Jennifer Hahn
Off World

The Next Era of Human Spaceflight: NASA’s Colossal Orion Capsule Passes Critical Review

This is the first time since Apollo that NASA will conduct manned space missions. And the craft is simply amazing.

Looks that are deceiving

At first glance, the crew module of NASA’s Orion spacecraft looks a lot like the iconic Apollo command module. Same shape, look, and profile. But that’s just about it.

The Orion, which will have its first manned test by 2021-2023, has a bigger module than Apollo; it is taller, wider, and heavier. Its space is 50% larger, and it can accommodate four crew members  instead of Apollo’s three, and the crew will have more leg room. There will also be a galley and a waste management system in Orion, which was not present in Apollo.

Different upgrades were also given to Orion.

Instead of fuel cells, Orion will run on solar. Environmental control systems will protect astronauts from extreme temperature changes, sounds, and vibration. Orion will also feature radiation protection, due to increased radiation on Mars. Finally, the computers, electronics, life support, and propulsion in Orion will reflect new discoveries from those used in Apollo. 

Credit: NASA

To infinity and beyond

But one of the biggest upgrades in Orion will be the built-in redundancies. Engines and other critical systems will have multiple redundancies in case of failure. The original Apollo had little redundancies, like if one of the engines didn’t light, it wasn’t coming home.

The multiple redundancies reflect another key difference from Apollo: Destination.

Apollo was built specifically to go to the Moon. It was designed and built for that purpose. But Orion has no fixed destination; Mars is definitely on the list, but the craft is built for  thousands or hundreds of thousands of miles away from Earth—with larger crews for longer duration.

Orion represents the first time since Apollo that NASA will conduct manned space missions. The craft is made of three modules, two of which are being made by Lockheed, and the service module made by the European Space Agency and Airbus.

And we are well on our way to launch. The teams that will process NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and next generation Orion capsule at the Kennedy Space Center just successfully completed a painstaking review of the plans by top agency managers as well as an independent team of aerospace experts. Orion will have its next unmanned test launch in 2018.

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