Orion & The Rebirth of the Space Program

On Friday, NASA announced the selection of Lockheed Martin as the major contractor to build the space vehicle to replace the aging Space Shuttle fleet.

Orion Crew Vehicle
The vehicle is called the Orion Crew Vehicle, and Lockheed Martin will be building eight of the reusable launch vehicles, with an initial launch target of 2014. For those of you following at home, the Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired in 2010.

Time magazine has a nice piece outlining the selection, and the type of multiple-administration support that the ongoing efforts to establish a permanent manned-presence on the Moon & Mars will require.

This is an incredibly exciting announcement for a number of reasons. The first & foremost reason is that this finally begins to put the unmitigated disaster that was the Space Shuttle program behind us. The last thirty years have been an amazing failure in terms of manned presence in space, largely due to the abysmal failure of the Space Shuttle program to meet any of its estimates for reusability, cost, and scale. Originally promised to have launches that could be turned around as quickly as commercial airliners, we’ve been lucky in years to even have half a dozen launches – and that is ignoring the catastrophic failures that have befallen two of the shuttles.

The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy & Space has a nice piece on the new Orion program.

Establishing a permanent manned presence in orbit, on the Moon, and on Mars are goals that transcend administrations and nations.

When viewed from the lens of history, it is likely that the decision to firmly establish a timetable and goal of manned presence off this planet will be seen as the most significant of our generation. We can only hope that the administrations to come will not play political football with the most significant of human achievements.

It is sad in many ways that the timeline for this success will be in the 2020s, rather than the 2000s – which it easily could have been if we had avoided the Space Shuttle program. Still, it’s cool to see space get so much attention again. The X Prize, Space Tourism, SpaceX – this is the type of rapid technical improvement that they dreamed about in the 1950s & 1960s.

PS For those of you trivia buffs out there, Project Orion was also the codename for the 1960s concept of a nuclear-pulse propulsion craft that would make inter-stellar flight practical. The concept: a big spaceship with a large metal plate behind it, propelled by small nuclear explosions.

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