A brief look at Orion’s past
NASA’s newest generation of manned deep space exploration craft called Orion has a really long story that traces back almost 20 years ago, in 2004! It’s curious to think that some of you reading weren’t even born at the time!
Orion was originally conceived for NASA’s Constellation Program that was intended to bring humans to the International Space Station, the Moon, and, ultimately, Mars. Proposed by Lockheed Martin as a proposal for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) was originally designed with a service module featuring a new “Orion Main Engine” and a pair of circular solar panels, the spacecraft was to be launched atop the Ares I rocket.
At that point, NASA had already spent $5 billion on Orion development alone, so in 2010 President Barack Obama decided that it was time to end the entire Constellation Program and requested NASA to focus on other goals.
At this point Orion, also known as the “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle”, was heavily redesigned to be used in NASA’s Journey to Mars initiative, later named “Moon to Mars”. SLS rocket bornt and substituted Ares I as Orion’s primary launch vehicle, forcing it to replace the service module with a design based on the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle.
The team persisted through its development as NASA pivoted program goals yet again, when U.S. President Donald Trump tasked the agency with prioritizing Moon landings over deep space excursions for a planned 2024 landing, a program eventually known as Artemis.
Orion Spacecraft design specifications
With the term “Orion” we’re referring to the entire spacecraft, in simple words “just” one big agglomerate formed by thousand on thousands of components, to be exactly 355,056 individual parts, that can be divided into 3 major groups:
- European Service Module (ESM)
- Crew Module
- Launch Abort System (LAS)
Let’s talk about on at the time!
European Service Module (ESM)
The European Space Agencies (ESA) has designed and is overseeing the development of Orion’s service module, the part of the spacecraft that supplies air, electricity, and propulsion. Much like a train engine pulls passenger carriages and supplies power, the European Service Module will take the Orion capsule to its destination and back.
Located underneath the crew module, it provides critical functions including propulsion, thermal control, and electrical power generated by solar arrays. The service module will also provide life support systems including water, oxygen, and nitrogen for the crew. In addition to its function as the main propulsion system for Orion, it is responsible for orbital maneuvering and position control.
The cylindrical module is unpressurized and about 4 meters (13 feet) high, including the main engine and tanks for gas and propellant, and it’s designed for long-duration missions to deep space destinations.
The crew module is the pressurized part of the Orion spacecraft, sometimes referred to as the capsule, where the crew will live and work on their journey to the Moon and back. The crew module can accommodate four crew members for up to 21 days and provides a safe habitat through launch, on-orbit operations, landing, and recovery.
The crew module contains advances in life support, avionics, power systems, and advanced manufacturing techniques, and is the only portion of Orion that returns to Earth at the end of flights.
“Because astronauts of different sizes will be sent to the Moon in Orion, the display panels and chairs need to work for 99 percent of people,” NASA wrote “that means making the bottom panels of the seats adjustable, and arranging panels so that the smallest or largest of astronauts can reach all the controls.”—NASA: Orion Reference Guide
The first space mission of Orion was Exploration Flight Test-1, also known as EFT-1, in 2014. Orion undergoes a space test for 4.5 hours, orbiting a couple of times the Earth as high as 5,800 km (3,600 miles).
The spacecraft was fitted with about 1,200 sensors to record essential data for future design, such as stress, temperature, pressure, acceleration, and vibration. It also came with ultrawide field cameras to record flight events in high definition. Orion also experienced the inner Van Allen Belt, a zone of radiation trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field. Surviving the radiation here was key for protecting future astronauts, who will need to pass through this zone to make it to the moon.
Launch Abort System (LAS)
Orion’s launch abort system is designed to carry the crew to safety in the event of an emergency during launch or ascent atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. It can activate within milliseconds to pull the vehicle to safety and position the crew module for a safe landing.
The tower-like abort structure is specifically built for deep space missions and to ride on a high-powered rocket. It is positioned with its motors on top of the Orion crew module and designed to pull the crew module away from the rocket, rather than push it away with motors at the base, as some other escape systems are built to do. This design minimizes the mass that aborts in an emergency by leaving the service module behind.
Over the next decade, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts during Artemis missions to the Moon to help prepare for human missions to Mars.
“As we fly, we will learn and adapt the spacecraft to the missions as needed” said Assistant Orion Program Manager Paul Marshall. This could include modifying crew systems or crew interfaces to help astronauts perform future missions as smoothly as possible.
Together, NASA and Lockheed Martin have reduced Orion costs significantly over the years. The spacecraft built for Artemis missions three through five are 50% cheaper than those put together during Orion’s design and development stage, Lockheed Martin representatives said. The three newly ordered capsules will be 30% cheaper still.
“We’re achieving substantial cost savings from Artemis 3 through Artemis 8 by extensive structure and system reuse and incorporating advanced digital design and manufacturing processes.
The Artemis 2 vehicle will reuse select avionics from the Artemis 1 crew module, and that reuse will continue to dramatically increase to where the Artemis 3 pressure vessel capsule will be entirely refurbished for the Artemis 6 mission“—Tonya Ladwig, Orion vice president and program manager at Lockheed Martin Space
Order up! 🛎@NASA has ordered three @NASA_Orion spacecraft to be built by us for the Artemis VI, VII and VIII missions, the next set of exploration-class vehicles that will carry astronauts into deep space. ⬇— Lockheed Martin Space (@LMSpace) October 20, 2022