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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Orion Is the Spaceship We Want. But Is It the Spaceship We Need?

By Phil Plait

Like a lot of people, I watched the Orion mission last Friday. I missed the launch (time zones reared their sleepy head), unfortunately. But I did see most of the mission—the capsule completing its first orbit, getting boosted to its second, much higher orbit, then falling back to Earth for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Baja California.

Twitter was bursting with live commentary, and nearly every person I follow was breathlessly excited about the achievement.

I myself… well, I wasn’t. Despite the mission going nearly flawlessly, I watched the whole thing with serious misgivings.

I can’t help it. After reading quite a bit about Orion, and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket planned to take it into space in the coming years, I have come to an unhappy conclusion: Both are almost certainly the wrong direction for NASA.

Don’t get me wrong: I want us to go to the Moon, and eventually to Mars. I’ve written about this countless times. But I don’t think SLS is the way to get there.

The cost is a major factor—it’s underfunded, and likely to hobble NASA unless the White House and Congress give a lot more money to the agency—and the politics involved on a more detailed level are very likely to ensure cost overruns and scheduling delays. And even then, I’m just unconvinced that we really need this rocket that will cost many tens of billions of dollars, when far less expensive alternatives are possible.

Orion is figuratively and literally attached to SLS, and carries many of the same problems. Plus, I don’t think building these rockets and capsules is what NASA itself should be doing, anyway.

I’m not just blowing off steam here; I have plenty of evidence, as well as corroboration from ex-NASA personnel and other space experts who are even more skeptical of SLS and Orion than I am.

I put all this together in an article for Slate. Please go read that, and think carefully on it.

This brings me no joy at all to write this. None. I want NASA to be the can-do forward-thinking agency I knew as a kid, the one that put humanity on the Moon and would soon have us kicking up the rusty dust on Mars. I worked at a NASA research center for many years, and I’ve seen the heights the people involved can reach, and the stultifying politics that in so many cases has prevented them from doing so.

I know what NASA can do when it’s allowed to, and that’s why I wrote that article. Not to hold NASA down, but to make sure it has the chance to free itself so we can reach for the stars.

I know that future is possible. We just have to take one small step… but it has to be in the right direction.

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