Orion (spacecraft)

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This article is about NASA's crew vehicle. For other spacecraft and rockets called Orion, see Orion in astronautics.
Orion with Service Module
Role: Beyond LEO spacecraft. [1]
Crew: 0–4[2]
Launch Vehicle: Space Launch System,

Delta IV (Exploration Flight Test 1),

Ares I (cancelled)

Launch date: December 2014 (uncrewed test launch)[3][4]
Height: Approximately 3.3 m (10.83 ft)
Diameter: 5 m (16.5 ft)
Pressurized volume: 19.56 m3 (691 cu ft) [5]
Habitable volume: 8.95 m3 (316 cu ft) [5]
Capsule mass: 8,913 kg (19,650 lb)
Service Module mass: 12,337 kg (27,198 lb)
Total mass: 21,250 kg (46,848 lb)
Service Module propellant mass: 7,907 kg (17,433 lb)
Total delta-v: ~1340 m/s (4,390 ft/s) [2]
Endurance: 21.1 days[6]

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) is a spacecraft intended to carry a crew of up to 4[2] astronauts to destinations beyond-low Earth orbit (LEO). Currently under development by NASA[7] for launch on the Space Launch System,[8] Orion will facilitate human exploration of the Moon, asteroids and Mars.

The MPCV was announced by NASA on May 24, 2011.[9] Its design is based on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle from the cancelled Constellation program.[10] The Orion command module is being built by Lockheed Martin. The Orion Service Module, provided by the European Space Agency,[11][12] is being built by Airbus Defence and Space.

The MPCV's debut uncrewed test flight, known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), is scheduled to be launched aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket on December 4, 2014.[3][4][13] The first crewed mission is expected to take place after 2020.[14]

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Orion CEV[edit]

Orion CEV design as of 2009.

On January 14, 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) as part of the Vision for Space Exploration.[15] The CEV was partly a reaction to the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, the subsequent findings and report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), and the White House's review of the American space program. The CEV effectively replaced the conceptual Orbital Space Plane (OSP), which itself was proposed after the cancellation of the Lockheed Martin X-33 program to produce a replacement for the space shuttle. As the Vision for Space Exploration was developed into the Constellation program under NASA administrator Michael Griffin, the Crew Exploration Vehicle was renamed the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, after the constellation of the same name.[16]

Constellation proposed using the Orion CEV in both crew and cargo variants to support the International Space Station and as a crew vehicle for a return to the Moon. The Apollo-like design included a service module for life support and propulsion and was originally intended to land on solid ground on the US west coast using airbags, but later changed to ocean splashdown.[17] The Orion CEV was to weigh about 25 tons (23 tonnes), less than the 33 ton (30 tonne) Apollo Command/Service Module. The crew module would weigh about 9.8 tons (8.9 tonnes), greater than the equivalent Apollo Command Module at 6.4 tons (5.8 tonnes). With a diameter of 16.5 feet (5 meters) as opposed to 12.8 feet (3.9 meters), it provided 2.5 times greater volume.[18] The service module was originally planned to use liquid methane (LCH4) as its fuel, but switched to hypergolic propellants due to the infancy of oxygen/methane-powered rocket technologies and the goal of launching the Orion CEV by 2012.[19][20]

The Orion CEV design consisted of two main parts: a conical Crew Module (CM) and a cylindrical Service Module (SM) holding the spacecraft's propulsion system and expendable supplies. Both were based substantially on the Apollo Command and Service Modules (Apollo CSM) flown between 1967 and 1975.[21]

The Orion CEV was to be launched on an Ares I rocket to low Earth orbit, where it would rendezvous with the Altair Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM) launched on a heavy-lift Ares V launch vehicle for lunar missions.

Cancellation of Constellation Program[edit]

On October 11, 2010, the Constellation Program was cancelled, ending development of the Altair, Ares I, and Ares V. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle was renamed the Multi-Purpose Exploration Vehicle, to be launched on the Space Launch System.[22]

Orion MPCV[edit]

On October 30, 2014, the spacecraft completed its first Flight Readiness Review (FRR), allowing the vehicle to be integrated with the Delta IV rocket that will carry it to space.[23]


The Orion MPCV resembles its Apollo-era predecessors, but its technology and capability are more advanced. It is designed to support long-duration deep space missions, with up to 21 days active crew time plus 6 months quiescent.[24] During the quiescent period crew life support would be provided by another module such as a Deep Space Habitat. The spacecraft's life support, propulsion, thermal protection and avionics systems are designed to be upgradeable as new technologies become available.

The MPCV spacecraft includes both crew and service modules, and a spacecraft adaptor.

The MPCV's crew module is larger than Apollo's and can support more crew members for short or long-duration spaceflight missions. The service module fuels and propels the spacecraft as well as storing oxygen and water for astronauts. The service module's structure is also being designed to provide locations to mount scientific experiments and cargo.

Crew Module[edit]

Test of Orion's parachute system in July 2012.

The Orion Crew Module (CM) is the transportation capsule that provides a habitat for the crew, provides storage for consumables and research instruments, and serves as the docking port for crew transfers. The crew module is the only part of the MPCV that returns to Earth after each mission and is a 57.5° frustum shape, similar to that of the Apollo Command Module. As projected, the CM will be 5.02 meters (16 ft 6 in) in diameter and 3.3 meters (10 ft 10 in) in length,[25] with a mass of about 8.5 metric tons (19,000 lb). It is to be built by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.[26] It will have more than 50% more volume than the Apollo capsule, which had an interior volume of 5.9 m3 (210 cu ft), and will carry four to six astronauts.[27] After extensive study, NASA has selected the Avcoat ablator system for the Orion crew module. Avcoat, which is composed of silica fibers with a resin in a honeycomb made of fiberglass and phenolic resin, was previously used on the Apollo missions and on select areas of the space shuttle for early flights.[28]

Orion's CM will use advanced technologies, including:

  • "Glass cockpit" digital control systems derived from those of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.[29]
  • An "autodock" feature, like those of Russian Progress spacecraft and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Previous American spacecraft (Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle) have all required manual piloting for docking.
  • Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex "relief tube" used on the space shuttle (whose system was based on that used on Skylab) and the International Space Station (based on the Soyuz, Salyut, and Mir systems). This eliminates the use of the much-hated plastic "Apollo bags" used by the Apollo crews.
  • A nitrogen/oxygen (N
    ) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa or 14.69 psi) or slightly reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa or 8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.
  • Much more advanced computers than on previous crewed spacecraft.

The CM will be constructed of the aluminium lithium (Al/Li) alloy used on the shuttle's external tank, and on the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets. The CM itself will be covered in the same Nomex felt-like thermal protection blankets used on parts on the shuttle not subject to critical heating, such as the payload bay doors. The reusable recovery parachutes will be based on the parachutes used on both the Apollo spacecraft and the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, and will also use the same Nomex cloth for construction. Water landings will be the exclusive means of recovery for the Orion CM.[17][30]

To allow Orion to mate with other vehicles it will be equipped with the NASA Docking System, which is somewhat similar to the APAS-95 docking mechanism used on the Shuttle fleet. The spacecraft will employ a Launch Escape System (LES) like that used in Mercury and Apollo, along with an Apollo-derived "Boost Protective Cover" (made of fiberglass), to protect the Orion CM from aerodynamic and impact stresses during the first 2 12 minutes of ascent. Its designers claim that the MPCV is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and reentry than the Space Shuttle.[31]

ATV-based Service module[edit]

Main article: Orion Service Module
Orion spacecraft including the ATV derived Service Module with a propulsion stage attached at the back

In May 2011 the ESA director general announced a possible collaboration with NASA to work on a successor to the ATV.[32] On June 21, 2012, Airbus Defence and Space announced that they had been awarded two separate studies, each worth €6.5 million, to evaluate the possibilities of using technology and experience gained from ATV and Columbus related work for future missions. The first looked into the possible construction of a service module which would be used in tandem with the Orion capsule.[33] The second examined the possible production of a versatile multi purpose orbital vehicle.[34]

On November 21, 2012, the ESA decided to develop an ATV derived service module for the Orion MPCV.[35] The service module will likely be manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen, Germany.[36]

"ESA's contribution is going to be critical to the success of Orion's 2017 mission"

—NASA Orion Program manager[11]

NASA announced on January 16, 2013 that the ESA service module will fly on Exploration Mission 1, the debut launch of the Space Launch System.[11]

Launch Abort System[edit]

In the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent, a launch escape system called the Launch Abort System (LAS) will separate the Crew Module from the launch vehicle using a solid rocket-powered launch abort motor (AM), which will produce more thrust (though for a much shorter duration) than the Atlas 109-D booster that launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962.[37] There are two other propulsion systems in the LAS stack: the attitude control motor (ACM) and the jettison motor (JM). On July 10, 2007, Orbital Sciences, the prime contractor for the LAS, awarded Alliant Techsystems (ATK) a $62.5 million sub-contract to, "design, develop, produce, test and deliver the launch abort motor." ATK, which had the prime contract for the first stage of the Ares I rocket, intended to use a "reverse flow" design for the motor.[38] On July 9, 2008, NASA announced that ATK had completed a vertical test stand at a facility in Promontory, Utah to test launch abort motors for the Orion spacecraft.[39] Another long-time space motor contractor, Aerojet, was awarded the jettison motor design and development contract for the LAS. As of September 2008, Aerojet has, along with team members Orbital Sciences, Lockheed Martin and NASA, successfully demonstrated two full-scale test firings of the jettison motor. This motor is important to every flight in that it functions to pull the LAS tower away from the vehicle after a successful launch. The motor also functions in the same manner for an abort scenario.


Environmental testing[edit]

NASA performed environmental testing of Orion from 2007 to 2011 at the Glenn Research Center Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. The Center's Space Power Facility is the world's largest thermal vacuum chamber.[40]


On March 2, 2009, the LAS Pathfinder began its transfer from the Langley Research Center to the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, for launch tests. The Pathfinder is a combination of the Orion Boilerplate and LAS module. The 45 ft (14 m)-long rocket assembly will begin its first Pad Abort 1 Test on the Missile Range.[41]

Test plans[edit]

As of February 2014, NASA plans to launch the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle Ascent Abort 2 test flight (AA‑2) from Spaceport Florida Launch Complex 46 in 2018.[42]

Actual testing[edit]

ATK successfully completed the first Orion launch-abort test on November 20, 2008. The abort motor will provide 500,000 lbf (2,200 kN) of thrust for an emergency on the launch pad or during the first 300,000 feet (91 km) of the rocket's climb to orbit. The test firing was the first time a motor with reverse flow propulsion technology at this scale has been tested.

This abort test firing brought together a series of motor and component tests conducted in 2008 as a preparation for the next major milestone, a full-size mock-up or boilerplate test scheduled for the spring of 2009.[43][dated info]

On May 10, 2010, NASA successfully executed the PAD-Abort-1 test at White Sands New Mexico, launching a boilerplate Orion capsule to an altitude of approximately 6000 feet. The test used three solid-fuel rocket motors – a main thrust motor, an attitude control motor and the jettison motor.[44]

Orion Recovery Testing[edit]

Under the Constellation program the Post-landing Orion Recovery Test (PORT) was designed to determine and evaluate methods of crew rescue and what kind of motions the astronaut crew can expect after landing. This will include conditions outside the capsule for the recovery team. The evaluation process will support NASA's design of landing recovery operations including equipment, ship and crew necessities.

The Port Test used full-scale boilerplate of NASA's Orion crew module and will be tested in water under simulated and real weather conditions. Tests began March 23, 2009 with a Navy-built, 18,000-pound boilerplate when it was placed in a test pool at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock Division in West Bethesda, Md. Full sea testing ran April 6–30, 2009, at various locations off the coast of NASA's Kennedy Space Center with media coverage.[45]

Under the Orion program testing a series of tests was implemented to evaluate hardware and procedures used to recover the Orion Crew Module at the end of the mission. Orion continued the "crawl, walk, run" approach used in PORT testing. The "crawl" phase was performed August 12–16, 2013 with the Stationary Recovery Test (SRT).

The SRT demonstrated the recovery hardware and techniques that will be employed for the recovery of the Orion Crew Module in the protected waters of Naval Station Norfolk utilizing the USS Arlington as the recovery ship. The USS Arlington is a LPD 17 Amphibious Assault ship. The recovery of the Orion Crew Module utilizes unique features of the LPD 17 class ship to safely and economically recover the Orion Crew Module and eventually its astronaut crew.[46]

The "walk" and "run" phases will be performed with the Underway Recovery Test (URT). Also Utilizing the LPD 17 class ship, the URT will be performed in more realistic sea conditions off the coast of California in early 2014 to prepare the US Navy / NASA team for recovering the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) Orion Crew Module.


List only includes relatively near missions; more missions are planned than are listed below.

Acronym Mission name Launch Date Rocket Duration Remarks
EFT-1 Exploration Flight Test-1 December 4, 2014 Delta IV Heavy <1 day (two orbits) Uncrewed high apogee test flight of the Orion Crew Module in Earth Orbit.
EM-1 Exploration Mission-1[47] 2017[47] SLS Block I[47] 7–10 days[48] Send an uncrewed Orion on a circumlunar trajectory.[48]
EM-2 Exploration Mission-2[47] As early as 2021[49] SLS Block I[47] Send Orion with a crew of two to rendezvous with a captured asteroid in lunar orbit.[49]
EM-3 Exploration Mission-3[47] 2022[50] SLS Block IA[47] Destination TBA[50]

Existing craft and mockups[edit]

  • Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) Orion (re-designation of OFT-1) constructed at Michoud Assembly Facility,[51] was delivered by Lockheed Martin to the Kennedy Space Center on July 2, 2012.[52]
  • The Boilerplate Test Article (BTA) underwent splashdown testing at the Hydro Impact Basin of NASA's Langley Research Center. This same test article has been modified to support Orion Recovery Testing in the Stationary and Underway recovery tests.[53] The BTA contains over 150 sensors to gather data on its test drops.[54] Testing of the 18,000 pound mockup ran from July 2011 to January 6, 2012.[55]
  • The Ground Test Article (GTA) stack, located at Lockheed Martin in Denver, is undergoing vibration testing.[56] It is made up by the Orion Ground Test Vehicle (GTV) combined with its Launch Abort System (LAS). Further testing will see the addition of Service Module simulator panels and Thermal Protection System (TPS) to the GTA stack.[57]
The Orion Drop Test Article during a test on February 29, 2012
  • The Drop Test Article (DTA), also known as the Drop Test Vehicle (DTV) is undergoing test drops at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The mock Orion parachute compartment is dropped from an altitude of 25,000 feet from a C-130.[57] Testing began in 2007. Drogue chutes deploy around 15,000 and 20,000 feet. Testing of the reefing staged parachutes includes partial failure instances including partial opening and complete failure of one of the three main parachutes. With only two chutes deployed the DTA lands at 33 feet per second, the maximum touchdown speed for Orion's design.[58] Other related test vehicles include the now-defunct Orion Parachute Test Vehicle (PTV) and its replacement the Generation II Parachute Test Vehicle (PTV2). The drop test program has had several failures in 2007, 2008, and 2010.[59] The new PTV was successfully tested February 29, 2012 deploying from a C-17. Ten drag chutes will drag the mock up's pallet from the aircraft for the drop at 25,000 feet. The landing parachute set of eight is known as the Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS).[60] The test examined air flow disturbance behind the mimicked full size vehicle and its effects on the parachute system. The PTV landed on the desert floor at 17 mph.[61] A third test vehicle, the PCDTV3, is scheduled for a drop on April 17, 2012. In this testing "The CPAS team continued preparation activities for the Parachute Compartment Drop Test Vehicle (PCDTV3) airdrop test, scheduled for April 17, which will deploy the two drogue parachutes in the highest dynamic pressure environment to date, and will demonstrate a main parachute skipped second stage."[62]

Ongoing debates over EM-3 and beyond[edit]

Debates over Orion's destination in the near future are ongoing.[63][64] In particular, the United States House Science Subcommittee on Space is exploring the merits of an Apollo-like return to the Moon as compared with an asteroid rendezvous mission.[63]

The crux of ongoing debates hinges upon answers to these following questions:[63]

  • Is the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), a lunar landing mission, or another mission better as a precursor for an eventual human mission to Mars?
  • What things could we learn and capabilities would we develop from a Moon landing that we could not learn from the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission?
  • How do different destinations or missions affect a strategic approach with our potential international partners as well as technical architectures?

Presently, the United States House Science Subcommittee on Space is debating two possible paths,[63][64] whether to first:

  1. Return to the Moon or
  2. Explore an asteroid towed to lunar orbit prior to launching a manned mission to Mars.[63]

Regardless of which of the following alternatives is selected, "the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system."[63]

Return to the Moon[edit]

These are the primary reasons for returning to the Moon:[63]

  1. "On the international front, there appears to be continued enthusiasm for a mission to the Moon."[65]
  2. The Moon could become a training ground and test bed to prepare for more complex missions. Ultimately, manned operations on other planets will require training and preparation. The Moon seems like a logical place to do this training.[63]
  3. Landing on the Moon would develop technical capabilities that NASA has not had experience with for over four decades now.[63][A] NASA has neither landed humans upon nor launched humans from another large celestial body since December 1972.[A]
  4. Establishing a semi-permanent or permanent presence on the Moon would provide humans with some working/living experience in radically different, non-Earth environments. Projects Mercury and Gemini built up experience for Apollo's subsequent success to the Moon; in much the same way returning to the Moon would provide experience prior to exploring Mars.[63]
  5. The Apollo program was not a straight shot to the Moon; it included several precursor missions to test new capabilities and gain experience. In much the same way, NASA will need to acquire new capabilities to travel to Mars and beyond.[63]
  6. The United States National Research Council reports (December 2012) there is "little evidence that a current stated goal for NASA's human spaceflight program – namely, to visit an asteroid by 2025 – has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA's own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community."[63][65]
  7. Legal dictates to utilize the Moon prior to exploring beyond are still in place and contained within the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005 and 2008 (October 16, 2008).[63][66]

Explore an asteroid in lunar orbit[edit]

The reasons provided for exploring an asteroid, as follows, versus returning to the Moon, above, appear to revolve around reduced cost[B] and technical advancement:[C]

  1. This mission would place an asteroid in lunar orbit, rather than sending astronauts to an asteroid in deep space.[63]
  2. The Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology, in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimates a mission cost of approximately $2.6 billion.[63][67] By contrast, original estimates for colonization of the Moon, as a part of the Constellation Program, reached a total cost of $150 billion.[68] However, the $2.6 billion estimate is solely the cost of a mission to capture a 7m asteroid. It does not include any developmental costs, nor does it cover the costs of crewed flights to the asteroid once it is captured, so this comparison does not include the full costs of this enterprise.[67]
  3. The Obama Administration estimates that this mission would actually cost even less than the estimated $2.6 billion[63] and is already a part of the FY2014 budget request.[63]
  4. Steps toward accomplishing this mission would simultaneously develop advanced solar electric propulsion technology.[63]

Orion Lite[edit]

Main article: Orion Lite

Orion Lite was an unofficial name used in the media for a lightweight crew capsule proposed by Bigelow Aerospace in collaboration with Lockheed Martin. It was to be based on the Orion spacecraft that Lockheed Martin was developing for NASA. It would be a lighter, less capable and cheaper version of the full Orion.

See also[edit]

MPCV Related:

CCDev 1 and 2 and CCiCap (formerly CCDev 3) Related:

COTS Related:

Other countries:


  1. ^ a b The last time humans landed on the moon was Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972.
  2. ^ Please refer to reason numbers (2) and (3) in paragraph provided.
  3. ^ Please refer to reason number (4) in paragraph provided.


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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  60. ^ February 26, 2012 by Chris Bergin (2012-02-26). "Orion PTV preparing for drop test on Wednesday – EFT-1 Orion progress". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  61. ^ "NASA Conducts New Parachute Test for Orion". Space-travel.com. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  62. ^ April 11, 2012 by Chris Bergin (2012-04-11). "Orion parachutes preparing for another milestone drop test on April 17". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  63. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Subcommittee on Space, Next Steps in Human Exploration to Mars and Beyond, May 21, 2013.
  64. ^ a b House Subcommittee on Space Recent Activities
  65. ^ a b National Research Council (2012). NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus (PDF). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-31354-4. Retrieved January 16, 2014. 
  66. ^ This is contrary to NASA activities currently implemented: Per Oral Testimony of Administrator Charles Bolden before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space, "there is no money in the Administration's budget for ... returning humans to the Moon", April 24, 2013.
  67. ^ a b Brophy, John R.; Friedman, Lou; Culick, Fred (May 30, 2012). "Asteroid Retrieval Mission Feasibility Study" (presentation). NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG). Retrieved January 15, 2014. 
  68. ^ Chang, Kenneth (January 27, 2012). "For a Moon Colony, Technology Is the Easy Part  – NYTimes.com". New York: NYTC. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on January 15, 2014. Retrieved January 15, 2014. 
  69. ^ Space.com, July 19, 2012: "Russia Converts Unmanned Rocket to Carry New Crewed Spaceship"

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