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Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle: The New Space Shuttle

Updated on March 15, 2014
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Beginning of construction on the first space-bound Orion MCPV. This is the vehicle that will be used for the 2014 Exploration Flight Test-1
Beginning of construction on the first space-bound Orion MCPV. This is the vehicle that will be used for the 2014 Exploration Flight Test-1 | Source
Testing of the Orion Launch Escape System, which would carry astronauts to safety in the event of a launch emergency.
Testing of the Orion Launch Escape System, which would carry astronauts to safety in the event of a launch emergency. | Source
Orion capsule parachutes to the ground after testing of Launch Escape System
Orion capsule parachutes to the ground after testing of Launch Escape System | Source

For observers of manned spaceflight, July 21, 2011 was the end of an era. The final landing of Atlantis was the end of the Space Shuttle program, after 30 years of operational flight and more than 40 years of design and planning. Many fans of manned space exploration have lamented the Shuttle's retirement as the end of the U.S. space program.

This is not the case. Testing and construction of the next generation manned vehicle has already begun. The Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) is scheduled for a first unmanned test launch in 2014, with manned flights to begin around 2020. This new vehicle, being built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin, will take astronauts out of Low Earth Orbit for the first time since the end of the lunar missions.

Old Design, New Technology

If the Orion capsule looks vaguely reminiscent of the old Apollo command module, it is not a coincidence. NASA wanted to build a capsule based on the tested and successful design of the Apollo command and service modules. Much of the design is dictated by the basic physics of launch and reentry.

The cone-shaped capsule is the safest and most reliable design for reentry from a deep-space mission, during which the vehicle would be travelling at more than 25,000 miles per hour - far faster than the 17,500 reentry speed of the Space Shuttle. The placement of the crew vehicle on top of the rocket stack, rather than strapped to the side like the Space Shuttle orbiter, is also a much safer launch configuration that would avoid the danger of debris impact.

While the Orion capsule may look like the Apollo capsule, the resemblances between the two vehicles are only lithium-aluminum-skin deep.

The Orion MPCV will be larger than the Apollo command module, able to carry four astronauts. Using updated computer technology, life-support systems, and display consoles will give the new capsule a much more roomy interior - about two and a half times the cabin space of Apollo. The vehicle would also feature upgraded waste-management facilities (space toilets) based on those used on the Shuttle and International Space Station. Thermal protection for the vehicle would use the same technology used on the Shuttle - Nomex thermal blankets for Orion's cone and thick ceramic tiles for the heat shield. And, unlike the Apollo capsules that could only be used once, the Orion MPCV will be reusable for up to ten missions.

Like Apollo, Orion will also use an expendable Service Module during flight, jettisoning the module before reentry. This module will contain the vehicle's main power, life support, maneuvering, and propulsion systems. The MPCV will use solar panels to generate electricity, eliminating the need for large fuel cells of the type that malfunctioned on Apollo 13. A recycling system onboard the Service Module will re-use waste water and urine for cooling and drinking water, similar to the system currently on board the ISS. The main engine will be a more powerful version of the Shuttle's Orbital Maneuvering System engines, able to deliver 7,500 pounds of thrust.

Orion Spacecraft and Space Launch System - 2013 Status Update

Artist's conception of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle on its maiden voyage
Artist's conception of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle on its maiden voyage | Source

The First Test Flight

The maiden space voyage of the Orion Command Module is planned for early 2014. Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) will be an unmanned test flight used to evaluate the avionics and control systems, heat shield, and parachutes of the new vehicle. The construction of the vehicle that will make this first test flight began in the fall of 2011, and it will be powered by a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle.

Although EFT-1 will last a mere few hours and circle the Earth only twice, but will nevertheless be a groundbreaking voyage for a U.S. space vehicle capable of manned flight. Reaching an altitude of 3,671 miles on its second orbit, this flight will fly more than ten times as high as the highest-altitude missions of the Shuttle era.

To Earth Orbit and Beyond

Once this new crew vehicle has been tested and certified for human spaceflight, it will be capable of taking astronauts deeper into space than ever before. Among the missions being considered are flights to lunar orbit, the Earth-Moon and Earth-Sun Lagrangian points, servicing missions to satellites in geostationary orbit, and exploration missions to Near-Earth Asteroids and the moons of Mars.

Though Orion is considerably roomier than its Apollo predecessor, its 316 cubic feet of interior space is a bit cozy for four people on a year-long trip to an asteroid. For missions lasting longer than 21 days, NASA is planning to dock the vehicle with Deep Space Habitat modules that would provide both roomier living quarters and enhanced life-support facilities.

Making use of the building techniques developed while assembling the ISS - and indeed some of the segment designs for the station's components - the DSH could support missions of up to 60 days. An even more advanced configuration would support missions up to 500 days, long enough to visit an asteroid or Mars.

Although the Space Shuttles are now retired and resting in museums, the U.S. manned program is far from over. When the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle is ready for human spaceflight, our space explorers will not just be circling the edge of space, but actually exploring it.

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    • point2make profile image

      point2make 5 years ago

      Thanks for the great update on the Orion project. Your hub is interesting and well written. The Orion looks like it's going to be a very versatile vehicle and the mission capabilities should allow for interesting destinations. Voted this hub up.

    • ttagpine profile image

      ttagpine 5 years ago

      Nice article. NASA should borrow Buster from Myth-busters for a crash test dummy for the test flight.

    • eric-carter profile image

      eric-carter 5 years ago from Fulham, UK

      I totally agree with ttagpine!:) Great hub though, voting up

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      Thank you all for reading and commenting! And ttagpine - I completely agree. NASA's PA people might actually be talked into it, too. They named an ISS treadmill COLBERT, so who knows?

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