NASA’s Orion Spacecraft

The US hasn’t had the ability to launch humans into space since the last Shuttle mission in 2011. But in the near future NASA plans to be flying the new Orion spaceship, to the Moon and beyond.

Engineering model of the Orion, on display at the Kennedy Space Center

In the aftermath of the Space Shuttle, the American space program floundered. The Shuttle itself had never met its expected goals of cost or reliability. With its last spaceflight in 2011, the United States lost its ability to launch crews into space, and became dependent upon paying the Russians to carry astronauts to the International Space Station in their Soyuz spacecraft.

The Shuttle (and the Soyuz) also wasn’t capable of leaving Earth orbit, so any missions to the Moon or beyond would require a brand new spacecraft. The X-33 project, from Lockheed Martin, was supposed to develop a successor to the Shuttle, but it was canceled. It was replaced by the concept of the Orbital Space Plane, but that was canceled too. In 2004, after an accident destroyed the Shuttle Columbia, President George W Bush tried to revitalize NASA by announcing a bold new “Vision for Space Exploration” which would return Americans to the Moon and then later go on to fly manned missions to Mars.

In its planning for new manned missions, however, NASA now dropped the idea of a shuttle-like space plane, and went back to the model of a cone-shaped crew vehicle, like the Apollo and Soyuz, atop a new and more powerful multi-stage rocket family. The program became known as Constellation.

Constellation would center around the new Ares rocket and a new Crew Exploration Vehicle called Orion. Orion was an updated and improved version of the Apollo that had taken astronauts to the Moon back in 1969. Like the Apollo, Orion had two parts: the conical crew section, known as the Crew Module, would carry the astronauts. This was attached to a cylindrical Service Module which held supplies, life support, foldable solar panels, and a restartable rocket engine for maneuvering. The Service Module could also be used to carry an unmanned cargo-delivery version of the Orion. The Service Module was itself fitted to an adaptor module which allowed it to fit onto the upper stage of the Ares I rocket or its larger Ares V version.

The Constellation mission profile envisioned an Orion to be launched into orbit along with its crew on an Ares I. Here it would rendezvous with a lunar lander known as Altair, launched separately on the larger Ares V. Orion and Altair would dock, and then fly to the Moon together. At the end of the mission, Orion would return to Earth to a splashdown landing in the sea.

But by 2010, the entire Constellation program was years behind schedule and way over-budget. In October, Constellation was cancelled, and NASA adopted a simpler and more adaptable version of the program. The Ares I and V rockets disappeared, along with the Altair lunar lander. The Orion spacecraft would continue, but it was now redesignated as a “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle”. To cut costs, most of the remaining system would use repurposed already-existing hardware from the Space Shuttle, which NASA refers to politely as “heritage hardware”. The new liquid methane/liquid oxygen engine intended for the Service Module, for example, was now dropped in favor of the standard hypergolic-fuel restartable rocket thruster that had been used in the Space Shuttle’s Orbital Maneuvering System.

The new Orion would be launched atop the SLS Space Launch System, another heavy-lift vehicle that was already in development. Based on a 200-foot “Core” with four liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen RS-25 engines, the same ones used for the Space Shuttle Main Engines, the Space Launch System also uses two external solid rocket boosters based on a lengthened version of those used in the Shuttle design. These are also designed to be reusable.

Because the Orion is designed for a mission similar to that of the Apollo and Soyuz spaceships, and faces the same aerodynamic requirements, it is closely comparable to them in appearance and configuration. But inside, Orion is significantly different. With a diameter of over 16 feet, Orion is over 50% larger than Apollo, with 300 cubic feet of interior space (enough for 4-6 crew members) and sufficient consumables stored in the Service Module for 21 days.

Unlike Apollo and Soyuz, which were intended as single-mission craft, the Orion Crew Module is re-usable, and can be refurbished and re-flown after a mission. This is possible because of the Avcoat heat shield, consisting of silica fibers embedded in resin, which can be replaced after each mission. (The ceramic tiles used on the Space Shuttle were not capable of withstanding the heat of a high-speed re-entry from deep space.)

The rest of the ship is made from an aluminum-lithium alloy that was first developed for the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank and also used for the Atlas V rocket, lined with newer versions of the Shuttle’s heat tiles and coated with a Nomex-like heat-protective layer. Instead of the 1970s-era mechanical dials and switches in the Soyuz, Orion has a modern computerized all-glass cockpit based on the touchscreen avionics used for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. And like the Russian Progress cargo craft, Orion is fitted with a radar-guided automatic docking system.

In 2012, the European Space Agency was selected by NASA to develop and produce the Orion Service Module, which would be based on ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle. Lockheed Martin would build the Crew Module. Construction was able to take advantage of the newest cutting-edge techniques, including 3d-printed parts and computer-guided robotic welds.

In 2014, the system was ready for its first test in space, an unmanned flight to low earth orbit on a Delta IV rocket, followed by an elliptical orbit out to an apogee of 3,600 miles. Orion re-entered after 4.5 hours of flight and was successfully recovered about 600 miles off the coast of California after splashdown.

In 2019, NASA’s longterm goals were modified yet again. After Constellation was canceled, Orion’s initial mission had been set to be a manned visit to a near-Earth asteroid. But after China announced plans for a manned Moon landing, the United States decided that it wanted to go back to the Moon as well. So as of 2020, NASA’s “Artemis” plan (in Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo) calls for the Orion to carry a crew to the Moon by the mid 2020s, where it will be able to dock with a planned mini-space station in lunar orbit called Gateway. This is intended to allow detailed exploration of the Moon, and also to be a way-station for a manned Orion mission to Mars by 2050. A “Deep Space Habitat” module is being developed to provide extra space, supplies and fuel for extended deep space missions such as a Mars landing. It is intended to be capable of supporting missions as long as three years.

Today, an engineering model of the Orion Crew Module is on display at the Kennedy Space Center, along with exhibits of rockets from the space program, tours of the launch pads, Moon rocks to examine, and the Space Shuttle Atlantis on view.


2 thoughts on “NASA’s Orion Spacecraft”

  1. Going back to the moon is probably rather a waste of money, and I suspect that if it is done, it will be for precisely the same (and rather pointless) reason it was done in 1969: to beat some other nation to it.

    As for Mars, it’s complete fantasy. It ain’t going to happen, and I wish they’d rather pour all that money into robotic exploration of the solar system (a program that has thus far been successful beyond my wildest imaginings in terms of scientific payoff).

    1. I pretty much agree–non-manned exploration has taught us much more than manned spacecraft. But alas, I think that without the cachet of “men on Mars”, the public will never be willing to fund a major program of space exploration.

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