Monday, December 10, 2007

Landing Orion

There certainly has been a lot of confusion about the landing mode for NASA's Orion CEV. For a long time, it was "baselined" that the capsule would come down on land as opposed to an Apollo-style water recovery. The advantage of that is that you can put down near your recovery base and save the cost and uncertainty involving having ships in place for every landing. The drawback of such a landing is the need for airbags and other equipment that add weight and cost. It's also harder to make a reusable heatshield for landing under the sterner conditions.
In the last few months, word has been leaking out that NASA is going to give up on land as the primary mode. As NASAWatch and other sources have documented, the agency is seemingly loath to admit it. Even after an Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) administrator finally said it in Space News, NASA communications to the public have made no mention of any change in plans. Now SpaceRef hhas published an internal directive making land a "contingency only" option (that is, the crew must survive in the event of a ground landing, but the reusable spacecraft won't be reusable any more.) Amazingly, NASAWatch has notes this morning from an ESMD telecon in which NASA insists no one has picked a landing mode for certain.
COMMENT: This is ridiculous. There's no excuse for not making the decision public and explaining the rationale at the time it was made. The agency seems to be going out of its way to trip over its own feet, making it look like NASA is hiding something for as long as possible.
The possibility that NASA has, indeed, been deliberately trying to downplay any change can't be ruled out on the evidence so far. A switch to a water landing makes the Orion look a little less unique, a little more like a recycled Apollo, which is not an insignificant point when scrambling for funding. It also contributes to the perception that the Ares I launch vehicle is marginal at best and might not have handled the weight needed to safely and reusably (my grammar is off there, but you get the point) land the Orion on terra firma.
A poster to a space newsgroup took this a step further, asking if this could be a step toward dropping the reusability requirement entirely. I know NASA would hate taking that step, but between the continuing budget crunch and the capacity of the launch vehicle the agency is hell-bent on using no matter how its timeline and capabilities slip, I'll bet it's being discussed in very hushed tones somewhere.
COMMENT TO COMMENT: I believe in the VSE and the Constellation program. They are valuable to the nation and to humanity. I just wish I could believe NASA was taking the right path and executing the program as best as it could be done.

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