Spaceflight Insider

The Hangar / Orion

Orion Artist's Rendering

Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

US Flag NASA Logo Orion Logo


Orion is a crewed spacecraft funded by NASA and built by Lockheed Martin to support human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. Originally proposed by Lockheed Martin as the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle in 2006, it was designed to send up to six astronauts to the International Space Station or four astronauts beyond LEO under the Constellation Program.

Orion was saved from cancellation by Congress after the Obama administration canceled the program in 2010. Under the current NASA authorization, the four-person Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be launched aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) to conduct missions within and potentially beyond cislunar space.

Vehicle Capability/Description

Resembling the Apollo spacecraft, Orion consists of a conical crew module and a cylindrical service module aft, though the crew module will encompass two-and-a-half times more volume and 30 percent more habitable volume than the Apollo Command Module.

The European service module (ESM) for Orion, derived from the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) the European Space Agency (ESA) used to send supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), is being built by Airbus Defence and Space in Germany. The ESM will include onboard consumables (oxygen, water) for the crew, the primary propulsion system, and four solar arrays to supply electrical power. The European Service Module has four Solar Array Wings (SAWs).

Each SAW consists of three panels. Each panel is approximately 2 by 2 meters, resulting in a SAW that is approximately 2 meters wide by 7 meters long. The four combined SAWs generate about 11 kW of power for the spacecraft. The solar arrays were tested successfully at NASA’s Plum Brook Station Space Power Facility in February 2017. The ESM was chosen by NASA in 2013 as a way to include ESA in future beyond-orbit exploration activities.

According to a NASA Public Affairs message to Spaceflight Insider, the agency is considering supporting a crew of four for as many as 40 days. Its return payload (assuming it was collecting samples) is 220 pounds (100 kilograms).

Mission Profile

Launched from Earth by the Space Launch System’s massive core stage and solid rocket boosters, Orion will be sent on a trans-lunar (or other cislunar) trajectory aboard the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) on the unmanned Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1); the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) will be used on Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) and subsequent missions.

Upgraded versions of the SLS (Block 1b) could carry another mission payload in addition to Orion. In that case, once in orbit, Orion would separate from the SLS, reverse direction 180 degrees, and then rendezvous and dock with the payload, as was done during the Apollo program. The Orion and its joint payload would continue toward their mutual destination.

For the first crewed SLS/Orion mission (EM-2), the EUS will send Orion to the Moon, where Orion will enter lunar deep retrograde orbit. For future missions, Orion could rendezvous and dock with NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit to test systems for further missions. Beyond this effort would be the Deep Space Transport, which Orion would rendezvous with for missions beyond the Moon.

After completing mission activities in lunar orbit or near-lunar space (such as the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrange point), Orion’s main engine fires to put the spacecraft on a trans-Earth trajectory. Prior to re-entry, the service module is jettisoned and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. The crew module skims the atmosphere at the appropriate angle to slow its velocity; once within the atmosphere, Orion’s three-part parachute system deploys pilot, drogue, and main parachutes to slow it down to a safe speed for a water landing in the ocean.

Vehicle Status

An uncrewed test version of Orion flew aboard a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle in December 2014 as part of Exploration Flight Test One (EFT-1). The mission completed one full orbit, flying out to an apogee of 3,671 miles (5,908 kilometers) to build up a return to Earth speed of about 20,000 miles per hour (~32,190 kilometers per hour) to test the heat shield and parachute systems after re-entry. All systems functioned as designed before the spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Primary hardware continues to be tested for the Orion spacecraft, including parachute, recovery, and propulsion systems. A test article of Orion is being evaluated for pyrotechnic shocks, thermal environments, and other operations.

On January 13, engineers at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans finished welding together the primary structure of the flight hardware for the EM-1 mission Orion spacecraft’s crew module. The spacecraft has now been transported to Kennedy Space Center for final assembly. According to a Lockheed Martin press release statement:

At Kennedy Space Center, the crew module will undergo several tests to ensure the structure is perfectly sound before being integrated with other elements of the spacecraft. First it will undergo proof-pressure testing where the structural welds are stress tested to confirm it can withstand the environments it will experience in space. The team will then use phased array technology to inspect the welds to make sure there are no defects. Additional structural tests will follow including proof-pressure testing of the fluid system welds and subsequent x-ray inspections.

Once the crew module passes those tests it will undergo final assembly, integration and entire vehicle testing in order to prepare for EM-1, when Orion is launched atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) for the first time. The test flight will send Orion into lunar distant retrograde orbit – a wide orbit around the moon that is farther from Earth than any human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled. The mission will last about three weeks and will certify the design and safety of Orion and SLS for future human-rated exploration missions.

The EM-1 mission is scheduled to launch sometime in 2019.

Height 8 m
Diameter 5 m
Mass 35,385 kg
Payload Mass (Sample Return) 100 kg
Habitable Volume 8.95 m3
Launch Abort System
Manufacturer Orbital ATK
Engine TE-M-1174-1
No. engines 1
Thrust 31 kN
Fuel TP-H-3174 (Solid)
Specific impulse Unpublished
Burn time 29.4 seconds
Orbital Propulsion System
Manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne
Engine AJ10-190
No. engines 1
Thrust 26.7 kN
Propellant Monomethyl Hydrazine / MON-3
Specific impulse 316 seconds
Burn time 1,250 seconds
Auxiliary Thrusters
Manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne
Engine R-4D-11
No. engines 8
Thrust 0.467 kN
Propelant Monomethyl Hydrazine / MON-3
Specific impulse 300315 seconds
Reaction Control System
Manufacturer Airbus Safran Launchers
Engine ESA 200N
No. engines 24
Thrust 0.216 kN
Propellant Monomethyl Hydrazine / MON-3
Specific impulse 270 seconds
WGS-6Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) is a Department of Defense (DoD) satellite constellation providing broadcast, multicast, and point-to-point communications for military forces worldwide. Based on a Boeing 702HP spacecraft bus, WGS-6 is part of the “Block II” family of DoD satcom systems from geosynchronous orbit. WGS-6 was launched to orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) rocket on August 7, 2013 at 8:29 EDT (00:29 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37B located in Florida. This version of the rocket utilizes a five-meter fairing as well as four Orbital ATK GEM 60 solid rocket motors affixed to the Delta IV’s first stage. Photos courtesy: Mike Deep, Mike Howard