NASA's Orion spacecraft has 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 allow astronauts to operate beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) since the Apollo program. Eventually, NASA envisions using the capsule as a key component in the planned asteroid redirect mission, and the ongoing endeavor to one day put a man on Mars.

In December last year, the spacecraft undertook its first mission, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1). The outing saw the spacecraft shunted to a distance of 3,600 miles (5,794 km) with the objective of forcing a punishing re-entry velocity akin to the speeds that could be expected of a spacecraft returning from beyond LEO. The TPR was the next step in the capsule's developmental journey – a rigorous assessment that had to be undertaken before embarking on further testing flights.

The TPR is split into two parts, a technical review, and a general programmatic review. The first section of the assessment focused on the technological feasibility/risks of the spacecraft, while the programmatic section related to aspects such as cost and the launch schedule.

The heat damaged Orion capsule used in the EFT-1 mission, pictured at the Kennedy Space Centre(Credit: NASA/Cory Huston)

The successful completion of the review has resulted in what the agency calls Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which essentially represents NASA's ongoing support for the ambitious program. To date, the next-gen spacecraft has accrued US$4.7 billion in development costs, and by progressing to KDP-C, the project has secured a further $6.77 billion in funding. This sum will support the program from October this year to the spacecraft's first manned launch, EM-2, which has been given a launch window running from 2021 - 2023 as a contingency.

EM-1, which is slated for launch in late 2018, will see an Orion capsule fitted with an ESA-made service module and launched into space atop NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). The new launch vehicle, which has just completed its own Critical Design Review (CDR), will push the spacecraft into a record-breaking distant retrograde orbit with an apogee of 275,000 miles (442,570 km).

The mission, which is set to last 22 days, will test a myriad of technologies including navigation, communication, the support module's burn capabilities, and the all-important life-support system ahead of Orion's manned EM-2 test.

Orion's next launch will pair the spacecraft with the Space Launch System, in what will be the rocket's maiden flight(Credit: NASA/MSFC)

The second exploration mission will assess the crew interfaces (displays and controls), advanced spacesuits, and of course the capsule's ability to keep a crew alive beyond LEO. EM-3 will see the spacecraft undertake a more complicated test, such as an automated rendezvous on the far side of the Moon, pushing both machine and crew to the edges of the proving program.

During the teleconference, the NASA panel members were keen to point out that the launch of Orion's next mission could well be delayed. This is due to an analysis of the spacecraft's previous EFT-1 outing, which highlighted various technologies that require updating prior to the next launch. Innovating new solutions to the risks posed to astronauts operating beyond LEO will inevitably lead to as of yet unknown complications with the potential to waylay the endeavor.

It is worth noting that a delay to EM-1 may not impact the timeline for EM-2, as the Orion team could simply opt to use the time to prepare and evaluate more critical systems in the next outing, reducing the testing burden, and therefore preparation time for EM-2.

With its latest hurdle in the rear-view mirror, Orion is now being subjected to a stringent CDR. Once complete, NASA will announce finalized dates for the three planned exploration missions, heralding an exciting new period in space exploration.

Source: NASA

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