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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy shown launching NASA Orion spacecraft in fan render

NASA's Orion spacecraft (left) and SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket (right). (NASA/SpaceX)

A spaceflight fan’s unofficial render has offered the best look yet at what SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could look like in the unlikely but not impossible event that NASA decides to launch its uncrewed Orion demonstration mission on commercial rockets.

Oddly enough, the thing that most stands out from artist brickmack’s interpretation of Orion and Falcon Heavy is just how relatively normal the large NASA spacecraft looks atop a SpaceX rocket. The render also serves as a visual reminder of just how little SpaceX would necessarily need to change or re-certify before Falcon Heavy would be able to launch Orion. Aside from the fact that NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) is not quite ready to certify the full launch vehicle for NASA missions, very few hurdles appear to stand in the way of Orion launching on a commercial rocket – be it on Falcon Heavy or ULA’s Delta IV Heavy.

In a wholly unexpected announcement made by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during a March 13th Congressional hearing, the agency leader revealed that NASA was seriously analyzing the possibility of launching Orion’s uncrewed lunar demonstration mission – known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) – on commercial launch vehicles instead of the agency’s own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The purpose: maintain the missions launch schedule – 2020 – in the face of a relentless barrage of delays facing the SLS rocket, the launch debut of which has effectively been slipped almost three years in the last 18 or so months, with the latest launch date now featuring a median target of November 2021. Some subset of NASA leaders, Congressional supporters, and White House officials have clearly begun to accept that SLS/Orion’s major continued delays are simply unacceptable to both the taxpayer and maintaining appearances, despite the fact that those delays continue to make SLS/Orion an extremely successful example of both corporate welfare and a jobs program.

As it currently stands, a median target of November 2021 for the SLS launch debut guarantees that there is almost certainly no chance of the rocket launching at any point in 2020, even if NASA took the extraordinary step of completely cutting a full-length static fire of the entirely unproven rocket prior to its debut. Known as the “Green Run”, the ~8-minute long static fire test is planned to occur at NASA’s Stennis Space Center on the B2 test stand, which NASA – despite continuous criticism from OIG before and after the decision – has spent more than $350M to refurbish. Stennis B2’s refurbishment was effectively completed just two months ago after the better part of seven years of work.

Put simply, even heroics verging on insanity would be unlikely to get SLS prime contractor Boeing to cut ~12 months off of the rocket’s schedule prevent additional unplanned delays in the 18 or so months between now and an even minutely plausible launch debut target. Admittedly, NASA’s proposed commercial alternative for Orion’s lunar launch debut also offers a range of different but equally concerning risks for the program and mission assurance.

Falcon Heavy in its currently-unflown Block 5 configuration. (SpaceX)
NASA’s SLS rocket seen in its Block 1 configuration with on Orion capsule on top. (NASA)

Major challenges remain

On one hand, the task of successfully launching NASA’s Orion spacecraft around the Moon with Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy rockets has a lot going for it, regardless of which rockets launch Orion to LEO or launch the fueled upper stage to boost it around the Moon. In 2014, NASA and ULA successfully launched a partial-fidelity Orion spacecraft to an altitude of 3700 miles (~6000 km), testing some of Orion’s avionics, general spacefaring capabilities, and the craft’s heat shield, although Lockheed Martin has since significantly changed the shield’s design and method of production/installation. Regardless, the EFT-1 test flight means that a solution already more or less exists to mate Orion and its service module (ESM) to a commercial rocket and launch the duo into orbit.

If ULA is unable to essentially produce a Delta IV Heavy from scratch in less than 12-18 months, Falcon Heavy would be next in line to launch Orion/ESM, a use-case that might actually be less absurd than it seems. Thanks to the fact that SpaceX’s payload fairing is actually wider than the large Orion spacecraft (5.2 m (17 ft) vs. 5 m (16.5 ft) in diameter), any major risks of radical aerodynamic problems can be largely retired, although that would still need to be verified with models and/or wind-tunnel testing. The only major change that would need to be certified is ensuring that the Falcon second stage is capable of supporting the Orion/ESM payload, weighing at least ~26 metric tons (~57,000 lb) at launch. The heaviest payloads SpaceX has launched thus far were likely its Iridium NEXT missions, weighing around 9600 kg (21,100 lb).

However, the most difficult aspects of Bridenstine’s proposed alternative are centered around the need for the EM-1 Orion spacecraft to somehow dock with a fueled upper stage meant to be launched separately. Orion in its current EM-1 configuration does not currently have the ability to dock with anything on orbit, a challenge that would require Lockheed Martin and subcontractors to find a way to install the proper hardware and computers and develop software that was – prior to this surprise announcement – only planned to fly on EM-3 (NET 2024). As such, Lockheed Martin – notorious for slow progress, cost overruns, and delays throughout the Orion program – would effectively become the critical path in finishing and installing on-orbit docking capabilities on Orion in less than 12-18 months.

The only alternative would be to have either SpaceX or ULA retrofit some sort of docking mechanism onto one of their upper stages, perhaps less difficult than getting Lockheed Martin to work expediently but still a major challenge for such a short developmental timeframe. Put simply, completing the tasks at hand in the time allotted could easily be beyond the capabilities of old-guard NASA contractors like LockMart and Boeing. Ironically, the upper stage that was designed for EM-1 and is already more or less complete – known as the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) – is built by Boeing, the same company that has the most to lose if NASA chooses to make the SLS rocket – which Boeing also builds – functionally redundant with a commercial dual-launch alternative.

Boeing (as part of ULA) effectively completed the first ICPS upper stage for SLS near the end of 2016. It has remained in storage for about two years. (NASA/ULA)

With information currently available, it’s thus reasonable to argue that both launching SLS/Orion in 2020 and launching Orion on Falcon Heavy and/or Delta IV Heavy in 2020 are roughly equal in the level of ambition (insanity?) and increased risk required to attempt either. The question, then, is which risky and extremely difficult challenge – versus doing nothing – is most likely to be in NASA’s best interests?

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy shown launching NASA Orion spacecraft in fan render
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