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Orion No Backup for Commercial Crew, Says Bolden

“It’s a bad, bad day when you have to send Orion to the international space station because it means either we’ve lost each of the (commercial) vehicles that was designed to do that through some accident, or they failed or something. So, we don’t want to have to rely on Orion to do that,” Bolden said. Credit: NASA photo by Jay Westscott

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA will not tap its Orion deep-space capsule as a backup system to fly astronauts to and from the international space station, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said June 18.

“It’s a bad, bad day when you have to send Orion to the international space station because it means either we’ve lost each of the [commercial] vehicles that was designed to do that through some accident, or they failed or something. So we don’t want to have to rely on Orion to do that,” Bolden told SpaceNews.

“It means American industry has failed and I don’t think any of us wants to see that,” he said.

NASA is working with three companies to develop commercial space taxis, with the aim of restoring U.S.-based crew flight services to the space station before the end of 2017. Since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, only Russian Soyuz capsules are flying crews to the orbital outpost, a service that currently costs NASA more than $60 million per person.

“We made a commitment to industry we would not compete with them,” said Bolden, who was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to update reporters on plans to test fly Orion in December.

“If we had said, ‘We’re going to keep Orion as a backup,’ there were serious doubts as to whether industry would have made the investment at all in a commercial crew vehicle because their assumption was, ‘OK, if NASA is going to build a vehicle to go to low Earth orbit, what is NASA going to want to use?’ Naturally, they’re going to want to use their own vehicle,” Bolden said.

“So Orion, while it probably can — or will — be capable of going to the international space station, is not designed to do that, is not intended to do that,” he said.

Depending on budget, NASA is aiming to select at least two companies in late August or September to continue space taxi development and testing. 

“When we start flying humans on commercial spacecraft like in 2017, ideally I would like to have two [companies] at least who can provide transportation for our crew either today, or pretty soon after that,” Bolden said.

Article Comments

SpaceX and SNC. That way if the Atlas is still functioning, then ULA may get a piece of the action. The Dragon and the Dream Chaser (I hate that name) seem like very advanced machinery. While the 5 passenger Boeing looks like an Apollo capsule and it uses the awkward sea route for return.

SpaceX is ahead of the other 2 so its sitting well if choice is between 2 contractors. However I think shortsightedness of congress critters may see only 1 being funded. Then we will see a showdown between old space and new. We could also see Boeing getting the largest chunk and 2 smaller contract going to spacex. Dreamchaser broke a landing gear, requires development of abort thrusters that" Acceleration levels on tile order of 8g's (lg = 32.2 ft/sec 2) would be required to propel the vehicle a safe distance away from a malfunctioning booster. " Im not seeing them winning a contract under any circumstances. SpaceX is the best long term solution due to cost and safety, but testing of the super draco system is not been done and it is novel, thus risky. Boeing on the other hand just has to build an apollo style safety tower on top of their capsule. There is almost 0% risk with boeing. Worst case scenario I see boeing on top here, even though i would like to see spacex on top. This advantage doubles if accounting becomes an issue.

I'm wondering if there will be some 'push back' from Congress over this. IIRC, Orion originally had the ISS back-up crew taxi mission written into its authorisation. It was never going to be easy; SLS is massively over-sized and far too costly for the mission but up until this year, members of Congress were still identifying Orion/SLS as part of the solution to reliance on Russian launchers to get to the ISS. I'm sure some of them will be alarmed that NASA no longer believes this is practical except in the most dire contingencies (and it must be questionable if the Orion/SLS system could respond swiftly enough to make it useful for any unplanned situation; even several months' notice would probably be insufficient).

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