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NASA signs off on Mars-bound Orion spacecraft: All systems go for December test flight

Orion spacecraft, in space (render)

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NASA has announced that it has finished construction of the first Orion spacecraft. Orion, which is scheduled to take its first test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket on December 4, will be the first spacecraft to have the capability to take humans into deep space beyond the Moon, to land on asteroids, Mars, and who knows what else.

Orion — or the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to give its full name — has been in development for a long time. It started life as part of the Constellation program, but has been through various permutations following budget cuts, requirements revisions, and the eventual axing of the Constellation program by the Obama administration. The Orion spacecraft consists of two main parts — a crew module and a service module — that are both heavily inspired by the respective modules from the 1960s and ’70s Apollo program.

Exploded view of the Orion spacecraft

Exploded view of the Orion spacecraft. You can see how closely some of the parts resemble Apollo.

Given that the Apollo spacecraft was the last time we sent humans to another world, it does actually make sense to use it as a starting point for Orion — but don’t worry, Orion is a lot bigger than Apollo, and it will certainly have a much faster CPU than the 2MHz Apollo Guidance Computer. While Apollo was only capable of carrying three astronauts, Orion will have a max capacity of six. The crew module will be pretty advanced, too, with a “glass cockpit” (i.e. digital displays and touchscreens), and a variety of other high-tech computers and features, such as “autodocking” to help with missions to the International Space Station.

Amusingly enough, just as Orion is based heavily on Apollo, the rocket that will launch it — the Space Launch System — borrows heavily from the Space Shuttle. Basically, Orion was meant to launch atop a brand new Ares I rocket — but in the interests of expenditure and brevity (it takes a long time to build and test a new rocket), the US government decided it would be a better idea to reuse proven technologies. In any case, the SLS has more than enough thrust to lift the Orion spacecraft, and then give it a push into deep space towards the Moon, Mars, or just about anywhere else in the Solar System.

Test firing of the Orion jettison rocket, which will fire in the case of a failed launch

Test firing of the Orion jettison rocket, which will fire in the case of a failed launch (the launch abort system)

The completed Orion spacecraft, covered by fairings

The completed Orion spacecraft, covered by fairings (sitting on top of a Delta IV rocket, I believe).

With NASA’s completion of the first Orion spacecraft — which was built under contract by Lockheed Martin — it’s now time for the first flight. If all goes to plan, EFT-1 (Exploration Flight Test) will launch from Cape Canaveral on December 4. A Delta IV Heavy rocket will send an (uncrewed) Orion on a four-and-a-half-hour flight, orbiting Earth twice and reaching an altitude of around 3,600 miles (5,800 km). The high altitude is important as it’ll allow the spacecraft to hit the atmosphere at around 20,000 mph, which is vital for adequate testing of the heat shield.

After the December test flight, there’ll be a long pause until the Space Launch System is ready to go, and then another uncrewed mission in 2017 that will send Orion around the far side of the Moon. Finally, in or around 2021, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) will see a crewed Orion spacecraft rendezvous with a captured asteroid in lunar orbit. With all the recent interest in sending manned missions to Mars, it’ll be interesting to see if NASA will be the first one there, or whether a private company like SpaceX or Mars One will beat it to the punch. It sure would be exciting, and rather surprising, if a commercial company beats the world’s richest and most powerful country to Mars.

Now read: SpaceX says it will put humans on Mars by 2026, almost 10 years ahead of NASA

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