5 Improvements to the Orion Spacecraft Learned from Previous Flights

I and a few other students at Florida Tech had the opportunity to meet with Larry Price, the Orion Spacecraft Deputy Program Manager. We were all psyched to hear about NASA’s next plans for manned space-flight beyond near-Earth orbit, especially from someone who has had first-hand experience with the program! There was discussion on the evolution of space flight, some of the goals of Orion (such as returning to the Moon, flying to an asteroid, and maybe even Mars), and some of the business aspects of the program, especially concerning the budget. Also being Career Day at Florida Tech, Mr. Price discussed some things the program would look for in interns and new employees, as well as the need for engineers and scientists.

All of this got me pretty excited for the future of space flight. Man hasn’t ventured beyond near-Earth orbit since Apollo 17 back in 1972, so I think it is about time we got back out there. *Orion’s first scheduled test flight should be later this year with the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which will be an unmanned test of the ship’s capabilities of operating in orbit and re-entering the atmosphere on top of a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will use the SLS rocket system (see my previous blog “NASA’s Plans for Deep Space Travels”) to send another unmanned craft around the Moon sometime around 2017. Then finally, on EM-2, a crewed spacecraft will be sent to rendezvous with an asteroid near the Moon, hopefully in the early 2020’s.

EFT-1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I was researching this, I thought it was very interesting to see how the modeling of the Orion spacecraft reflects all the knowledge we have learned over the years and how that knowledge is being used to improve space exploration.

1. Orion has switched from analog devices to digital screen displays. This is often referred to as a “glass cockpit” and, in the case of Orion, was based off the Boeing 787 design. Now, instead of having one gauge or dial in a certain spot, the digital screens can change to show the pilot the most important information at the time. Digital is also more accurate than the older system.

2. The spacecraft can now do “auto-dock.” Our previous space programs have required a pilot to manually dock the spacecraft to another, but now it can be done automatically. This technology came from methods developed to resupply the International Space Station, specifically from the Russian’s Progress spacecraft and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). The biggest difference, however, is both of these crafts were unmanned, so Orion will be the first manned automatic docking vehicle.

3. ATV technology is also being used for Orion’s service module (the component that supplies power and propulsion). The European Space Agency will modify their original ATV model in order to have it work with Orion on the EM-1 in 2017.

4. Orion’s crew module will be reusable. Thanks to the shuttle program, we have figured out many materials that will protect the module from too much damage upon re-entry, and the recovery parachutes have been improved from both the shuttle and Apollo programs. Just like in the Apollo days, Orion will have water landings to ensure the best re-usability. Mr. Price was able to estimate that each module could be reused about 10 to 12 times if all went well, which will be a big reduction on costs.

5. The Orion spacecraft can hold more crew members for longer periods of time. While Orion does have very similar designs to the Apollo missions (with the crew module stacked on top of the service module, all connected to the propulsion system), it will be much larger and able to sustain the crew for deep-space flights of up to six months if need be. Many of the systems running the ship have also been designed to allow easy updates for technology advances (Source: Orion Wiki)

These are just some examples of how the science and engineering communities are coming together to create a bigger, better and safer spacecraft. We have learned what works and what does not work, mainly through trial and error, and we are now using our past mistakes or inconveniences to take space exploration to the next step. Who knows, maybe in the next 20 years or so we will have put someone on Mars!


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