Orion Crew Capsule: A Next Step in Human Spaceflight

Orion capsule

How will astronauts get to space in the post-shuttle era? That's the question space fans have been asking ever since the last flight of the space shuttles in 2011. The answer for the short-term has been to use Russian launch capability and Soyuz capsules to launch astronauts from around the world into low-Earth orbit. However, NASA is planning its own methods to get back to space. Ever since former President Bush canceled the shuttle program during his tenure, the U.S. has been without a human launch vehicle. To be fair, the shuttles were an aging fleet, and a replacement craft was needed. The answer today is the Orion capsule.

It looks very much like an old-style Apollo-type capsule, but with 21st-century improvements in comfort, technology, and safety. The Orion will be launched into low-Earth orbit by the space launch system of boosters and will take humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond. It will return home much as the Apollo craft did, and drop into the sea for pickup by recovery crews.

Orion, In-Depth

Depending on mission requirements, an Orion capsule will be able to take astronauts to the space station, where crews do long-duration missions, out to an asteroid, to the Moon, and even to Mars. Since the capsule is much larger than the cramped Apollo capsules, it can carry a larger number of crew members plus the additional supplies they will need for their missions. The design is also more advanced than Apollo, including a cockpit similar to the design of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's. It will be powered by more advanced computers, and its hardware is designed to be updated with the latest technology as it becomes available for space flight.

The capsule is more comfortable for astronauts, with better fittings and improved waste-management facilities. In short, it will be like a very luxurious camping trip and can be configured for both long- and short-duration missions.

Since launch is always a risky business, the Orion developers have created a launch abort system that can rocket the crew module off of the launch stack as soon as a mishap occurs. That system is still being tested while the capsule is still in testing. There are mockups and trainer capsules already in use, as astronauts work with the engineers to design and test every aspect of the system.

The first test flight and recovery of an Orion space vehicle at sea took place in December 2014. It was launched aboard a Delta IV heavy rocket and returned to Earth 4.5 hours later, landing in the Pacific Ocean after making two Earth orbits. It was the first launch of a crew capsule (but without crew members) since the last shuttle flight landed in July 2011.

Testing and configuration continue as the teams work through unexpected technical issues. The first crewed launch of an Orion capsule could happen before 2020, depending on when NASA clears it for safe launch. Eventually, it shouldĀ  take four crew members to lunar orbit. If all goes well, the future plans will include an asteroid mission (subject to budget and NASA approval). That project, which would involve grabbing and placing an asteroid in Earth orbit for further studies, would require other technologies such as solar-electric propulsion motors and would cost at least $2.6 billion dollars. It remains on the drawing boards but is still being actively studied.

Orion Beyond Earth

An 8-month journey to Mars is also in planning, to take place possibly by the end of the 2020s. If that trip does happen, the crew module would be expanded to accommodate astronauts during the long trip out and back. The ideal way to expand it would be to use what's called a Deep Space Habitat (DSH), which would provide more space for the crew, plus enhanced communications and life-support systems. The DSH is still being designed and planned.

Another Mars mission in planning using the Orion capsule would be a trip to Mars that would do what the Apollo missions did in the late 1960s and early 1970s: go there, get samples, come back. In this case, the crew would go to Mars, using a teleoperated robotic system to grab rocks and soil samples, and come back to Earth. A similar style mission has been discussed that could explore Jupiter's moon Io and Saturn's ocean moon Enceladus in the same way. Those are far future missions but hold the promise of finally getting humans out to the outer planets for some in situ exploration.