Spaceflight Insider

Orion, EFT-1 and the future of U.S. human spaceflight

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

The first flight of NASA's new crew-rated spacecraft, Orion, is currently scheduled to take place on Dec. 4. Liftoff will be from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin / NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla – In 2011, NASA retired its fleet of space shuttle orbiters. The spacecraft that had ferried crews into the black for three decades – were now relegated to monuments in museums and tourist destinations. The space agency then focused its crewed space exploration efforts on its new vessel – Orion. Why did NASA decide to go back to a capsule-based design? What is the purpose and capabilities of this craft – and why is it called Orion? The answers – are as fascinating as the spacecraft’s future missions.

This engineering model shows a view (with call-outs) of components of the Orion crew exploration vehicle separated. From the bottom left to top right are the spacecraft adapter, service module, crew module and launch abort system. Image Credit: NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

An exploded view of what appears to be the 607 version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Image Credit: NASA

In 2003 space shuttle Columbia was lost, and along with her – the seven crew members of STS-107. Missions to carve endless orbits above the Earth had long since ceased to capture the public’s imagination and the agency as well as officials within the U.S. government realized that not only was there a lack of direction at NASA – but the program of record, the space shuttle, had already cost the lives of 14 astronauts – and almost half the orbiters that had been produced.

In 2004, then-President George W. Bush announced that NASA would have a new program – Constellation – and its purpose would be to release NASA from the shackles of low-Earth orbit or “LEO” and allow them to get back to the business they were meant for – exploration.

What’s in a Name?

The Constellation Program had a number of so-called legacy systems that would be used to carry out the missions to the: “Moon, Mars and Beyond” (the program’s mantra). These included the Ares I and Ares V boosters as well as the Crew Exploration Vehicle or “CEV.”

In 2006 NASA astronaut Jeff Williams accidentally unveiled (NASA had planned to reveal the name a few days later than Williams’ announcement) the name of the spacecraft during his stint on board the International Space Station – Orion. The vessel’s name comes from the fact that Orion – is a constellation – thus making it an apt name for an element of the Constellation Program.


In 2010 NASA was well on its way to carrying out the development and implementation of the program. It had launched the Ares I-X rocket and it had begun renovating facilities at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Some $9 billion had been spent when it was announced that the Obama Administration had decided to cancel the program.

A test model of the Orion spacecraft with its parachutes was tested high above the skies over Arizona on Feb. 29. This particular drop test examined the wake – or the disturbance of the air flow behind Orion – that is caused by the spacecraft. This was the latest in a series of parachute drop tests conducted by NASA at the U.S. Army’s Proving Grounds in Yuma, Ariz.  Photo credit: NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

A number of “drop tests” have been conducted above White Sands, New Mexico. These tests were carried out to validate the design of Orion’s parachute system. Photo Credit: NASA

This appeared to run contrary to President Obama’s statement on the campaign trail – and drew the ire of Senate. Obama visited Kennedy Space Center in April of 2010 – and stated that Orion would survive. The U.S. leader’s statements of a mission to an asteroid, perhaps Mars in the 2030s and a lack of detail on the new status of Orion – caused many to be concern.

It was now unclear if Orion, who would now only be a lifeboat, would be one-of-a-kind, several vehicles or something else. The Senate had enough of vague, contradictory statements and stepped in. Orion would survive – and it would be given a new purpose – its original one.

While the Ares I crew-rated vehicle was cancelled, the Ares V launch vehicle –would, in a different form, return. Known as the Space Launch System or “SLS” – this new booster would evolve from the 70 metric ton variety – to one capable of hoisting 130 metric tons to orbit. There would be another change – Orion would use SLS for its ride to orbit (whereas on Constellation Orion would ride the much-smaller Ares I aloft).

Ares-1_Orion_launch_Kennedy Space Center NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Plans to launch Orion atop the Ares I booster were scrapped when in 2010, almost all aspects of the Constellation Program were cancelled. Image Credit: NASA

Orion was now described as the vehicle that would allow crews to travel to an asteroid and Mars. This is inaccurate as even for a mission to an asteroid that had been towed to lunar orbit – other components would be required. For a journey to the Red Planet – the craft would merely serve as a means to LEO – and back home through Earth’s atmosphere.

When Orion lifts of atop SLS, a mission dubbed Exploration Mission 1 or “EM-1” – it will do so using a service module provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) which was built by Airbus Defence and Space. This international cooperation could be a sign of things to come. If so, Orion will be a multi-national program – thus making its long-term survival far more likely.

By the numbers

Orion at PHSF Kennedy Space Center NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider - Copy

Lockheed Martin, NASA and United Launch Alliance are just some of the contractors and organizations involved with the EFT-1 mission. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA’s Mark Geyer detailed how Orion is designed to support a crew of four for 21 days. The spacecraft is designed to be versatile, and is capable of supporting larger crews for shorter periods.

The craft stands some 11 feet (3 meters) tall, has a diameter of approximately 16.5 feet (5 meters). With a total mass of 46,848 lbs (21,250 kg) and a habitable volume of 316 cubic feet (8.95 m) – Orion is far larger than the Apollo Command and Service Module that delivered six crews to the surface of the Moon in the late 60s and early 70s.

“To me the volume is a big part of Orion and its flexibility to be able to do a lot of different missions. We can max the system out with four crew members flying a 21-day mission. That’s four people with their suits, food, all that kind of stuff and some minimal exercise that they could do for 21 days – that basically decides the volume that you see,” said NASA’s Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer.

Apollo was only capable of supporting a crew of 3 for about two weeks and had a habitable volume of about 218 feet (6.2 m) with a launch mass of some 32,390 lbs (14,690 kg). All total, Orion has about one-and-a-half times the volume that the Apollo spacecraft did.

Early concepts had Orion touching down on land, much like Russia’s Progress spacecraft. If followed through on, Orion would have touched down somewhere along the United States’ West Coast and would have employed airbags for the final portion of descent. It was later decided that, like Apollo, Orion would splash down in the ocean.

The CEV version of Orion was supposed to fly in 2012 and it would use liquid methane as fuel. As the vessel’s design and the political winds changed – it was decided that Orion would use more-conventional hypergolic fuels.

While designed to support crews for periods of about three weeks, the spacecraft can remain in a sort of hibernation mode for periods of up to six months.

Although outwardly similar to Apollo, Orion is of a far-more advanced design. Although Orion is constructed by Lockheed Martin, its “glass cockpit” with its digital control systems – is based off of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner commercial aircraft.

Orion departed the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building for the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) on Sept. 11, 2014. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

The Command Module section of Orion is comprised of an Aluminum / Lithium (Al/Li) alloy that was used on the space shuttles’ external tank.

Those producing the spacecraft have stated that Orion will be more than 10 times safer on both ascent and reentry than the shuttles. The first proof of this – is only a few days away.

Exploration Flight Test 1

Orion Delta IV Heavy Exploration Flight Test EFT-1 United Launch Alliance ULA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: United Launch Alliance

For Exploration Flight Test 1, Lockheed Martin, in conjunction with United Launch Alliance and NASA will send Orion to orbit atop the massive Delta IV Heavy rocket. Scheduled to lift of from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’ Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) the booster, burning

It costs an estimated $375 million every time ULA unleashes one of these massive launch vehicles. The Heavy variant of the Delta IV family of boosters has the capacity to launch some 63,470 lbs (28, 790 kg) to LEO and 31,350 lbs (14,220 kg) to a geostationary transfer orbit (GEO).

The Delta IV Heavy has only flown 7 times; six of those were successful with the remaining mission being dubbed a partial failure.

The Delta IV employs three of the Common Booster Cores which are used on the Medium variant of the rocket. The Heavy variant first took to the skies in December of 2004. The booster will utilize three RS-68 rocket engines in its first stage. These engines, produced by Aerojet Rocketdyne use liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and are capable of producing 660,000 lbf (2,950 kilonewtons) of thrust – each.

Orion was cleared to conduct EFT-1 by a Flight Readiness Review board on Oct. 30, 2014. With this milestone complete – Orion was now poised for integration atop the Delta IV Heavy booster.

United Launch Alliance ULA Delta IV Heavy Exploration Flight Test 1 EFT-1 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 37 photo credit Mike Howard SpaceFlight Insider

The three common booster cores that comprise the Delta IV Heavy were moved out to the pad this past October. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

Into the Black

EFT-1 will see Orion circle the Earth twice with its apogee (the point furthest from Earth) some 3,600 miles distant. Once it has completed this – the real test begins.

Screaming in at an astonishing 20,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield will be put through the ultimate test. The “business end” of the shield will use an ablative material, made of fiberglass which is designed to burn away – and in so doing – carry the heat (temperatures are expected to reach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit on the base of the spacecraft).

NASA Lockheed Martin Orion Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 37 SLC-37 ULA United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket photo credit Michael Seeley SpaceFlight Insider

Orion arrives at SLC-37 in preparation for its two-orbit mission. Photo Credit: Michael Seeley / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA selected the material, Avcoat as the material which would make up the spacecraft’s heat shield. Made up of silica fibers encased in a fiberglass and phenolic resin – the material was used on both the Apollo and Shuttle Programs.

The outer skin of Orion will employ a series of “tiles” somewhat similar to what was used on the space shuttle.

When Orion takes to the skies it will test out an array of systems and program elements that include the craft’s avionics, separation events, parachutes, recovery shield and the craft’s most critical component – its heat shield.

In many ways, EFT-1 is very similar to the flight of Apollo 4 that the space agency carried out in 1967. Unlike Apollo 4, EFT-1 will not be an “all-up” flight of the full stack of the Saturn V and Apollo Command and Service spacecraft. Instead, NASA had decided to conduct this test flight in advanced to Exploration Mission 1 or “EM-1.” EM-1 will, in terms of its core components – will visually resemble Apollo 4 very closely, with Orion stacked atop SLS and launching into the black.

It is there, however, that the similarities end. EM-1 will see Orion travel much further out that its predecessor will on Dec. 4. EM-1, currently scheduled to fly in 2018, the flight will see Orion go much further than 3,600 miles out. EM-1 will fly to cislunar space, in the gravitational influence of the Moon. When the Orion that carries out that mission splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, it will mark the end of a long, winding road that began some 14 years earlier – and it could herald a new era in human spaceflight.

“I really can’t compare this to my experiences on shuttle. This is a spacecraft tasked with exploration and it has a different role than shuttle did,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in 2013. “I think both Bob (Cabana) and John (Grunsfeld) would also offer different views than the ones I had as Bob is a former test pilot and John was inside the Hubble Space Telescope. I can say that it is an impressive vehicle and we are all very proud of it.”

A recent report appearing on has detailed how the first mission for Orion, known as the Asteroid Retrieval or “ARM” mission – is unlikely to occur prior to 2024. Earlier dates had this mission taking place in the 2021-2022 time frame. For the ARM mission, an asteroid will be towed into lunar orbit and astronauts will then journey to it via the SLS / Orion system.

There is not much information regarding what would be the follow-on for ARM, but NASA has stated repeatedly that the space agency is planning on using Orion for the first crewed mission to Mars. At present, the tentative date for this historic voyage is sometime in the 2030s.

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider

 This article was edited on Dec. 1 at 12:14 p.m. EDT to correct a numerical error

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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

Daniel Wisehart

Do I understand correctly that after EFT-1 the next flight for Orion will be EM-1 in 2018? Or will there be other flights in between?

There is an abort test after the 2018 (2019) test and then the first crew flight 2024 (2025). NASA is thinking up some types of non-Orion flights to fill the huge gaps (but have no funding).

Good overall review of the post-Shuttle Orion program. But please Jason take a little time to proof read your article before you post it. This article has so many writing errors and factual errors that it was hard to read. Look it over….how did you calculate your conclusion that the internal volume of the Orion capsule is “two-and-a-half times” the volume of the Apollo capsule (218cu.ft. vs. 316cu.ft.)? I calculate it at one-and-a-half times.


About the Constellation program – you missed out some important facts such as for every year of the program – the implementation date, got pushed out one year. Then there was the Augustine Commission that stated, even if there were no more development costs – NASA could not afford fly the Ares I and Ares V due to the expense – in other words they cost too much. Since you touched on SLS, why did you not mention the annual flight and the cost? How many flights are we going to see of Orion between now and the mid 20s? I think two flights in 10 years. That should say something about the system. If I drove a car once in 5 years – maybe I should be thinking of another piece/way of transportation. When is the first crewed mission?

One of the complaints I have seen throughout the web is the apparent snail’s pace of Orion development and its rate of test flights especially when compared to Apollo. While the knee jerk reaction of many seems to be blaming NASA bureaucracy for this, the *REAL* culprit is funding, plain and simple. At its peak in FY1966, the Apollo program got $22 billion in today’s money (compared to the total NASA budget of $33 billion in FY1966). The Orion/SLS program got less than $3 billion this past year out of a total NASA budget of less than $18 billion. With such an anemic funding level, it is amazing that NASA in general and Orion in particular are making any progress at all!!!

In a strange coincidence of history, this first Orion test flight will be launched from the same launch complex (SLC-37) that was used a half a century ago to launch the first Apollo test flights into orbit. Hopefully the luck of those test flights (8 launches with no failures) will rub off on Orion.

NASA has plenty of money, they just don’t use it properly. They need to stop spending so much on global warming propaganda and get back to space flight.

It is one of NASA’a central missions to study and monitor the Earth and its environment. What you incorrectly label “propaganda” is NASA doing its job.

NASA does *NOT* have plenty of money!!! Go back and read my comments about the anemic funding level of Orion compared to Apollo.

If Orion is the future of US human spaceflight then the US has little to look forward to as it is so expensive there will be few missions and not much accomplished. It would be much better to follow the COTS route and get an affordable spacecraft that you could launch more often than once every 4 years.

Warshawski, stop criticizing SLS, we know your agenda of promoting spacex

My agenda is a dynamic, active process of exploring and exploiting space. SLS is a megaton weight dragging down the future, just as does the shuttle and ISS. SpaceX is actually trying to create the future, rather than fattening defense contractors.

I am not a fan of SLS (it’s a pork laden dead end) nor was I keen supporter of the Space Shuttle (it never delivered as promised 40 years ago and work should have started on a replacement in the 1980s) and I certainly am not a fan of the lack of real competition in American space industry (and therefore support the entry of SpaceX and others into the marketplace). But in the end, the job of SpaceX or any other business is to maximize return for its investors… period. This idea that commercial companies like SpaceX are going to replace NASA in the exploration of the solar system and the universe beyond is simply fantasy since these sort of activities are too risky and have very uncertain long-term ROIs for any sane commercial entity. NASA’s primary problem is the lack of vision of our elected leaders and a lack of proper funding to achieve its mandate.

Andrew, you are stating your assumption as if it were a conclusion.
SpaceX’s investors are quite happy with the performance if spacex and fully support the interplanetary goals. They are carefully designing each step of the way to be profitable. SpaceX explicitly expects to dominate transport in both LEO, and thoughout the solar system. They are investing vast sums in the Raptor/BFR system and expect to make money doing it.

They are not assumptions. These are statements of belief (Re: my feelings about SLS, the Space Shuttle, etc.) and statements of facts (Re: the basic principles of a successful business). While SpaceX or any other commercial entity can certainly take on routine operations in LEO and beyond, they can only do so if there is a ROI at a level of risk that pleases their investors. We will not be seeing SpaceX or other commercial companies launch scientific missions to the planets, land on a comet, build the next space telescope, set up the next gen metsat constellation, and a thousand other things that NASA does because there is no profit in it. If you want to believe otherwise, feel free to invest your own money accordingly.

Right on Andrew.
Space x pumps out a lot of hype that there gonna do this and that. But as you state, there’s no profit in certain types of exploration and this is where NASA will pave the way. I’m not saying NASA is this or that and so great. They have their problems as well, but as the educated know, the only way to pave this path is through NASA/government funded missions as SLS will eventually accomplish. May not as quick as we would like, because it is expensive, but well worth the investment.
And contrary to what the xer’s believe, there is tremendous support behind SLS. Every Hotel/Motel in the central Florida area is sold out for this launch.

I won’t repeat myself, Tom, as you have here. I will just give a pointer to our other discussion: and summarize my point as “privately funded space ventures are good.”

Spacex gets paid for their missions thru NASA which also comes from the tax payer

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