Orion – to Launch on a Delta IV Heavy?

Within the next few years a Delta IV Heavy rocket like the one seen here could be launching astronauts to destinations like the moon and to asteroids. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

CAPE CANAVERAL —  Back in the days after the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) one of the proposals to reduce the space flight ‘gap’ between the shuttle program and the Constellation Program was to attach the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to a Delta IV Heavy rocket. With all the political wrangling this simple solution appeared lost – or so it was thought. The idea of man-rating a Delta IV heavy never seemed to quite fade away and now a plan is under way to launch the Orion spacecraft on top of one of these massive launch vehicles – within the next three years.

More importantly by launching these test flights, NASA will be able to review up to three-quarters of the technical challenges involved with a flight to either the moon or to an asteroid – without risking a crew. Some of the elements that would be checked out on this unmanned test flight would be:

  • Spacecraft stabilization and control.
  • Parachutes used for reentry and other systems used to recover the spacecraft.
  • Micrometeoroid shielding along with other systems used to protect the vehicle.

The manufacturer of the Orion spacecraft, Lockheed Martin, plans to have the first flight take place as soon as 2013. This test flight would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37. If all goes well? Astronauts could be riding the Delta IV heavy to destinations such as the moon or an asteroid by 2015. For now though these plans are still in their infancy.

If all does go according to how Lockheed Martin human spaceflight engineers plan – the first mission to an asteroid could beat the 2025 date that President Obama set during his April visit to Kennedy Space Center – by ten years.

Comparison of different launch vehicles and what a man-rated Delta IV Heavy might look like. Image Credit: ULA/NASA

Each successive flight after the first unmanned mission would shake out the technology more and more until crews fly into orbit. The first unmanned flight, as envisioned by Lockheed Martin, would emulate many of the elements of a mission to either an asteroid or to the moon.

For long-time followers of the space program, witnessing a man-rated launch of a Delta IV heavy will very much be a blast from the past. In the early days of the space program astronauts rode Atlas and Titan rockets into orbit (these rockets were actually man-rated Cold-War missiles). Attached atop the Delta IV would be the Orion capsule and on top of that would be a Launch Abort System (LAS). This last component is a small mini-rocket that would pull the capsule up and away from the Delta if there is an emergency.

Once the flight is completed, the Orion will splashdown in the same general area as Space Exploration Technology’s (SpaceX’s) Dragon Spacecraft – the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

The Orion Spacecraft has proved itself to be a survivor. President Obama initially promised to support NASA’s lunar ambitions on the campaign trail – a promise he went back on once elected. He then attempted to cancel all elements of the Constellation Program of which Orion was a key part. This proposal landed with a resounding thud. He then attempted to gain support for his space plan by resurrecting Orion as a stripped down lifeboat for the International Space Station (ISS) – this too met with little support. Eventually, after much Congressional wrangling, Orion emerged as the one element of Constellation – which Obama could not kill.

Congress has put some support behind his plan to have commercial space firms provide transportation to low-Earth-orbit (LEO). However, these firms have no experience whatsoever launching men and material to orbit – and Congress wanted to have a backup plan – that meant Orion. As the launch vehicle that would have hefted Orion to orbit was effectively dead another rocket was required – the best candidate was the Delta IV heavy.

Despite the Obama Administration's best efforts - the Orion spacecraft is still alive. Image Credit: NASA

One Comment

  1. I am trying to understand what this would mean for the industry. Is the Delta IV heavy one of the 13 candidates for the heavy launch vehicle, or is it currently being looked at only as a backup for commercial launches? Is Lockheed Martin planning on getting a NASA contract to fund this, or are they hoping to do it commercially (of course, Orion is not commercial)? Where does this place Shuttle derived launch vehicles? Is NASA still pursuing solid propulsion, or are they taking a serious look at other options? I am curious to see how this will play out, and what will happen to the workforce that has been building the Ares and Shuttle derived systems. To abandon them midstream would seem to be a huge waste of resources and talent. Perhaps ATK will be forced to compete in the commercial world (considering how many layoffs they have suffered through, they ought to be really lean by now!).

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