A New Dawn: The Troubled History and Future Promise of NASA’s Orion Program (Part 1)

An artist's rendering of December's Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) test, which will take the Orion capsule 3,600 miles (5,800 km) into space. Image Credit: NASA
An artist’s rendering of December’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) test, which will take the Orion capsule 3,600 miles (5,800 km) into space. Image Credit: NASA

For any astronomer, Orion is a relatively straightforward constellation to find in the night sky. Honoring the hunter of ancient Greek myth, its “belt” of three stars—the supergiants Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka—are clearly visible to the naked eye, as is its approximate “rectangle” of Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Saiph, particularly in the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. For centuries, Orion’s stars have been used as navigational aids, guiding Earthly explorers to new lands and new vistas. And this winter, after more than a decade of planning, political frustrations, and cancellations, and with a still largely unshaped vision of its future, another Orion will embark on its first voyage into space. This mechanized Orion currently resides atop a mammoth Delta IV Heavy booster at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., awaiting its date with destiny at 7:05 a.m. EST on Thursday, 4 December. When it launches, it will travel to an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 km), complete two orbits in 4.5 hours, then plunge back to Earth in excess of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h), becoming the first human-capable vehicle for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration since the Apollo era, more than four decades ago.

The spacecraft consists of two primary components, a conical Crew Module and a cylindrical Service Module, and is designed to eventually support deep-space missions of up to 21 days in duration, plus another six months in “quiescent” mode. The conical shape of the Crew Module was deemed the safest and most reliable means of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at the extreme velocities—far in excess of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h)—required for direct return trajectory profiles from the Moon. It stands 10 feet (3.3 meters) tall and measures 16.5 feet (5 meters) across its base, as opposed to 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) for the Apollo command module, thereby providing an interior volume of 690 cubic feet (19.5 cubic meters), significantly larger than its 1960s-era ancestor.

Moreover, the Crew Module is equipped with “smart cockpit” digital controls, derived from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which will provide its future crews with enhanced situational awareness. “Whereas the shuttle’s cockpit screens are filled with data that astronauts have to interpret and act upon,” Flight International explained in October 2006, “Orion’s displays will use graphics along with enhanced synthetic vision and additional flight-related symbology.” At the apex of the Crew Module will be the NASA Docking System (NDS), which has compatibility with the two International Docking Adapters (IDAs), to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a pair of SpaceX Dragon resupply missions in June and August 2015. Orion’s cabin atmosphere is an oxygen-nitrogen mixture at close to terrestrial sea-level pressure.

The EFT-1 patch illustrates the purpose of the mission, to achieve as close as possible to lunar-return velocity, within the capability range of the Delta IV Heavy. Image Credit: NASA
The EFT-1 patch illustrates the purpose of the mission, to achieve as close as possible to lunar-return velocity, within the capability range of the Delta IV Heavy. Image Credit: NASA

Mounted at the base of the Crew Module is the cylindrical Service Module, which marks out Orion as the first piloted spacecraft in U.S. history—excluding space stations—to carry solar arrays. In the original design, the arrays took the form of two circular panels, deployed from the main body of the Service Module shortly after launch, which would give the spacecraft a total span of about 55.7 feet (17 meters). The Service Module stands 15.5 feet (4.8 meters) in height and measures 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter, with an empty mass of 8,000 pounds (3,700 kg). At its base is the Aerojet-built main engine, capable of 7,500 pounds (3,400 kg) of thrust, with a Reaction Control System (RCS) providing maneuverability and backup capability to execute the critical Trans-Earth Injection (TEI) “burn” from deep space. Inside the bowels of the Service Module, a pair of liquid oxygen tanks and smaller nitrogen tanks will maintain Orion’s habitability, whilst lithium hydroxide cartridges will scrub the crew’s exhaled carbon dioxide with oxygen and nitrogen and recycle them back into the life-support loop. The Service Module for EFT-1 has been fabricated by Lockheed Martin, with batteries in place of solar arrays, although that of the next flight in 2018 will be developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and will feature an X-shaped layout of four electricity-generating “wings.”

Orion arose from the ashes of tragedy. On 1 February 2003, the STS-107 crew—Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Israel’s Ilan Ramon—were killed when shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry. Although the reusable fleet of orbiters had completed more than a hundred flights by this time, they had now fallen foul to two disasters, which claimed the lives of 14 astronauts, and the writing was on the wall for the fleet’s retirement. Six months later, in August 2003, when the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) published its final report, one of its recommendations was that the components of the inherently flawed shuttle should either be recertified by 2010 or the vehicle phased out in favor of a new machine.

On 14 January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), with the pivotal goal of completing the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS), retiring the aging shuttle fleet and returning humans to the Moon and sending explorers further afield, to Mars and beyond. “We will give NASA a new focus and vision for future exploration,” he told his audience at the space agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “We will build new ships to carry man forward into the Universe, to gain a foothold on the Moon and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.” The president—whose father, George H.W. Bush, had initiated the ill-fated Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) during his own tenure in the White House in 1989-1993—noted that for more than three decades, no human had set foot on another world or ventured further than about 380 miles (620 km) above Earth. The VSE was set to change that.

NASA plans to launch the first of the space agency's new Orion spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket (seen here) on Exploration Flight Test 1, currently scheduled to take place on 4 December. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace
NASA plans to launch the first of the space agency’s new Orion spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket (seen here) on Exploration Flight Test 1, currently scheduled to take place on 4 December. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

Its first goal was to complete the ISS, which at the dawn of 2004 was half-built and occupied by reduced, two-man “caretaker” crews, in the absence of the shuttle. The president announced that the shuttle fleet would be retired by 2010, having executed a series of missions to deliver the necessary hardware—three sets of electricity-generating solar arrays, two pressurized nodes, the European Columbus and Japanese Kibo laboratory facilities, the multi-windowed cupola, and a large quantity of logistics—to finish the station. With this objective attained, Bush said, the second goal of the VSE would be the development and testing of a new spacecraft, known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), “by 2008,” followed by an inaugural piloted flight “no later than 2014.” He stressed that the CEV “will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired,” but that its primary aim would be “to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds.” Rounding out the VSE framework, Bush anticipated returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020 to utilize the Moon as a staging point for deep-space expeditions.

With the exception of the president’s description of the CEV as “the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo command module,” the actual planning of what form the vehicle would take required several months. The organization changes at NASA Headquarters to accommodate the VSE commenced almost immediately, and, on 27 January, the president established a Commission on Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy—chaired by former Secretary of the Air Force Edward “Pete” Aldridge—to recommend future scientific agendas, as well as the required technologies, demonstrations, and strategies to accomplish them. Over the next five months, the Commission held five meetings, across the United States, and found that public and state support strongly endorsed the aims of the VSE, by a ratio of 7:1.

“Our president has introduced a new initiative with renewed emphasis on exploration of our Solar System and expansion of the human frontiers,” Neil Armstrong remarked in the Commission’s final report, A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover, published in June 2004. “This proposal has substantial merit and promise. The success of that endeavor will be dependent upon overcoming principal concerns of cost and risk. Our economy can certainly afford an effort of this magnitude, but the public must believe that the benefits to society deserve the investment. The rate of progress is proportional to the risk encountered. The public at large may well be more risk-averse than the individuals in our business, but to limit the progress in the name of eliminating risk is no virtue.”

In December 2004, NASA issued a Draft Statement of Work for the CEV—for which former astronaut Charlie Precourt had earlier been appointed Program Director—and this was followed by a Request for Proposals in March 2005. “The anticipated period of performance is September 2005 through December 2008,” NASA reported. “The CEV acquisition will use a phased approach that anticipates a maximum of two contractors … As part of the Phase 1 contract, the contractors will conduct a demonstration flight that provides risk reduction for the human-rated CEV to be delivered in 2014. The Phase 1 portion of the contract will end with a planned down-select to a single prime contractor in late 2008.”

This suborbital or orbital “fly-off” between the two contractors’ vehicles, known as Flight Application of Space Technologies (FAST), was expected to occur before September 2008. However, when Mike Griffin became NASA Administrator in April 2005—replacing Sean O’Keefe—he was vocal in his insistence that the minimum four-year hiatus between the shuttle’s 2010 retirement and the first piloted CEV mission in 2014 was unacceptable. “CEV needs to be safe, it needs to be simple, it needs to be soon,” Griffin told journalists in May and promised that he would take steps by July 2005 to close the gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability.

Under EFT-1, Orion will conduct two orbits of the Earth and then return to Earth at a blistering 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h). This test will prove out Orion's heat shield, parachute and other crucial systems. Image Credit: NASA
Under EFT-1, Orion will conduct two orbits of the Earth and then return to Earth at a blistering 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h). This test will prove out Orion’s heat shield, parachute and other crucial systems. Image Credit: NASA

Proposals for CEV Phase 1 were required to be submitted by May 2005 and on 13 June NASA announced the selection of Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and the team of Northrop Grumman Corp. of Bethpage, N.Y., and The Boeing Co. of Chicago, Ill., as its two competitors. In mid-July, contracts worth $28 million apiece were awarded to the two teams, with the intention that both would “mature their crewed vehicle designs and demonstrate their ability to manage the cost, schedule and risk of human-rated spacecraft development,” ahead of the planned Phase 2 down-select to a single contractor. Griffin considered this process unacceptably slow and ordered the FAST fly-off to be eliminated from consideration. At the same time, the Phase 2 down-select was advanced by two years to the summer of 2006, with the expectation that this would shave upwards of $1 billion from the CEV budget and achieve the first mission as soon as June 2011.

Central to Griffin’s strategy was the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), published in September 2005, which advocated that the CEV should be launched atop a shuttle-derived vehicle, citing the “superior safety, cost and availability” of the reliable and human-rated RS-25D main engines and Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) components. Payloads for deep space exploration would be delivered by means of a Cargo Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicle (SDLV), whilst crewed CEVs would be lofted by a booster whose foundation was an extended, five-segment version of the SRB.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing/Northrop Grumman were thus provided with a little more than a year to mature their designs for what NASA announced, in its January 2006 Phase 2 Request for Proposals, would be a blunt-bodied, capsule-type spacecraft, capable of transporting up to six astronauts to and from the ISS and up to four astronauts to and from the Moon, as well as supporting future expeditions to Mars. It was stressed at the time that this design requirement was based not only on “future exploration needs,” but also upon “the desire to fly the first CEV mission as close as possible to 2010, when the space shuttle will be retired.” The spacecraft thus borrowed its shape from capsules of yesteryear, but also took advantage of modern computers, electronics, life-support systems, propulsion technology, and thermal protection hardware. In July 2006, NASA opted to move away from the use of liquid methane for the spacecraft’s Service Module, in favor of better understood hypergolics, which allowed it to be man-rated as early as 2011.

At length on 22 August 2006, NASA formally named the CEV as “Orion,” in honor of “one of the brightest, most familiar and easily identifiable constellations.” The first piloted mission retained its target of no later than 2014, with an inaugural flight to the Moon anticipated before 2020. “Many of its stars have been used for navigation and guided explorers to new worlds for centuries,” explained NASA Project Manager Caris “Skip” Hatfield of the choice of the constellation as the spacecraft’s name. “Our team, and all of NASA, and, I believe, our country, grows more excited with every step forward this program takes. The future for space exploration is coming quickly.” In fact, the entire infrastructure of Orion—which also included a lunar systems architecture and a pair of boosters, the Ares I and Ares V, for crew and heavy-lift cargo—came to be known under the umbrella term of the “Constellation Program.”

It was a program which carried immense promise for the future, and one which steadily moved from concept to realization, with the development of actual flight hardware. However, political frustration and the ever-present issues of cost and risk would have their own part to play, and the effort to send humanity beyond Earth orbit for the first time in more than four decades would prove a long and tortured path.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.


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