NASA is preparing to launch its new Orion capsule on Thursday, December 4. It will be the first test launch of the spacecraft, which is being billed as kind of a big deal because it represents the agency's first major step toward regaining an inhouse manned spaceflight capability -- something it has not had since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Since then, the agency has had to rely on the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos and its Soyuz rockets and capsules to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). A little embarrassing, and lately... a little unsettling, given the poor state of U.S.-Russian relations.
Pardon me while I yawn, though, because while the first launch of Orion (a program which has already been around for a decade) is an important step, NASA is nowhere close to having its own manned space system. Orion will go through a series of tests to qualify it as a safe, human-rated capsule. But then it will have to wait until 2021 (at the absolute earliest) to undergo its first test flight with actual people onboard. That's when the human-rated Space Launch System (SLS) rocket NASA is developing may be ready for that mission. The Delta IV that will launch Orion this first time around is a great vehicle with a stellar launch record. But it ain't human-rated.
Assuming Congress or one of the next two presidents do not cancel SLS because of its inevitably ballooning costs, it's more likely that the first SLS/Orion manned mission will occur closer to the middle part of the next decade. So we're really a decade away from having an operational national manned spaceflight capability. And all those clever headlines about Orion "paving the way" for sending humans to Mars? Pardon me while I yawn again. Even NASA officials aren't aiming for a manned SLS/Orion mission to Mars until the 2030s. I'll be nearing my 80th birthday.
A recent Bloomberg article quotes NASA engineer Richard Boitnott as saying that he hopes the maiden Orion flight will "energize the public and energize that middle schooler [who] isn't quite sure what he wants to do, but he likes math and science."
Unfortunately, it probably won't, because the timeline between Orion's first test launch and its anticipated arrival on Mars is way way too long. A goal that is at least a generation away will never hold anyone's attention -- much less that of today's youth. That's why the American public lost interest in ISS. It took a quarter of a century and more than $100 billion to build, launch, and assemble that facility. During that time, Michael Jordan won six NBA championships, the Internet was invented, the iPhone, Facebook, texting. Does anyone seriously think Americans care two cents about the space station?
Imagine what humans may create on Earth during the next 20 years. Do we really think that NASA will be able to inspire and hold the public's wonder for that long a time and successfully develop SLS/Orion while simultaneously fighting to protect the program from the countless efforts by Congress and Presidents to kill or delay it?
Bear in mind that during those two decades, private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, and others may well be flying dozens of manned space missions on their own human-rated rockets and capsules and spaceplanes, and in the process helping to create new industries, markets, and products. SLS/Orion could quickly become redundant, or worse -- expensively irrelevant.
Mars in 20 years? Really. That's the best ya got?