MIChoudt, La.—Look at NASA’s high-profile Orion spacecraft and you might get a funny sense of familiarity. While the modern crew vehicle recently made its big screen debut in the Oscar nominee the Martian, any lingering deja vu is probably coming from a different place. With the Orion module, there is more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor – the one from the Apollo program.
“To the untrained eye, it looks pretty much the same,” said Jim Bray, director of the Orion Crew Module at Lockheed Martin. Bray has been working and thinking about Orion since he helped Lockheed win the contract in 2006, and even he can admit it’s “very like Apollo.”
“But,” he says, “this is completely different.”
When NASA successfully launched Orion in December 2014, it was the first time since Apollo that the organization was attempting to deploy a spacecraft designed for manned missions beyond low Earth orbit. That meant a gap of more than 40 years. However, the Apollo program had a unique vehicle for a unique destination. “It was made to go to the moon and only to the moon,” notes Bray. When Orion launches next – another uncrewed launch is planned for 2018 (Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1) with the first crewed mission currently pegged for the early 2020s (EM-2) – there won’t be the same precedent .
“Orion’s requirements are set to allow us to go to a lot of places that aren’t pre-selected,” Bray tells Ars. “We’re pushing the boundaries even further. We’re going to the moon, beyond the moon, and we’ll be in orbit farther out than any human spacecraft has ever been.”
|stat||Apollo 8 CSM||Orion EM-2|
|CM height||10′ 7″||10′ 10″|
|CM Diameter||12′ 10″||16′ 5″|
|cm habitable volume||210 feet^3||314 feet^3|
|CM launch weight||12,392 lbs||22,900 lbs|
In that light, the appearance of the Orion module is, of course, quite deceptive. It has subtle upgrades like a temperature-regulating coating and solar panels for power instead of fuel cells (see Lockheed’s explainer page for more details). Orion’s module is also 50 percent larger compared to Apollo. There will be room for four crew members instead of three, and each individual will have noticeably more habitable volume (78.5 ft^3 per person compared to 70ft^3). For example, Apollo 8 did not have room for a galley and waste management system. That is a luxury that will be afforded to those in Orion.
Bray notes that the Orion spacecraft will also be 100 percent heavier on landing because of the system redundancies, an important upgrade for NASA’s next round of human spaceflights. “It’s light years ahead of what they had in Apollo,” says Bray. “In fact, some of the critical failure modes for Apollo — if one of their engines didn’t fire, they didn’t come home. In the case of Orion, we have a redundant set of engines. If one set fails, another set will have a back -up of it. Redundancy is crucial here.” While previous shuttles stayed about 220 nautical miles from Earth, this type of design will allow Orion to go thousands or hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth — with larger crews for longer periods of time.
All this grandiose hardware, like almost all NASA equipment, recently passed through the greater New Orleans area. Orion took direct advantage of the Michoud Assembly Facility’s unique, precise tooling, and the spacecraft features some of the site’s signature welds. When Ars visited the Michoud in late 2015, we were able to see both the Orion pathfinder (essentially a highly detailed mockup used solely for testing) and early fabrication work on the Orion flight item.
This is NASA’s extreme mindset on technical redundancy. Bray notes that the pathfinder will allow Lockheed and NASA to test every detail between the manufacturing processes and the hardware itself “so we know when we do the flight item, everything is working as planned.” It’s a definite upgrade from how things were done before. With the shuttle program, Bray says, the system was launched for the first time with humans on board (“It’s incredibly risky,” he emphasizes in case it wasn’t obvious).
Since our trip, the Orion crew module’s pressure vessel left the site and ventured to the nearby Kennedy Space Center. It’s now undergoing more testing and processing so it can work its way atop the Space Launch System for that 2018 goal. But in the meantime, more work continues at Michoud, and eventually the site will have a hand in all three phases of Orion: the crew module, the service module, and the launch abort system. (While European space agencies helped create the service module, there are also elements of Michoud).
“You don’t think of New Orleans as a high-tech community,” says Bray. “But this is as high-tech as it gets.”
This video is part three of our four-part series on the Michoud Assembly Facility and how NASA’s grand ambitions are coming true today.
Frame image by Jennifer Hahn