A lot of paper rockets have come and gone since the first V-2 missile poked through the atmosphere almost 70 years ago. It is an extremely rare moment when a vehicle able to reach space makes it to the "bending metal" stage.
Nonetheless, this week two different vehicles passed milestones on their way to orbit. Both are very far along the bending-metal curve, and both are those even rarer beasts that are being built to carry humans. Under present circumstances, neither is likely to fly.
The Orion crew exploration vehicle passed its Phase 1 safety review for human spaceflight as far as the Moon. Under development by Lockheed Martin for NASA's Constellation Program of space shuttle follow-on spacecraft, it consists of a capsule able to carry at least four crew members, an escape tower to pull it off a failing launch vehicle, and a service module to sustain it in orbit and lunar transit.
In this photo Lockheed Martin engineers in Houston use an Orion mockup to evaluate how hard it would be to exit the capsule after splashdown using its docking port instead of the side hatch.
In Promontory, Utah, Alliant Techsystems crews have finished installing the second solid-fuel development motor for the Ares I crew launch vehicle in its horizontal test rig.
Being built to carry the Orion to space, the 154-foot-long motor is schedule for firing early in September. Between now and then, technicians will fit it with sensors that will generate more than 750 channels of data to supplement the results of the first static test of the motor last year.
Based on the solid boosters that lift the space shuttle off the pad, the Ares I motor has five segments of solid fuel instead of four, a different internal design and a bigger nozzle than the shuttle solid-fuel motors.
Like the full-scale Orion, it is a dead duck under the U.S. space agency's revised approach to human spaceflight. In its Fiscal 2011 budget request, drafted after a year-long review by the Obama administration, the Constellation Program would be killed, and with it the Orion and Ares I. The only thing left -- and that a late addition -- is a stripped down version of Orion that could be used as a lifeboat for the International Space Station.
In a bizarre artifact of the federal budget process, work on Orion and Ares I is continuing for now because the money has been appropriated for Fiscal 2010, and because Congress explicitly says it can't be used to shut down Constellation. Many members of Congress from both political parties are very unhappy with President Barack Obama's approach to human spaceflight, and it's anybody's guess how the impasse will play out.
NASA's new leadership -- Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver -- say Constellation was going nowhere because it was too expensive. Instead, they favor a shift to proposed commercial vehicles that would serve as space taxis for astronauts commuting to the space station.
Taxpayers already have spent about $9 billion on Constellation. NASA's stated policy for the entire back-to-the-Moon effort was to "go as you can afford to pay," and its schedule had slipped to the point that NASA backers in Congress already were worried about the "gap" in U.S. human space access even before Obama was elected in 2008.
Whether that is normal for a complex development program is moot now. What is clear is that the only bent metal that the nation may get for its investment in Constellation is a $9 billion lifeboat that will allow private taxi companies to drop off their human cargo at the station and quickly return to Earth.