The Apollo-like capsule orbited Earth twice yesterday to test critical functions, a 4 1/2-hour trip for the first U.S. vehicle built to transport humans to space since the shuttle in 1981. Now NASA must find political allies to keep championing a program that has already cost $7.4 billion.
The voyage, less than two months after a pair of disasters stunned the commercial space industry, helps bolster NASA’s case for its biggest-ever expedition. Spending over 20 years for a Mars mission would dwarf outlays for the $100 billion International Space Station, the most expensive structure ever built.
“We have a new Congress in January — let’s see what happens,” said Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University. At the very least, “anytime you have a success like that on something new, it’s great.”
The NASA exploration budget that finances Orion and a new heavy-lift rocket is one of the few non-defense budget accounts for which House Republicans have proposed an increase from President Barack Obama’s request for fiscal 2015, said Brian Friel, a government fiscal analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.
Spending would rise 5 percent to $4.17 billion under the House bill, while the Senate proposes a 10 percent increase to $4.37 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The largest beneficiaries from more spending would be Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US), which manufactured the Orion, and Boeing Co. (BA:US), the contractor’s co-owner of the venture building the new rocket.
Orion is the first spaceship developed to carry humans beyond the moon, and later versions will be fine-tuned to travel to asteroids next decade and to Mars in the 2030s. NASA is targeting an Orion trip with astronauts by 2021.
While Orion was among the top trending topics worldwide on Twitter.com, NASA’s new ambitions are unfolding amid a federal budget squeeze and the short attention spans of the social-media era, not the race-for-the-moon competition of the Cold War.
At Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where a Delta IV Heavy rocket carried Orion aloft, some of the weather-worn buildings displayed faded signs from news organizations that once camped out to chronicle the Apollo program. They were a reminder that interest in NASA diminished after the U.S. won the race to the moon.