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That, admittedly, is an awful lot of self-congratulation for a vehicle that has climbed just a mile into the sky. But the long-term missions being considered for Orion show a true exploratory cunning. The hardest and most expensive part of any deep-space mission is the business of landing on another world and taking off again. Once you descend into the gravity well of a cosmic body, you need a lot of fuel, hardware and energy just to get back off the surface, much less to accelerate to deep-space speeds. But what if you did away with the landings altogether or at least simplified them dramatically?
That's exactly what the Orion crews would do. Rather than aiming to land on the moon or Mars, they would instead go for lunar orbits or flybys or trips into deep space to the various Lagrange points (gravitationally quirky spots where the pulls of the moon, the Earth and the sun cancel one another out and a ship could simply hang in place, allowing astronauts to conduct astronomical studies and materials research. Orion might also aim for asteroids near Earth, where entering or leaving orbit would require little more than a puff of propellant, since the gravity of the bodies is so tenuous. A landing on Mars of sorts would be possible too, with crews using a lighter, less expensive lander to touch down on one of Mars' tiny, low-gravity moons, from which they could dispatch unmanned rovers to the surface.
"We are building Orion with capabilities to do deep-space missions exclusively at the moment," says Geyer. "The ship can carry six people, but we'd configure it for four to provide more room for the astronauts to move around."
The program is also being built with an eye to making it Washington-proof. So far, $3.2 billion has been spent on Orion, and another $3.2 billion is slated through 2015. Whether that money is actually made available is no sure thing, with the antideficit frenzy consuming the Capitol and the decision this week by a House committee to scrap funds for NASA's James Webb telescope does not bode well. But Lockheed Martin has taken care to spread the Orion work among subcontractors in 28 states, which means that a lot of Washington legislators have local skin and local jobs in the game. "Orion is being built near me!" chirps a poster in Lockheed Martin's media tent, with a map of the U.S. showing the locations of all of the subcontractors' plants.
Even if the funding spigot stays open, it's not certain that Orion will actually be able to carry people aloft as early as 2016. The private-sector companies vying to build the low-orbit spacecraft to service the space station are well along in the development of their ships, but NASA has not yet even picked a general design for its heavy-lift rocket, much less chosen a contractor. The idea that the space agency can make those decisions, secure the funding and get a whole new rocket the biggest the U.S. has ever built from computer screen to launchpad within five years is an improbable one at best.
"The Orion team is closely working with NASA management to figure out a plan for the rocket," says Geyer; it's all the assurance he is willing to offer for now. Come 2016, he and his team could well find themselves with a spanking-new deep-space vehicle and no rocket to take it anywhere.
All that, however, is for sometime after Friday when the final shuttle is at last off the pad and, much more important, home again safe. When that chapter is closed, NASA's already extraordinary past will have become greater still. It's up to the current stewards of the agency to provide it with an equally rich future. Perhaps if they do, they will at last appease the ghosts.