NASA goes retro with lunar butt plug ideal for probing Uranus



The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is going with a classic model for its Orion crew exploration vehicle, designed to carry up to six people to the International Space Station, the moon, and eventually Mars. Take a look at the souped-up Apollo-era capsule, still attached to the Ares rocket that will carry it into space.

And here's a view of the capsule on its own:


"Our team, and all of NASA—and, I believe, our country—grows more excited with every step forward this program takes," Orion Project Manager Skip Hatfield says in a press release. "The future for space exploration is coming quickly."

Orion will be capable of transporting cargo and up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station. It can carry four crewmembers for lunar missions. Later, it can support crew transfers for Mars missions.

Orion borrows its shape from space capsules of the past, but takes advantage of the latest technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems. The capsule's conical shape is the safest and most reliable for re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, especially at the velocities required for a direct return from the moon.

I'll say it takes its shape from space capsules of the past. Dig the CEV with some kind of lunar lander:


And here it is with the International Space Station. If you look really closely you can see your tax dollars being burned up to provide energy for the ISS:


The coolest thing about Orion is the logo:


More images at Wikipedia.

So it's something. I can't say I'm swept off my feet, but I'm relieved to hear this baby will use "the latest technology in computers," presumably allowing ENIAC's number-crunching power to be used for other tasks. And given the dire struggle to find a replacement for the space shuttle, it's good that at least something is shaping up.

But since the CEV, if all goes according to plan, will essentially end up servicing the ISS—a task for which the shuttle was invented in the first place—it does leave a question for future historians to sort out: What will be the legacy of the shuttle? Did it contribute anything to progress in space travel, or was it just a 30-year trip to nowhere? (That's a real question, not a rhetorical question.)

NEXT: Murkowski, Outski

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  1. My humble opinion? We should have done something like this 30 years ago rather than resorting to that atrocious boondoggle known as the space shuttle. What we needed was a modular, no-nonsense, space vehicle that could be used for many different missions without much modification. We didn’t get it, and as a result we went from moon landings to mucking about in LEO delivering satellites and performing some High School kid’s “will-bean-plants-grow-in-zero-gee” experiments as PR stunts.

    I’m reminded of a classroom discussion I had in 8th Grade Earth Science when we got to our Astronomy and Space Exploration unit. My teacher brought up the accomplishments of the Soviet space program. The thought of dirty commies being able to keep pace with good-old American know-how tweaked my proto-Republican beliefs. “But their spacecraft are nothing but over-sized tin cans,” I exclaimed trying to stand up for mom, apple, pie and NASA.

    “But they work,” she replied.

    Whether the CEV “works” or not remains to be seen, but I’m willing to give it a try.

  2. “Atrocious Boondoggle?” Think how it raised the self-esteem of Canadians with it’s “Canada arm.”
    Just think how many other friends we could have had if it used “Iraq-sourced toggle spring” and “Ugandan mohair seat cover,” etc.

  3. I can’t say I’m swept off my feet, but I’m relieved to hear this baby will use “the latest technology in computers,” presumably allowing ENIAC’s number-crunching power to be used for other tasks.


  4. What’s with the logo? It says ‘collectSpace/NASA’

    Is this how they are funding the next generation of space exploration? By selling trinkets? Does the government count its assets when it does budgeting? I’d pay for a tile from the Columbia.

    NASA Policy Directive
    NPD 4300.4C: Use of Space Shuttle Materials as Mementos

    Effective Date: December 09, 1999
    Expiration Date: December 09, 2004

    Responsible Office: PO / Public Services Division
    1. POLICY

    It is NASA policy that Space Shuttle Materials are considered eligible for use as mementos or disposition consistent with Federal law and Agency regulations, as appropriate. Not covered under this policy are items flown on the Space Shuttle, e.g., flags, to be used as mementos as covered by 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 1214.6, “Mementos Aboard Space Shuttle Flights,” and items determined to be artifacts as covered by NPG 4310.1, “Identification and Disposition of NASA Artifacts.”

  5. I want a shuttle tile that has been exposed to radiation. A special radiation that will give me super powers. How much would that run me? I’ll pay a premium to avoid aqua powers, incidentally.

  6. Sorry, but the Orion logo reminds me disturbingly of Columbia fragments re-entering the atmosphere. On the other hand, I lost the NASA faith a long, long time ago.

  7. The whole NASA space program gives me conflicts. Much has been said about the technology that’s ancient by the time it flies, and of course, the huge budgets, spent in good part just for the propaganda value of being able to say we did it.

    Nevertheless, we did do it, and I have found it an inspiration throughout my life. I don’t know if the public at large appreciates the challenges and the efforts to achieve them that any of NASA’s projects involve. Certainly, if the equivalent had been done privately, even libertarians would have something to cheer about, wouldn’t they?

    The Space Shuttle. Hmmmm. At once, a sinkhole for money, and a huge technical accomplishment. The goal was a cheaper, reusable cargo and passenger transport to orbit. It has worked, over a hundred times, although it has never achieved the cost reductions or the launch frequencies hoped for it. Now with one vehicle less than originally anticipated and a scheduled retirement in 2010, it probably never will. As far as lives lost, it’s sad. I still can’t watch the videos. But I’ll bet that any astronaut, if asked, would not have thought a second if asked to make another flight immediately after either of the two disasters. Do commercial and military test pilots have a better record?

    But the question is, what is its legacy? In spite of delays, overruns and accidents, it has met its primary objective, and along the way, it has inspired at least techno-geeks like me. I would find it hard to believe that Orion or any other new vehicle did not inherit and build on the lessons learned from the Shuttle. Isn’t that legacy enough? There are hundreds of little spin-offs from its development and deployment that benefit us today. Maybe they would have been developed almost as soon without the Shuttle, but the Shuttle gets the credit. More legacy. The Hubble Space telescope would not be returning the pictures it does without the repair missions made possible by the Shuttle. And the Shuttle’s mission isn’t over yet. It may be too early to close the book on the story of its legacy. Will there ever be a sub-orbital space plane? Orbiting space hotels with the taxis to haul their customers? How much will future space probes, commercial or otherwise, benefit from things like the robotic arms and inspection booms?

    If I had the chance to vote on NASA’s budget, I’d vote it down every time, in hope that eventually, commercial rockets would achieve essentially the same thing at less cost. Space Ship One hints that that will happen. But …

    I used to live on Long Island. Whenever the Shuttle launched to a high-inclination orbit (e.g., to the ISS) in the evening, seven minutes after launch I could walk out my front door and watch a bright dot of light approach from low in the southeast sky, and as it passed LI, I could see main engine cut-off (MECO) and external tank separation, followed by OMS correction flashes and the tumblings of the tank. I would marvel about the fact that there were from three to seven people on board, and they did that every few months on the average, over and over. Amazing. That spirit in my mind is part of the Shuttle’s legacy, too, and it’s hard to put a value on it.


  8. It needs more fins.

    Also vent windows are handy at low altitudes.

  9. What the hell is a moon cheese baby?

  10. not being one who quacks The Party Line, Ive been on the outs for all my political life. Sometimes, things need doing even without someone, or some combine, making a profit. Breathe into a paper bag, your head will stop spinning.
    Since States will infuse billions into better Cluster Bomb Disbursement, I, going along w/ the Drug law vs Harm reduction non (in any meaningful way) debate, would far rather Gvt put $ into serious interplanetary space travel than bigger better clusterbombs/cruise missiles/bombers. But thats just me, a gun owner/reloader/shoot them if they cross yr threshold type.

  11. Tim,
    As someone who works in the industry, I think the COTS program is a much, much better investment than Orion. The COTS program has a couple of key differences:

    1-The COTS funding is with firm, fixed-price contracts, with payments only upon acheivement of technical milestones. Orion is “cost-plus” with payments on a regular schedule regardless of actual success.
    2-The COTS companies, SpaceX and Rocketplane/Kistler are being required to privately raise a substantial chunk of the money–ie they have “skin in the game”.
    3-The COTS companies will be building crew/cargo transportation systems that they will own and operate, with the ability to use them for non-government uses. Orion will be used for NASA purposes only, and will be pretty much government operated.
    4-The total COTS budget is less than 5% of the budget for Ares I (aka the Shaft) and the CEV, in spite of covering most of the same functionality.

    I could go on. There are a couple of good space blogs worth looking at if you’re interested. is a good start. I mostly blog about space issues at Selenian Boondocks. There’s a blog called COTS Watch that covers a lot of COTS related stuff…..

    Anyhow I just think that Ares I is making yet another government funded booster that isn’t needed (there are already two other US boosters in its weight class, with two more on the way), and is being pursued in a way that is mostly designed to keep as many Shuttle employees in as many congressional districts continually employed as possible….

    Not really much for a libertarian to love. Even COTS could be considered unlibertarian on some levels, but with the fact that NASA isn’t going to go away, at least COTS is likely to give a much higher return on investment than Orion is.


  12. What will be the legacy of the shuttle? Did it contribute anything to progress in space travel, or was it just a 30-year trip to nowhere?

    Neither. It was an inefficient but sporadically effective astronaut disposal device. I think we can do better; if the best minds at NASA really put their heads together and cut through some of the red tape, they could probably achieve closer to 80 or 90 percent astronaut mortality by 2030.

  13. Tim Cavanaugh: you have it completely backwards. The Shuttle was not developed to service the ISS, the ISS was built so the Shuttle would have a place to fly to.

    Essentially, they are planning to spend a fortune on the development of a Soyuz capsule. It will cost much more than the current Soyuz capsule and it will be years and years before it is ready. I am underwhelmed. This would have been a logical program in 1973. Instead we got the Shuttle. Now private companies are tinkering with space planes using exotic new materials developed in the 80’s that have become common and therefore cheap. So what does NASA do? It goes back to capsules.

    I am glad to see them admit, if only by inference, that the entire Shuttle program was a complete fiasco. I wonder if the guys at NASA read the papers? Long before this thing flies, private carriers will be selling orbital flights on rocket planes.

  14. “it’s hard to put a value on it”


  15. This is all nonsense, anyway. Using rockets to get to space is absurd, when what you really need is a “space elevator.” Privately financed, of course.

  16. Space elevators are for wimps. Giant cannons are the way to go.

  17. Space elevators are for wimps. Giant cannons are the way to go.

    Giant cannons are not that much out of the question for launching small satalites. The U.S. and Canada were working on a system for launching small sats by cannon… but they layed off the chief engineer, he went to work for Iraq to build a big artillary cannon, and ended up getting whacked by Mossad.

    Now private companies are tinkering with space planes using exotic new materials developed in the 80’s that have become common and therefore cheap. So what does NASA do? It goes back to capsules.

    The question though, is will the U.S. destroy capitalism and private industry before it gets a chance to develop private space flight?

  18. “…servicing the ISS — a task for which the shuttle was invented in the first place.”

    If you believe that (which is false as a matter of historical fact, just like James’ inverted version), then your subsequent “this is a real question, not a rhetorical question” is… ingenuous at best.

    Space is hard, expensive, and inevitably frustrating. Human nature being what it is, every decade since the 1950s has brought a new round of “it’s not really that hard — we’ve just been doing it wrong!” Sometimes the proffered solution is a silver-bullet technology, sometimes it’s a political invocation of the Will and Vision of the hallowed Apollo years…

    And at the moment, it’s the Reaganaut/libertarians’ turn: get Big Gummint out of the picture, unleash the magic mojo of free enterprise, and watch us soar! That’s bound to go over well with the Hit & Run constituency, but somehow I don’t think g is impressed.

  19. To be fair about the appearance: the laws of physics haven’t changed that much since 1969. Much like dolphins and fish looking alike because they have to solve the same problems, all re-entry capsules not designed to glide through the air are going to look pretty similar.

  20. NASA-Not Ashamed Spending it All: Resistance if futile.

  21. Space elevators are for wimps. Giant cannons are the way to go.

    For those about to spacewalk, we salute you.

  22. That’s kind of scary.

    There are more than 72,000 google hits for “lunar butt plug”.

  23. I thought I’d invented the phrase.

  24. If you believe that (which is false as a matter of historical fact, just like James’ inverted version),

    Read a book. Going back at least to the early 70s, the shuttle idea was conceptualized, and sold to congress, as working in tandem with a permanent space station. The ISS in its present form wasn’t conceived at the time, but what would later become Space Station Freedom was on the drawing board, and all subsequent space station proposals, including the more ambitious ideas for spacelab, spacehab, and a bunch other spaceTKs (the names kind of melt together after a while), were driven by the idea of having the shuttle complete its initial mission. One conspiracy theory among Mir fans is that NASA wanted to discredit and kill Mir because it wasn’t shuttle-dependent enough.

    As for space, most notably escape velocity, being hard, no shit. I’m the one who wants NASA to get out of manned space flight for at least a decade or so. So what’s your point? That an agency that is completely constrained by politicians, to the point that all 50 states now have a hand in shuttle-related pork, is the best way to overcome the difficulty? You’re right: The idea that once we get the government out of the way we’ll have a warp drive a year later is wrong. But having the government in the way means you have very little progress at enormous cost; at least we could get rid of the “enormous cost” part.

    And my question remains: Did the shuttle, which is only very debatably a reusable vehicle, move humanity ahead in space flight? I’m open to arguments that it did; but I’m skeptical of nebulous claims like CrackerBarrel’s that there are “hundreds of little spin-offs,” because that’s inevitable in any big project. There’s a lot of chatter out there that the shuttle was a conceptual misstep, even in the drive for a reusable vehicle, and the return to a capsule model certainly seems to support that.

    Finally, I think you mean “disingenuous.” I’m not young or sexy enough for ingenue roles.

  25. There were two major accomplishments of the Shuttle that immediately come to mind, Hubble and LDEF (Long Duration Exposure Facility). Both made use of the Shuttle’s ability to deploy, service, and recover satellites. No Apollo-like craft can do the same. Future spacecraft that fail in space will simply add to the collection of deadly debris.
    Having sad that, it must be admitted that the Shuttle’s weaknesses eventually rendered it unable to service and recover moderate to high Earth-orbit satellites, like Hubble. These weaknesses, though, are due to failings of technology, not design.

    As for future space systems, I’d like to see some development of magnetic rail-launch technology. It is environmentally cleaner, safer, and (potentially) more efficient weight-to-thrust. Turn over the manned space program to the military, and sell most of the launch systems to private industry. Let the NSF run the robot satellite programs.

  26. Tim: while I have read quite a few books about STS and ISS, my primary source is experience as a science writer in the 1970s and 1980s, when I covered and talked with STS designers, NASA managers, and the relevant Congressional players as well as critics inside and outside the bubble. I’ll happily measure that against your tendentious version, which sounds as if it does come from books.

    You handwave about the von Braun agenda (there were lots of things on the drawing board, and always have been), while back-pedaling away from your initial (and incorrect) formulation. Neatly done.. sorta like introducing a conspiracy theory for rhetorical effect (“I, Tim C, have no evidence for this, mind you. Just saying.”)

    No, I don’t think the shuttle “moved humanity ahead in space” very much. It’s the implicit “why not?” on which I think we disagree. I think getting from the state of the art c. 1970 to the levels of cost, operability and total traffic to LEO projected for the Shuttle was (and remains) much harder — not just technologically, but economically — than almost any space enthusiast, NASA fan or NewSpace booster, is willing to admit. We’re in an expensive and inelastic corner of the trade space, with a long way to go before ROI kicks in. Most of that difficulty is the same whether the challenge is tackled with tax dollars or angel investment, by NASA or by entrepreneurial startups.

    On reading your Aug. 20 post, I think we may agree more than we disagree. I too would like to see more space science. And I’m no fan of VSE, a White House mandate which I doubt will be remembered much longer than Poppy’s SEI, let alone survive to fruition. But given that brain-dead mandate, it’s pointless to get excited either way about details of the ESAS architecture — the target of your easy snark (ENIAC, etc.) in this post. I also see in the post some of the “we’ve just been doing it wrong” handwavery I referred to before; if you don’t, let’s leave it at that.

  27. You handwave about the von Braun agenda (there were lots of things on the drawing board, and always have been), while back-pedaling away from your initial (and incorrect) formulation. Neatly done.. sorta like introducing a conspiracy theory for rhetorical effect (“I, Tim C, have no evidence for this, mind you. Just saying.”)

    So it’s just a conspiracy theory to say the shuttle was designed as a vehicle for a permanent space station? And it’s backpedaling to note that the ISS final product isn’t exactly the same design that was projected when Nixon was in office? I don’t mean to question your space cadet credentials, but if you’re saying the shuttle was not developed with a space station in mind, well, everything I’ve read and heard indicates otherwise, so I’d be interested in knowing what you’re basing that on.

    And in fact, there’s abundant evidence that NASA went out of its way to discredit and kill Mir. Greg Klerkx and anybody involved with MirCorp can speak to that better than I can. The question is whether that was because it wasn’t shuttle-dependent enough, which is a hard motive to establish, though it makes a lot of sense.

  28. I think you’re starting from a neat sound-bite formulation (“the Shuttle’s only justification is to supply ISS, and ISS’s only justification is to give the Shuttle a reason for being”) and projecting it backward as history. That’s not an unfair snapshot description of the budget/policy corner NASA occupied for some years pre- Columbia, but it’s grotesquely glib as a description of the rationales as the two programs started.

    Yes, a manned space station of some kind had always been on the agenda — not just NASA’s or von Braun’s, but that of most space cadets since the 1920s. STS, by lowering costs, was supposed to be the enabler not just for that but for anything we might decide to do in space: more and bigger commsats, Hubbles and more ambitious science platforms to be boosted from LEO by Centaur, DoD goodies, etc. Nothing about the STS design was specific to any of the viewgraph space stations kicking around (sans budget) in the 1970s — hardly what I’d expect if they were joined at the hip to the degree you seem to think.

    OK, so the Shuttle flies in 1981, far short of what had been hoped for in 1972. Reagan declares it “operational” a year later after four (!?!) flights, and proceeds as if it were the cheap, robust space truck we’d wanted. On to commercialization (industry backed away), on to SDI battle stations (couldn’t afford to orbit ’em even on the cheapest ELVs, let alone STS), on to a space station (repeatedly down-scoped almost from the beginning as reality sank in), on to a teacher-astronaut… oops.

    ISS doesn’t prove that a space station is a bad idea; it proves that any multi-hundred-ton project in LEO, predicated on the Shuttle we’d wanted but built with the one we had, was bound to be way late and way over budget. That NASA, four presidents (and until Columbia, most of Congress and the public) drank some more Kool-Aid and plowed on rather than “cut and run” is regrettable, but as a psychological failing it’s hardly unique to space activity. 🙁

  29. thoreau,

    Exactly. Fire!

    I have a sentimental attachment to giant cannons. Some French guy wrote about a giant cannon launching people to some nonplanetary object from a place called Stone Hill, here in Tampa. Of course, we don’t have any hills, but that’s a quibble.

    I figure that all we need is to come up with some inertialess system to protect humans from acceleration, then we can launch people out of cannons at will. Can you imagine what aliens visiting the Earth would think of that? “Wow, don’t mess with these monkey boys–they shoot themselves out of cannons.”

    The history of the shuttle and of the ISS shows precisely why it is high time for the private sector to get people into orbit (via cannon or otherwise). Once we can get to orbit for a reasonable amount, then we can get to the real job of space exploration. Too much politics does not a good space program make.

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