Although somewhat similar to the Apollo spacecraft in
shape and appearance, Orion is larger and can fit up to
six crew members at once, compared to Apollo’s three. In
addition, a new version of the Apollo heat shield will keep
the astronauts safe as the crew module re-enters Earth’s
atmosphere when it returns from deep space.
“It’s being built for multiple destinations,” explains Lara
Kearney, Deputy Manager of the Orion Crew and Service
Module. “We want it to be flexible in its ability to go different
places, whether it be just beyond the lunar orbit or to an
Orion is being developed simultaneously with NASA’s
Space Launch System (SLS), a heavy-lift rocket, which will
be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations
and eventually Mars.
The first mission to integrate Orion and the SLS, Exploration
Mission-1 (EM-1), will take place in the fall of 2018. The
Orion spacecraft will travel thousands of miles beyond the
moon over the course of about a three-week mission.
A SECOND CHANCE
The Orion MPCV was announced by NASA on May
24, 2011, but its design was actually based on the Orion
Crew Exploration Vehicle from the cancelled Constellation
The Constellation program, which lasted from 2005 to
early 2010, had three major goals: complete the International
Space Station, return to the Moon no later than 2020, and
launch a crewed flight to Mars.
“However, when the administration changed, President
Obama came up with a different vision,” explains Kearney,
“and Orion was one of the pieces of the Constellation
architecture that was maintained within the agency.”
Currently, the Orion program is following a phased
approach to the spacecraft’s development, in which NASA
flies two test flights with increasing capabilities on board
before the first crewed flight occurs.
The first test flight, known as Exploration Flight Test-1
(EFT-1), took place on Dec. 5, 2014. Orion was launched
atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex
37 and soared approximately 3,600 miles in altitude before
splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
“[Orion] flew extraordinarily well in 2014. It was a great
test flight for us, because it was only four-and-a-half hours,
which meant we as a team could all sit and watch the
performance of the vehicle as the mission was going on,”
The test flight evaluated launch and high speed re-entry
systems, such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes, and
the heat shield.
Plus, because EFT-1 was heavily instrumented with 1,200
sensors, NASA’s engineers were able to evaluate the data
collected from the first test flight, compare it to their original
predicted models, and put the data back into the design and
engineering of the next test flight to optimize the vehicle.
In fact, the Orion team is already past the bulk of the
engineering for the EM-1 test flight in 2018, and they’re
currently moving into the manufacturing and assembly
NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) is a spacecraft planned to take
astronauts farther than any human has
ever gone before. The agency launched
the spacecraft on its first test flight
in December 2014, and NASA hopes
to launch Orion on a crewed mission
beyond low Earth orbit in 2021.
Orion’s pressure vessel has been moved to the Kennedy Space
Center in preparation for EM-1. Image credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak
THE FUTURE OF
By Kaylie Duffy, Associate Editor