NASA's Orion spacecraft passes key review
NASA's Orion spacecrafthas overcome its latest hurdle on the road to becoming human-rated,with the completion of a technical and programmatic review (TPR).Once finished, Orion will be the first spacecraft designed to allowastronauts to operate beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) since the Apolloprogram. Eventually, NASA envisions using the capsule as a keycomponent in the planned asteroid redirect mission, and the ongoingendeavor to one day put a man on Mars.
In December last year,the spacecraft undertook its first mission, dubbed Exploration FlightTest-1 (EFT-1). The outing saw the spacecraft shunted to a distanceof 3,600 miles (5,794 km) with the objective of forcing a punishingre-entry velocity akin to the speeds that could be expected of aspacecraft returning from beyond LEO. The TPR was the next step inthe capsule's developmental journey – a rigorous assessment that hadto be undertaken before embarking on further testing flights.
The TPR is split intotwo parts, a technical review, and a general programmatic review. Thefirst section of the assessment focused on the technologicalfeasibility/risks of the spacecraft, while the programmatic sectionrelated to aspects such as cost and the launch schedule.
The successfulcompletion of the review has resulted in what the agency calls KeyDecision Point C (KDP-C), which essentially represents NASA's ongoingsupport for the ambitious program. To date, the next-gen spacecrafthas accrued US$4.7 billion in development costs, and by progressingto KDP-C, the project has secured a further $6.77 billion in funding.This sum will support the program from October this year to thespacecraft's first manned launch, EM-2, which has been given a launchwindow running from 2021 - 2023 as a contingency.
EM-1, which is slatedfor launch in late 2018, will see an Orion capsule fitted with an ESA-made service module and launched into space atop NASA's Space LaunchSystem (SLS). The new launch vehicle, which has just completed itsown Critical Design Review (CDR), will push the spacecraft into arecord-breaking distant retrograde orbit with an apogee of 275,000miles (442,570 km).
Themission, which is set to last 22 days, will test a myriad oftechnologies including navigation, communication, the supportmodule's burn capabilities, and the all-important life-support systemahead of Orion's manned EM-2 test.
Thesecond exploration mission will assess the crew interfaces (displaysand controls), advanced spacesuits, and of course the capsule's ability to keep a crewalive beyond LEO. EM-3 will see the spacecraft undertake a morecomplicated test, such as an automated rendezvous on the far side ofthe Moon, pushing both machine and crew to the edges of the provingprogram.
Duringthe teleconference, the NASA panel members were keen to point out that thelaunch of Orion's next mission could well be delayed. This is due toan analysis of the spacecraft's previous EFT-1 outing, whichhighlighted various technologies that require updating prior to thenext launch. Innovating new solutions to the risks posed toastronauts operating beyond LEO will inevitably lead to as of yetunknown complications with the potential to waylay the endeavor.
It is worth noting thata delay to EM-1 may not impact the timeline for EM-2, as the Orionteam could simply opt to use the time to prepare and evaluate morecritical systems in the next outing, reducing the testing burden, andtherefore preparation time for EM-2.
With its latest hurdlein the rear-view mirror, Orion is now being subjected to a stringentCDR. Once complete, NASA will announce finalized dates for the threeplanned exploration missions, heralding an exciting new period inspace exploration.