I am in the awkward position of being caught between two worlds, or at least to others that might seem so.
One world, my day job, is providing engineering that moves forward, inch by agonizing inch, the traditionally-approached NASA Orion spacecraft. It is the last piece of the Constellation architecture put into place by the Bush administration back in 2006, and despite rumors of its death, it is still very much alive as a program. It is demanding work, and while many regard the design as “Apollo on Steroids”, it has actually quite a lot of new technology within it. From the inside baseball sort of view, that makes the work pretty exciting at times. But, my oh my, does it seem slow at other times. Glacial in some aspects, to be honest, when what you’d rather have is a raging torrent of action, and damn the consequences if you rush past something important that the slower approach would have made easier to see.
The other world is of a space pioneer, at least in spirit. I cheer on companies like Virgin Galactic, XCor, Sierra Nevada, and of course, SpaceX. That last racy scoundrel is to whom Orion is constantly compared, and not too favorably, I am sometimes chagrined to admit. They are definitely sprinting to their own goals, and in fine form I might add. We on the relatively stolid NASA-centric side of public opinion are described as dinosaurs, or worse, bureaucrats, in comparison. I can’t claim that we are nearly so efficient as SpaceX. In the meantime, whether it affects anyone else or not, I get the sense that Elon Musk and his dedicated team are not concerned with whatever Orion might or might not do, or when. The company has its plans and pursues them. Period.
But you see, here’s the thing: I’ve always thought that the NASA-centric project model of Mercury through the International Space Station program has had at least one charm, that of being THE toehold on the frontier. This organizational approach has a long and meritorious heritage.
In settling the new world, the private companies of Europe, mainly Britain, they first made a fort system to provide a common rally point for defense, disaster, and general decision-making. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Thankfully, it seemed to be a success more often than failure. Projecting forward a century or so, the US government followed settlers farther and farther west, providing forts in strategic locations within the frontier, with a mission of providing a surety of defense and organization if private settlements were imperiled. The early pioneers sprinted along ahead and took their chances, and the government came along either beside them or somewhat later to provide its services.
I think that is where we are with space exploration now. We have companies like SpaceX running headlong into outer space and the future, self-generating small but fast successes at a rapid clip, as they should. Orion on the other hand, slow and steady, maybe a bit leaden at times, follows behind working to bring robustness and depth to the greater cosmic frontier.
I know I am painting the whole thing with a rather optimistic, even somewhat romantic brush. I really do get this. The greater message, regardless, is that I see a very pervasive and false debate over the relative merits of the two spacecraft efforts, and it is ultimately counterproductive. Honestly, I am as happy as anyone to see SpaceX doing so well. My opinion is that there is a fanboy circus that bickers amongst themselves in the public eye about a competition that really doesn’t exist, foreseeing a pessimistic zero-sum game.