NASA Next Gen Spacecraft Unveiled

On October 11, 2010 President Barack Obama canceled NASA’s Constellation Program. The program aim was to develop the means to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and later to the Moon, and Mars. Five months after it was canceled. Orion – the crew unit of the program developed by Lockheed Martin, seems very much alive.
The first Orion crew module
ground test structure
stands ready for inspection (Credit: LM)

The Orion spacecraft was originally announced by President George W. Bush in 2004 as a unique Crew Exploration Vehicle similar in some respects to the original Apollo Command Module which landed on the moon in 1969. The Orion was planned to be almost 4 times as heavy as Apollo (almost 25 tons compared to 5.8 of the Apollo) and have 2.5x as much volume inside. Like the Apollo, Orion will land at sea – a capability which was already tested.

On March 21, 2011 Lockheed Martin unveiled the first Orion spacecraft and Space Operations Simulation Center (SOSC). The two projects, located at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Facility near Denver, Colorado, are two important steps in the continued development of the program. According to Lockheed, Orion’s first orbital flight test will take place in 2013. The spaceship will conduct high-altitude orbits and a high-energy reentry that will simulate the environments of a deep space missions.
The original Constellation Program was a $100 billion venture canceled by President Obama who decided to rearrange NASA’s priorities to focus on deep space missions. The Orion was one of the only parts of the original Constellation Program that survived the cancelation. It was originally intended to serve as an escape vehicle for the International Space Station but as the months went by it seems that NASA, together with Lockheed Martin, reinvented the Orion as a multi-purpose spacecraft that can serve as both an escape capsule for the ISS, a resupply spacecraft and a future deep space explorer (Lockheed was talking about asteroids, Lagrange Points for starters and eventually even Mars).
A lot of time, money, and knowledge were spend over the past 7 years developing Orion, and although NASA would not admit it publicly, throwing it all away for a measly escape vehicle for the ISS will be a very bad move for the agency. For that reason it decided to continue the work with Lockheed with slightly less PR than usual. If all goes according to plan, however, the Orion should be ready for operational flight in 2016.

TFOT has reported on another part of the Constellation Program – the Ares I rocket – back in 2008. We also covered other spacecraft propulsion technologies, including an antimatter engine that uses positrons for fuel, a new privately developed lunar lander, an experimental supersonic combustion ramjet or scramjet, and tests of a methane-powered rocket engine.

You can read more on Orion on Lockheed Martin’s website.

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