Spaceflight Insider

As NASA’s Orion spacecraft reaches milestone, first crewed flight could slip

Orion Command Service Module in orbit above Earth NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider - Copy

Image Credit: NASA

NASA has passed another crucial step to launching astronauts beyond the orbit of Earth. Engineers have completed a review of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Module (MPCM) which will be the first mission designed to take humans into deep space. The review, known as the Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), included all technological advancements of the Orion Program. However, the first crewed flight of the craft might have to wait a while longer.

NASA Kennedy Space Center Orion spacecraft Lockheed Martin photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

A number of systems critical in terms of supporting astronauts on Orion still need to be integrated with the spacecraft. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Since the announcement of the crewed vessel in 2011, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said Orion is “a piece of the flexible architecture that will enable humanity to set foot on the Red Planet”. Bolden also noted that, despite the timeline of building the MPCV, NASA is “committed to building the spacecraft and other elements necessary to make this a reality”.

So far, Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) has been the only test flight of the capsule; that flight took place in December 2014 aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.

EFT-1 provided engineers with data to identify risks of traveling in deep space. The Orion Program will cost NASA $6.77 billion from October 2015 through to its  first crewed mission Exploration Mission-2, which is now slated to be launched with a crew no later that April 2023. Prior to a teleconference held on Wednesday, Sept. 16, NASA had planned to send that mission aloft in 2021.

According to a report appearing on SpaceFlight Now, NASA now hopes to fly the first Orion spacecraft with astronauts “no later than April 2023”.

EM-2 will require that the Orion capsule be fully integrated with the environmental control and life support systems controls, and communications designed specifically for human operation and advanced launch and re-entry space suits for the crew. As SpaceFlight Insider noted in an earlier article, NASA is looking at re-purposing ACES spacesuits from the shuttle era for this purpose.

Sharing the idea with Administrator Bolden that Orion will launch by this new date, NASA’s Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot spoke candidly about the Agency’s commitment to launching its own astronauts to space.

NASA Apollo Program Saturn V Moon rocket Kennedy Space Center Florida photo credit Retro Space Images NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA has not sent crews beyond low-Earth orbit since the end of the Apollo Program in 1972. Photo Credit: NASA / Retro Space Images

“As we take these steps to develop the capabilities we need to send astronauts deep into space, we’re also aligning how we manage our human exploration systems development programs to ensure we are prepared for unforeseen future hurdles,” Lightfoot said, noting that he believes the agency has a 70 percent chance of accomplishing this goal under NASA policy.

Orion engineers are now conducting another review of the engineering design and technical progress of the vehicle. This critical design review (CDR) will determine if Orion is ready for a full-scale “fabrication, assembly, integration, and testing”. The first components of the new Orion capsule were placed together at NASA’s Michoud Facility in New Orleans earlier this month.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations echoed his colleague’s confidence about the status of the Program.

“The team will keep working toward an earlier readiness date for a test crewed flight, but will be ready no later than April 2023, and we will keep the spacecraft, rocket and ground systems moving at their own best possible paces,” Gerstenmaier stated.

Orion will complete its CDR throughout the course of the next year, including a series of parachute tests and the completion of the welding of the crewed pressure vessel. Engineers continue to prepare for Orion’s launch aboard the Space Launch System, NASA’s first rocket built to send crews beyond Earth’s orbit since the launch of a Saturn V for Apollo 17 in 1972.

The unmanned Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) is tentatively set to be launched in the Fall of 2018.


Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.

Reader Comments

If Congress wants this SLS/Orion system, then, they(the key republican & democratic Senators & Representatives need to increase NASA’s budget by at least $3 billion/yr from $18 to $21 billion.

Eugenio Arpayoglou

The caption below is not entirely correct:
“NASA has been unable to send crews beyond Earth orbit since the last flight of the Apollo Program in 1972.”
The last Apollo Moon mission (Apollo 17) was the last to leave LEO in 1972. However, The last Apollo mission was Apollo/Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

The caption is correct. Beyond Earth orbit means in the influence of another body. Like the moon.

Americans? They were explorers.

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