by Jeff Cunningham
Here at Take Back the Sky, we’ve made no attempt to disguise the fact that we support and advocate independent spaceflight by private individuals – I think that gets called a “bias” these days. It has never had anything to do with politics. We just feel that pursuing a future like the kind depicted in Firefly and Serenity where any ordinary Joe can fly wherever they want in a ship of their own is worthy and noble.
The media likes to make a great deal of noise and bluster about recent advances in spaceflight and tries to get mileage out of it by depicting it as a David-and-Goliath battle between large companies set in their ways and smaller, scrappy upstarts driven by ideals. It’s a portrayal that is not without merit, for sure – a valid argument could be made that our progress out in the black has stagnated in large part due to complacency in the industry and its relationship with government as a contractor.
So, it’s no surprise that, when a company like SpaceX shakes things up and challenges others to adapt, it makes headlines. I mean, for the love of Shepherd Book, they’ve actually made space cool again. People by and large have been starving for something new, for things to pick back up again, and it’s only natural that SpaceX and other “New Space” companies garner attention for their impressive achievements.
It’s occurred to me recently, though, that in our excitement and newfound optimism for the future, it becomes very, very easy to dismiss or even disparage the accomplishments that still continue to be made by NASA and “legacy” companies, such as the Orion spacecraft – and that’s not because I started working for Lockheed-Martin. Speaking of which –
At the time of this writing, Jeff Cunningham is currently an employee of the Lockheed-Martin Corporation. He has never performed work related to the Orion spacecraft in any capacity. His beliefs and opinions are his own, and are not representative of the Lockheed-Martin corporation, NASA, or anyone else that can sue him.
Now that the less mature and more litigious among us are hopefully satisfied…It’s an unfortunate fact of life in the early 21st century that something as noble as space exploration can be and has been tainted by politics. While the relationship between government space agencies and independent organizations is a discussion we should continue to have, much like the rest of politics, it has historically tended towards polarization into irrational extremes. People gravitate towards either shouting “ordinary people shouldn’t be allowed/trusted to go into space, only governments should,” or “the government is too incompetent to keep doing the job, we should throw out the baby with the bathwater.” While, again, we make no secret that, as wearers of coats of brownish colors, we tend to favor things that put more ordinary folk out in the black, I wanted to just speak out against the extremes and call to reason.
At the time of this writing, chances seem very good that SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will be the first American-built spaceship to take astronauts out into the black since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, beating out its Boeing-made competitor. Already, some are going so far as to say we should just scrap competing and substitute craft, which are suffering from delays and cost overruns, and just use now-proven SpaceX hardware – which to me is a small display of mental gymnastics, by essentially arguing “it’s worked because of the free market, so let’s make it a monopoly.”
Don’t get me wrong – the Dragon is one hell of a ship. I’d give anything to fly one. I remember seeing the public unveiling and being struck with the impression that this craft is the successor to the space shuttle. But I don’t see how or why Dragon and other craft should see the Orion as an “enemy.” For one thing, it doesn’t hold up logically. One of the basic, fundamental principles of engineering is that nothing is objectively a “better” or “worse” system, but a collection of tradeoffs. Even if adopting, say, a new airplane design proves to perform better and even be cheaper, you’re still facing a tradeoff in the costs and man-hours associated with transitioning an entire fleet. There’s always a tradeoff of some kind. Dragon, CST-100 Starliner, DreamChaser, and Orion are all different ships with different characteristics – is it so bad to have different ships available to fit to different mission profiles?
More to the point, though, my true motivation for writing this is a personal experience I recently had: I actually had the opportunity to get up close and personal with Orion itself.
Earlier this year, I was seeking to make a “lateral” move within the company and managed to score a one-in-a-million interview for a role on the Orion spacecraft. My resume and experience is, shall we say, “non-traditional,” but they thought it was at least relevant enough to bring me in and talk. “Bringing me in” in this case meant “badging” me past the security gate for my first-ever job interview at Kennedy Space Center in the historic Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout (OC) building.
The facility began its life during the Apollo program as the Manned Spacecraft Operations & Checkout building (MSOC, or “em-sock”). Here, the spacecraft that took American astronauts to the moon were serviced and underwent final preparations before heading out to the massive and more well-known Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The uppermost floors of the building are actually a group of apartments, living quarters that the astronauts stay in during preflight quarantine. On the big day, they suit up down the hall, go down the elevators, walk out the door, wave to cameras, then board a bus or van that whisks them off to the launch pad. If you recall seeing any of that on television, it was filmed at this building, where it continued to serve this purpose through the shuttle and International Space Station programs. During the latter, modules and other station components were processed on the production floor. When the Orion contract was awarded to Lockheed-Martin a few years back, they were also awarded a lease in order to use the building for its original intended role and service the new craft.
I was ushered in from the lobby up a few floors and through a veritable maze of cubicles (including a surprisingly narrow passage between two such barriers that could very well pass for a secret entrance from your standard RPG) to the manager associated with this position I was interviewing for. For our purposes, I’ll refer to him as the captain (not to be confused with the Cap’n, of which there can only be one) and one of his direct reports who sat in as “first mate.”
I was a little nervous going into this, because my conversations with the captain over the phone to set this up had felt somewhat awkward, so I was afraid that I was going to be interviewing with a man who, shall we say, “had room for improvement” as a communicator. It only took a moment or two after sitting down in his office for my concerns to be quickly dispelled – like a lot of people (probably including me), he was just one of those types who doesn’t come across as well on the phone. In person, the captain was gregarious and energetic, but quickly assumed a tone of reverence when the subject turned to the ship itself.
He spoke of the awesome responsibility that he and everyone in the OC felt as caretakers of Orion, of being ultimately accountable for the lives of the brave men and women who would fly it. They weren’t building these ships to fulfill a contract, he said, but “for our children and for future generations.” I couldn’t believe my luck at finding myself interviewing with someone who drinks the same ‘verse-y Kool-Aid that I do. Suffice it to say that we hit it off well.
After a wonderful conversation, the first mate introduced me around the office, then treated me to something that I had wondered whether they did for interviews and wasn’t expecting: a tour of the production floor. After checking in all electronic devices for safety and passing through security, I found myself in short order stepping out into the voluminous expanse that housed three honest-to-Buddha spaceships at various stages of construction. It wasn’t as large as, say, the VAB that I’ve toured several times in the past, but it did strike me as inspiring a very specific type of awe: the sort of hush that comes over you when you’re confronted by the sacred, as odd as that may sound. Let me explain:
If you ever come down to Florida as a tourist and include the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center in your itinerary, head into the building marked on your guidemap that houses the IMAX Theater. Inside, up an easily overlooked flight of stairs is an even more overlooked landing where you’ll find a small art gallery. Not many people notice or visit it, so there’s a good chance you’ll have the place to yourself. Among the paintings on display is a work depicting a shuttle in its completed launch configuration, mated to the large external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters. It stands upright in the cavernous VAB solemnly, like an honor guard standing at attention. Sunlight streams in from the few windows and service doors, bathing it in an otherworldly glow. The painting is titled Cathedral, it’s been my favorite since I first saw it as a boy, and a more fitting title has never been given to a work of art.
That same sort of aura pervaded the OC from the moment I stepped into the chamber. We passed by many technicians scurrying about, testing and retesting the systems for each of the three craft. It was clear to the eye that these men and women took no less pride in their work than the captain did. I’m ashamed to say it, but I was honestly surprised by this, as I’d expected the same government-employee culture that one would expect to find at a DMV. No, everyone there to a man treated Orion as a sacred trust. The first mate was generous with his time and pointed out to me the various works being performed on the craft, the service apparatus, testing chambers, etc.
At some point, as he was walking us back out, he brought me up closer to EM-1, the ship that was furthest along in its construction. The outer hull was not yet installed, exposing the airframe, cabling and fluids tubing for servicing, while a team of technicians was illuminated within the cockpit, examining something near the flight consoles under the ship’s own cabin lighting. I barely managed to not drop my jaw. I was hit with a chill that hadn’t washed over me since I saw the space shuttle in person as a child and was set on this course in life as a result. Before I could fully compose myself, I was unable to restrain myself from blurting it out during the first mate’s narration.
“…So, as you can see, she’s still missing her outer bulkheads and thermal shielding, and the avionics aren’t done yet—”
“—But she already has a soul!” I blurted out.
Maybe not the most professional thing to say in a professional setting, but in my defense, I was a sentimental romantic surrounded by my own kind.
The first mate paused, regarding EM-1, then returned to me and said, “…Yes…yes, she does.”
He led me out the front door, congratulated me on impressing the captain, and bade me farewell. Leaving me to take my merry drive home to my far less awesome ordinary life.
I didn’t get the job, but I can’t be too upset: I got to play hooky from work to get an awesome behind-the-scenes tour of a gorramned spaceship factory. While I may have impressed them as a person and an employee, it’d be naïve of me to think that there weren’t many, many others who interviewed after me who shared that same dream and were all probably better qualified than I. Stuff like this is highly competitive, and I’m just not at that league just yet.
What I’m getting at here is that, while we could weigh and measure the technical pros and cons of Orion, it’d be beside the point. When we skip right to knee-jerk criticism and aspersion-casting, it’s tragic, because we overlook something so seemingly trivial and irrelevant, and yet so profound: She (Orion) really does have a soul. A ship like that, or like the Dragon, or like the Millennium Falcon or Serenity is given a soul by thousands of dedicated, impassioned hands – hands powered by love, as the Cap’n proper would say – who pour their blood, sweat and tears into a cold machine and in the process give it life. We can and should say what we will about the performance of ships as systems, but before we speak, we would be well-served to remember that we are talking about a labor of love, about something hallowed by the sacrifices of free men and women. People who, as I observed that day, want no part in the policy debates or the political games, who are there because they love that ship and believe in it. They go by many job titles, such as Integration and Test Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, Electrical Engineers, etc. You and I, though, could simply call them Browncoats.