On December 3 and 4, I’ll be part of a lucky group of 150 people chosen from thousands of applicants to attend the NASA Social event for the first launch of Orion, NASA’s next space vehicle. On Wednesday, we’ll tour Kennedy Space Center in the morning, and from 1-3 pmoriononpad EST we’ll be the audience for a NASA TV broadcast about the upcoming launch. We’ll hear from scientists and engineers supporting the Orion program, and hopefully get a chance to see it on the launch pad. Then, on Thursday, we’ll be up during the pre-dawn hours to head out to the NASA Causeway, where if all goes well we’ll be able to witness the launch from the press area just a couple of miles away. I’ll be covering the launch on this blog, and tweeting live at @dennya on Twitter.


What is Orion?

Orion is a new space capsule that’s a component in NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System, the crewed successor to the Space Shuttle program that will be used to travel to the moon, asteroids, or even Mars. Orion resembles the Apollo Command Modules of the 60s and 70s, but with room for four to six astronauts, and modern 21st century technology inside. Like the Apollo capsules, Orion will return to Earth via parachutes, and will splash down in the ocean for recovery.

Orion will be protected during reentry by a huge 16.5-foot diameter heat shield on the bottom of the capsule, as well as 970 Space Shuttle-style tiles surrounding the upper portion. As with Apollo, an escape rocket will be mounted above Orion to pull the astronauts to safety should something go wrong during launch.

Though NASA is promoting Orion as the first step towards Mars, the capsule isn’t roomy enough to support a trip of that length. By itself, it can support a crew of four for up to 21 days in space, so it would be paired with a habitat module that could allow for longer trips, and possibly a crew of up to six. (And hopefully a lander as well, if they’re going that far!) Current proposed initial crewed flights for Orion include a possible test flight around the moon (with no landing) and an asteroid recovery mission. The asteroid mission is particularly ambitious: a robotic tug will fly out to the asteroid belt, snag a small asteroid, and bring it back into orbit around the Moon. Then astronauts will fly to the asteroid on Orion to do scientific investigation.

This Week’s Flight

The launch I’m attending, Exploration Flight Test-1, is an uncrewed first test of Orion’s systems, designed to ensure that everything works as planned before the first flights with astronauts aboard. The 4.5 hour flight will include two orbits of Earth, reaching a peak altitude of 3,609 miles in order to simulate a re-entry speed similar to what will be experienced returning from the moon.

This flight will test the capsule’s systems and shielding, making sure that Orion can safely protect human passengers from the heavy radiation it will encounter passing through the Van Allen Belt around the Earth. The capsule is heavily instrumented to measure heat, radiation, and other criteria throughout the flight.

During re-entry, the Orion capsule will face temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 80% of the 5,000-degree temperatures expected during a return from lunar orbit. A series of 11 drogue and main parachutes will slow the capsule down, culminating in the deployment of three 116-foot-diameter main chutes that lower the capsule’s speed to less than 20 mph for splashdown. As with the Apollo capsules, US Navy ships will be standing by to recover Orion from the ocean.


Because the Space Launch System rocket – a monstrously huge craft, bigger than a Saturn V, which uses updated Space Shuttle main engines and stretched versions of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters – isn’t yet ready to test fly, Orion will be lofted to orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. It will be interesting to compare the power and noise from the last launch I attended: STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program.

Next Steps

There’s some criticism that Orion doesn’t have a clear mission. But by the time Orion is ready to fly with a crew, we’ll have a new administration in office, so its first destination will likely be determined by whoever is President then. It’s an unfortunate reality of our system that, as governments change, long-term programs like Orion often get re-tasked or reset. In fact, the Orion capsule was originally designed as part of NASA’s Constellation rocket program, which President Obama canceled after taking office. We’d likely be much closer to flying to an actual destination had there not been a political reset of the Shuttle successor, and hopefully the next administration will support this existing effort to reach out past our planet’s orbit and not force similar delays and resets. Orion alone is not an interplanetary craft, but it’s the first step in developing a craft that can take humans past the moon and into a future where we’re not fully dependent upon one planet for our continued survival.

— Denny Atkin