Space

NASA's Orion spacecraft moves closer to inaugural launch

NASA's Orion spacecraft moves ...
Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft in orbit, having separated from the Delta IV launch vehicle (Image: NASA)
Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft in orbit, having separated from the Delta IV launch vehicle (Image: NASA)
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The Orion crew module has been comprehensively vibration tested to ensure that it could survive the rigors of EFT-1 (Photo: NASA, Daniel Casper)
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The Orion crew module has been comprehensively vibration tested to ensure that it could survive the rigors of EFT-1 (Photo: NASA, Daniel Casper)
Installation of Orion's LAS (Photo: NASA, Cory Huston)
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Installation of Orion's LAS (Photo: NASA, Cory Huston)
A mock Orion capsule is dropped from 35,000 ft (10,668 m) during a parachute drop test in Arizona (Photo: NASA)
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A mock Orion capsule is dropped from 35,000 ft (10,668 m) during a parachute drop test in Arizona (Photo: NASA)
Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft in orbit, having separated from the Delta IV launch vehicle (Image: NASA)
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Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft in orbit, having separated from the Delta IV launch vehicle (Image: NASA)
Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft separating from the upper stage of its Delta IV launch vehicle/jettisoning the service module panels (Image: NASA)
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Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft separating from the upper stage of its Delta IV launch vehicle/jettisoning the service module panels (Image: NASA)
Artist's impression of the Orion crew capsule re-entering Earth's atmosphere (Image: NASA)
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Artist's impression of the Orion crew capsule re-entering Earth's atmosphere (Image: NASA)
Orion's heat shield is made of the same materials as the heat sheild that protected Apollo-era astronauts as they returned from the moon (Photo: NASA)
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Orion's heat shield is made of the same materials as the heat sheild that protected Apollo-era astronauts as they returned from the moon (Photo: NASA)
A mock Orion module being retrieved by the USS Anchorage during a recovery practice mission (Photo: US Navy, Gary Keen)
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A mock Orion module being retrieved by the USS Anchorage during a recovery practice mission (Photo: US Navy, Gary Keen)
NASA plans to use the Orion spacecraft in a mission to capture a near-Earth asteroid (Image: NASA)
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NASA plans to use the Orion spacecraft in a mission to capture a near-Earth asteroid (Image: NASA)
Orion's Delta IV heavy launch vehicle was moved to Complex 37 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, awaiting the December launch (Photo: United Launch Alliance)
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Orion's Delta IV heavy launch vehicle was moved to Complex 37 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, awaiting the December launch (Photo: United Launch Alliance)
The Delta IV rocket configuration is amongst the most powerful launch vehicles available to the agency (Photo: United Launch Alliance)
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The Delta IV rocket configuration is amongst the most powerful launch vehicles available to the agency (Photo: United Launch Alliance)
Artist's impression of NASA's Space Launch System (Image: NASA)
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Artist's impression of NASA's Space Launch System (Image: NASA)

Progress is continuing apace as NASA readies its next-generation Orion spacecraft for her maiden flight, dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), set to blast off Dec. 4 atop a Delta IV heavy launch vehicle. Once operational, Orion will be the first spacecraft built with the capacity to carry out a manned flight beyond low-Earth orbit since the Apollo era, when man first walked on the moon. NASA boasts that Orion will represent the safest and most advanced spacecraft ever created, allowing man to capture an asteroid and in time, even put a man on Mars.

With assembly completed, Sep. 29 Saw Orion's Delta IV rocket moved to Complex 37 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This configuration is one of the most powerful launch vehicles available to the agency, comprised of three massive core stages powered by an RS-68 engine. The rocket will soon be lifted into its vertical launch position, ready to embark on the journey that will see Orion catapulted out of Earth orbit, only to come crashing down four hours and 25 minutes later in a process that will test its atmospheric re-entry capabilities to the extreme.

However, whilst the United Launch Alliance-built rocket will serve as a worthy stand in, it will not be the system relied upon to service Orion when she finally becomes operational. That honor goes to the Space Launch System (SLS), a cutting-edge launch vehicle under development by NASA. The initial configuration of the system will have a lift capacity of 70 metric tons (77 tons), and will generate an impressive 8.4 million lb (3.8 million kg) of thrust.

The spacecraft has already undergone a comprehensive regiment of trials designed to test the tolerances and capabilities of each of Orion's vital systems. Having passed each and every challenge that NASA has seen fit to throw at her, the spacecraft was mated with its ESA-constructed service module. Over the course of a manned mission, the service module will provide the crew with the vital supplies and propulsion capabilities necessary to maneuver, and indeed survive in outer space. The final component of the Orion spacecraft, the all-important Launch Abort System (LAS), was installed on Oct. 6.

Installation of Orion's LAS (Photo: NASA, Cory Huston)
Installation of Orion's LAS (Photo: NASA, Cory Huston)

From a health and safety point of view the Launch Abort System is, by all accounts, quite vital. The system encapsulates the entire crew module, essentially acting as a safety net should any complications arise during the initial launch phase. Once danger is detected, the LAS simply fires its thrusters, carrying the crew out of harm's way in a matter of milliseconds. A failure in this system could potentially lead to a tragedy on the launch pad.

Assuming that there were no issues at launch and Orion reached orbit without incident, the LAS would still boast an alarming capacity to ruin an astronaut's day. This is down to the fact that in an ideal situation, the system is designed to separate from the spacecraft following a successful launch. If, for some reason or another this fails to happen, the LAS will effectively block the deployment of Orion's parachutes once it has re-entered Earth's atmosphere. This would result in a very quick and unpleasant end to a manned mission, so as you can imagine, the LAS will be one to watch during the December proving mission.

With the addition of the LAS, Orion is now considered to be complete. The spacecraft will remain in the launch abort system facility until mid-November, when the finished spacecraft will be mated with the Delta IV launch vehicle.

The following video displays a computer simulation of Orion's maiden test flight.

Source: NASA

Orion: Exploration Flight Test-1 Animation (with narration by Jay Estes)

11 comments
pATREUS
Now THAT's a spaceship. Small, but perfectly formed.
Chizzy
Claims of this craft being able to go to mars is ridiculous. Mars trips are going to require a vehicle near the size of the space station. Even if this waste of money made it to mars with an astronaut still alive after 9 months trapped in a tiny tin can, it couldn't land. No oceans on mars for it to land on. So a vehicle too small to provide cargo space for a trip to mars, unable to land on mars, unable to take off from mars is in no way technology suitable to claim it to be able to go to mars. NASA show me a mars transit vehicle. Show me a mars lander, show me a mars escape vehicle, and ill believe you have a mars program. Until then dont talk to me about mars, talk to me about getting back to the moon with your apollo replica.
Bill Bennett
Yeah Chizzy, agree
Michael Hart
is it just me or is the launch of abort system a bad design idea. as the article states it adds much risk of failure. Also the waste involved need to be considered. Who ever thinks that's a good design idea must have been without oxygen. Keep it simple stupid. The more complicated the design the more chance of failure. SpaceX has a much superior design.
SciFi9000
A deep space vehicle launching from terra firma is fine and dandy, but not at all smart or efficient. All that is needed is fleet of shuttles to get materials up into LEO where the real deep space vehicle can be assembled. The resulting large DSV would then have it's own lander/return vehicle/s for planetery missions. That's EXACTLY what the space shuttle was designed to do. It did just that to construct the space station (quite well I might add)... why a DSV was never assembled while the shuttles were in service boggles my mind.... now, there is a half assed program that compromises everything and achieves nothing. What this world needs is a more cost effective hagh capacity shuttle to get building materials to LEO. Go India or any country that will do this.
flink
@Chizzy, You're a tad negative about this. Apollo wasn't intended to land on the Moon, either. At the first Apollo launch, there was neither a lander nor a moon-capable vehicle available. Consider where we are in the space program and also think about the pittance NASA has to work with. IMHO, I don't think there will be anything like a sci-fi inter-solar capable spacecraft for many decades, if not hundreds of years (provided mankind doesn't slide back to the pre-industrial revolution stage again). The propulsion systems are non-existent. There are many ideas and plenty of experiments in lab settings, but nothing large enough to really drive a ship. The capsule itself is not intended to actually land on Mars. Just as with the Apollo, the crew travel in the capsule and the lander/supplies/etc. travel in a second large component behind the capsule. Any trip to Mars would probably be preceded by several launches (of more Delta's or shuttles?) of equipment modules full of fuel, supplies, and some sort of really cool, semi-rigid inflatable habitat modules. Getting back into space will take some time. Don't be impatient, it'll happen. You're going to need to accept the fact that it just won't happen fast enough for you to go anywhere. Lot's of us have had to deal with that disappointment ;-) For everyone else: Yes, the Orion is probably not "the" system that will make the first trip. A Japanese, Chinese, or commercial mission will more than likely make it there first. NASA and supporters need to push the envelope on marketing this so that they keep their budget. Don't be harsh on them. They want the same thing as the rest of us do, but have to keep their duller political masters happy.
Slowburn
I'll bet Musk gets to deep space and Mars first.
BigGoofyGuy
While I think that is cool, I was hoping for an updated version of the Shuttle. Perhaps a lifting body design? There is a shuttle type aircraft being developed by the Air Force. I think for them to land on Mars (or even the moon again - to have a station as a stepping place to launch to Mars or other planets), they would need a lander like they did for the moon. I think Chizzy made some good points, IMO.
Slowburn
@ BigGoofyGuy NASA did everything in their power to make sure that the winged launch vehicle didn't work.
dugnology
All this for 4 billion. Cut your losses now and concentrate on Space-x's dragon. This is just lobby money. The whole ship is based on updated 1970's technology. The escape tower is almost as dangerous as not having one. The parachute landings in the desert? Why are we copying the Soviet Union? Was this capsule designed to be re-used or do we have to throw each one out or sent them to museums? The last Orion flight was also a huge waste of money. Putting a ship on a 5/4 scale Space Shuttle motor was just insane. That was ATK's lobby money. The current dragon capsule can take a man if he brought his own O2 supply. Dragon II will probably beat this into space with a man in it unless this likely event happens: Nasa or the FAA will not clear Dragon II with a human in it until the CST-100 flies first.