Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s Orion moves on to full-scale assembly and testing

Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit above Moon on Exploration Mission 1. NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s new, crew-rated Orion spacecraft is set to undergo full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration, and testing after completing most of its Critical Design Review (CDR). The review, carried out on Oct. 21 to determine the vehicle’s readiness to conduct the first mission Orion will fly integrated with the agency’s new super heavy-lift booster – the Space Launch System or “SLS”. That flight – Exploration Mission 1 – is currently scheduled to take place sometime late in 2018.

“Late 2018 is our horizon target. However, it is too early to set a launch date. SLS, Orion, and ground systems all have to get through KDP-C and other reviews. Then, we’ll sit down and look a the pieces as an overall program, and then work toward an EM-1 launch date. We’re not building for a single launch. We’re building the systems for a next generation human spaceflight program,” NASA’s Bob Jacobs told SpaceFlight Insider.

Orion’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, noted that this latest announcement means that Orion is currently on track to complete its development before the craft’s second orbital mission lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B in Florida. Orion, at present, meets the NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) performance requirements.

Space Launch System rocket blasts off of Launch Complex 39B with Orion spacecraft on Exploration Mission 1. NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Orion spacecraft has almost fully completed a Critical Design Review which should clear the crew-rated spacecraft for a late 2018 launch. Image Credit: NASA

“The vast majority of Orion’s design is over, and now we will only change things when new requirements come into play,” said Lockheed Martin’s Orion Vice President and Program Manager Michael Hawes. “Considering the incredible complexity of this spacecraft, the team is very proud to have successfully completed the design review and is looking forward to seeing it fly.”

At present, Orion’s overall CDR will be considered totally complete after the European Service Module CDR and a presentation to the NASA Agency Program Management Council have been conducted. This is currently scheduled to take place in the spring of 2016.

“The Orion team across the country put in many long hours preparing for and participating in this review,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion Program manager. “Every aspect of the spacecraft design was closely scrutinized.”

Orion began going through the CDR this past August (2015); with a primary focus on the EM-1 and follow-on EM-2 missions (parts of the mission reviewed included its structure, pyrotechnics, Launch Abort System, software, guidance, navigation, and control, as well as others).

EM-1 will be an uncrewed flight; however, the Orion vehicle that will conduct that mission is designed to handle all of the life-support equipment Orion will need for the crewed Em-2 mission. Those elements, Environmental Control, Life Support System and crew displays will be reviewed at a later EM-2 CDR.

If everything continues according to schedule, the crew module pressure vessel will be sent to Kennedy Space Center’s Operations and Checkout Facility located in Florida early next year (2016).

Upon its arrival, the spacecraft’s components will undergo final assembly, integration, and testing so it can be readied for its maiden flight atop SLS. The EM-1 mission should see Orion fly to a lunar distant retrograde orbit (a wide orbit around the Moon).

After it has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, some 20 days after it has lifted off from KSC, it will mark the first time that a human-rated vessel has traveled to the distant locale – in more than four decades. If successful, the mission would serve to validate both SLS and Orion for their next objective – sending crews to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO). NASA has not attempted to send astronauts beyond LEO since December of 1972 during the final flight of the Apollo Program – Apollo 17.

“This is an exciting time for Orion,” Kirasich said. “We are making strong progress manufacturing the Exploration Mission-1 Orion vehicle. Our dedicated team is making human space exploration a reality.”



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments


interesting, maybe this will pave the way for humans to one day become a truly space faring civilization. And on that day it is hoped that all the petty squabbles here on Earth would subside.

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