Orion, EFT-1 and the future of U.S. human spaceflight
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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 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 NASASpaceFlight.com 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
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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.