles. If that happened tomorrow, we would not only have no way to counter the move and send our own vehicles to the ISS, but we would also have no way to get those American astronauts currently aboard the station back to earth!
Think about it.
Even if the Russian do keep renting their Soyuz seats to us, the money spent on flying those astronauts to the ISS is not going to United States companies to be spent in the stores and businesses of America- $70 million per seat is going to Russian companies and businesses. Critics of the US space program have always cackled that we were wasting our tax dollars by sending them into space, when in fact those dollars went to pay American workers and their families and support American businesses- because there are no cash registers “in” space. Today, however, our tax dollars are going to Russia, where there are cash registers. Where are those same critics now?
All efforts should be taken right now to protect our 80 billion dollar asset, the ISS, and our access to it. That means an accelerated program to assure access. By adding a simple Emergency Detection System to the Delta IV Heavy, it will be man-rated. By lofting the Orion on the EFT-1 it could also have proven the system. A Delta IV Heavy could be launched every 120 days if needed. It is time to remove the Russians from the US taxpayer gravy train that we ourselves created. Of course, such would upset the Obama applecart.