Orion is Older Than You Think

Orion launch

Photo courtesy of Department of Defense/NASA

Orion is Older Than You Think
| published December 9, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

All things being equal, the launch of the Orion spacecraft last Friday—which had been rescheduled from a Thursday launch—went about as smoothly as anyone at NASA expected. Its liftoff was spectacular and photo perfect, its ascent to an astounding 3600 miles went smoothly and exactly as planned, its two full orbits of the Earth proved it could sustain itself in high altitude orbit, and its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego was right on target—only a few hundred yards from where U.S. Navy and NASA recovery teams were standing by.

But this was only a tiny, tentative step in a program which may be many years from fruition. The Orion capsule was launched atop a powerful Delta IV rocket—a triple-engine configuration of heavy lifting capability. But the Delta IV is not what will eventually take Orion into Earth orbit, nor deeper into space. NASA is just now in the early stages of building its first prototype of what it hopes to do the real heavy-lifting years from now. That newest rocket will be called the Space Launch System (SLS), a rocket so powerful and muscular that it will make its kindred Saturn V look like a toy.

NASA’s goal is—as almost everyone now knows—to have the ability in the near future to send astronauts much deeper into space than those famous flights to the moon in the years 1969-1972. Those Apollo missions, complex and byzantine though they were to execute, only lasted a few days apiece—at most a week. At the moment, for the men and women of Earth to reach distant asteroids or Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, will require space travel in excess of 21 days—one way. The Orion program is meant to be that bridgehead into deep space and planetary travel.

For most Americans—and for most of those around the world who followed Orion’s launch and progress in space—the Orion project seemed to flow naturally out of the inertia created at the end of the shuttle program, a widely successful program of Earth-orbit-lifting which lasted for decades and tallied up hundreds of flights (and only two catastrophic failures). The shuttle gave humans the ability to build the international space station, place literally hundreds of objects in orbit, and deploy telescopes and other imagery tools which have transformed our understanding of the universe. The shuttle was also, in the words of pilot and author William Langeswiesche, “the most audacious flying machine ever built by man”—part airplane, part rocket, part glider, part cargo ship.

But the shuttle was never the right tool for the exploration of space beyond the confines of Earth’s gravity. And neither was Apollo (nor its forerunners, Gemini and Mercury), which was—from the start—engineered for the sole purpose of getting Americans to the moon and back, a relatively short drive of 238,900 miles. Mars, even when it is at its closest position to Earth in our solar system and parallel to us along the two elliptical orbits, is a heartier journey: nearly 40 million miles. And this proximity happens rarely—only when Earth is at its aphelion (its farthest point from the sun) and Mars is at its perihelion (its closest position to the sun), and the two planets happen to be in relative alignment in relation to the sun. In our lifetimes the closest our planet came to Mars was in 2003, when they whizzed by at a narrow 35 million miles. That won’t happen again until your great-great-grandchildren are graduating from college (presumably with degrees in Commercial Space Travel, or something like that). And that’s the good news: when Earth and Mars are at the most distant, parked at opposite sides of the solar system, the mileage is even more extreme, as in 255 million miles.

Still, Mars has always held an attraction to humans, and in the age of space travel, that meant that there were always smart people thinking and calculating when it came to travel to the Red Planet.

Orion’s lineage is therefore more complex, and certainly deeper in our collective imagination. In fact, Orion’s historical basis goes back almost to the earliest days of 20th century science fiction, when travel to Mars and Venus was considered the first major step in space exploration, with the moon as a mere steppingstone, literally.

Orion’s legacy in space planning and within the halls of NASA is very old. Contrary to the view that Orion sprang organically from the last days of the shuttle program, Orion in fact has roots in the late 1950s in the chaotic and frenzied context of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. government and military assembled a team whose sole purpose was to figure out how Americans could beat the Soviets to Mars, and the plan that was hatched—cobbling together a variety of technologies available at that time—involved no less than atomic bombs for propulsion.

In a program which developed quietly but concurrently to the Apollo missions, those earliest discussions of Orion (and it was even called Orion in those days) included the one element of design and engineering which at the time seemed a reasonable and safe way to propel heavy spaceships across 30 to 40 million miles of deep space: a rocket engine which would harness the controlled explosions of atomic bombs, likely in a sequence a few minutes between detonations. If the energy of these blasts could be channeled effectively, some scientists and engineers theorized, it might be possible to thrust a giant spacecraft at breathtaking speed toward Mars, Venus, the asteroid belt or even distant comets. The idea would be to propel the craft at roughly twice the gravitational force found on Earth, and astronauts would be selected and trained for just such a high-pressure ride only if they passed the most rigorous of tests to insure that their hearts, lungs and muscle stamina could withstand being seated atop a Hiroshima-type blast.

Farfetched? NASA later conceived of the Orion spaceship as having a 20-man crew module perched atop the massive rocket. There would be a large payload section behind the astronauts, and under that would be an immense cylindrical delivery system—its sole purpose to squirt out pre-assembled atomic devices down a shaft toward the bottom of the rocket, where the bombs would detonate under an enormous round metal plate. Between the steel plate and the base of the rocket would be shock absorbers some 90 feet in height and as thick as prairie silos. The shock absorbers and the thick metal plate would cushion the crew from the sudden force and shield them from the radioactive blast. Each atomic blast would be a controlled pulse, designed mathematically to give just the right nudge to the rocket.

And just to clarify: the whole thing would be assembled in space, in high Earth orbit, with pieces and materials sent into space via conventional heavy lifting. Once assembled and loaded for the long voyage, with astronauts strapped in their cushioned chairs and shielded chambers, the first bomb would be ignited under that pusher plate. Then, boom, boom, boom, they would be off to Mars or a distant asteroid.

As outlandish as this plan sounds now, it was held in high esteem by some U.S. thinkers in the early days of the space race with the Soviets. For one, the Orion blueprints required nothing out-of-the-ordinary in terms of known technologies on Earth. The U.S. had atomic bombs aplenty, and it was assumed that the logistical complexities of assembling the enormous spaceship in Earth orbit would be offset by what was believed—widely at the time—to be the advantages of heavy industry and component assembly in zero gravity. Yes, it may take a lot of heavy rockets to get those steel pieces into space, but once there, a few specially-trained astronauts with socket wrenches and welding gear could wrestle the parts together in the weightlessness of a working space dry dock.

Companies like Ford, GM, McDonnell Aircraft, North American Aviation, and GE were approached to begin thinking about what it would take, and scientists like Freeman Dyson and Theodore Taylor signed on as advisors to Orion project. According to the science writer Nigel Calder, engineers even built a 120th-scale working model of the atomic-pulse spaceship, and using conventional small explosives in place of the atomic bombs, sent the model rocket approximately 200 feet into the air as demonstration of its promise. Like the proposed atomic bomb Orion rocket, the scale model’s charges were timed electronically to detonate at specific intervals.

The lofty goal was to enable Orion to send 15 to 20 astronauts into deepest space, and in those days the smart money said that the first stop on that ongoing journey would be Mars—similar to Earth in size, atmosphere, and gravity, and long-theorized to harbor water and ice. Some more fanciful plans (at the time those plans were considered pragmatic) included women astronauts as part of the crew—a contingency meant to enable colonization and repopulation if the Orion team was unable to return to Earth, or if the final design might involve a one-way ticket to Mars.

And Orion’s earliest next stage—after Mars—always included the promise of mineral-rich places like asteroids, or the dozens of moons circling Jupiter and Saturn. In those days, Orion might have been the first step toward an industrial boom in space—wherein thousands of tons of precious metals and scarce minerals could be mined and shipped back to Earth. Taylor and Dyson also quickly envisioned a tipping point in space dry dock construction and output—an assembly system which might enable the construction of even larger atomic pulse spaceships capable of carrying crews of hundreds under a mixed-use configuration of military, commercial and scientific authorities and assignment.

This mega-Orion dream—Orion as part luxury-liner, part battleship—is part of what inspired Gene Roddenberry to create a television screenplay proposal which he described to CBS Television as “sort of a Wagon Train to the Stars.” That series would be known as Star Trek. (CBS rejected Roddenberry’s proposed TV series, but he eventually sold the idea to Paramount and NBC).

The Orion team, including its outside proponents Dyson, Taylor, and others, quickly saw that the lifting capability of the huge Saturn V was immense, and in their view the assembly of the giant Orion spacecraft could be easily achieved through dozens of Saturn V payload and materials launches, with minimal crew. The chief advantage of Orion—when built using the atomic-pulse technology—was that it could propel humans to Mars in a fraction of the time it would take using conventional propulsion methods at that time. Without Orion, for example, some estimated an 11 or 12 month journey from Earth orbit to the Red Planet—and the logistics and complexities of providing food and water to even the smallest crew would have been daunting. Using the atomic-pulse, Orion would have delivered humans to Mars in less than four months.

But project Orion was eventually pushed toward the back burner. Though NASA had high hopes for Orion’s noble goal of deep space travel, political and military pressure meant that the U.S. race with the Soviets would focus at first entirely on reaching the moon. After initially trailing the Soviets in virtually all forms of space and rocketry, President John F. Kennedy created a national goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. President’s Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, equally invested in that singular purpose, saw fit to push the race even harder despite technological challenges, and the deadly setback of the Apollo One fire. By the time the last American had stepped off of the moon’s surface (Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, the 12th and last U.S. astronaut to have walked on the moon) and returned to Earth in 1972, the U.S. supremacy in space seemed to have been assured. Tellingly, the Soviets concentrated their efforts on long-duration space flights, achieving numerous records for the longest time in space—sometimes as individuals, often as teams. In the meantime, the U.S. shuttle program began to move slowly toward its debut.

Aside from the fact that the Apollo missions became preeminent in the American imagination in the 1960s and early 1970s, there were other pressures on Orion which sent it into the NASA dustbin for decades. For one, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union was signed in 1963, and reaffirmed again in 1965. These treaties and international agreements effectively killed 95% of Orion’s basic premise and design, and left the engineers and scientists with little room to adapt. Though the project remained active, but with limited research funding, it suffered more setbacks when NASA funding was slashed in the 1970s after Apollo, and during the 1970s recession. Then, as a component of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), more restrictions were placed on the use of nuclear detonations. Finally, as the shuttle program gained full speed, long-range, deep-space travel seemed again on the back burner.

Despite bans of detonating actual bombs, as the crude drawings of the first Orion illustrate, other forms of nuclear power were evolving which would give the Orion advocates hope. There was also the possibility of a fusion reactor onboard a spaceship—cleaner and “safer” in that there would be no overt blast. And then there were a dozen non-explosive, propellant-free forms of interplanetary travel being widely discussed in those days (and many of these proposals remain attractive even now), including the exotic and often picturesque process of “sailing” by harvesting and harnessing the sun’s radiation and the sun’s energy. Though the sun’s energy is mild and gentle, meaning that a solar sailcraft would accelerate closely at first, in the clear vacuum of space there would be nothing to prevent the craft from gaining momentum at a reliable clip, and soon it could travel at speeds in excess of a million miles per day. This means that a light, unmanned craft could reach the outter edge of our solar system in less than a decade. Japan launched the world’s first such craft in 2010, a sailcraft which harnesses photons for propulsion.

But those solar sails are not yet strong enough to carry the weight of a large crew, along with the requisite water, food, medical supplies, tools, electronic batteries, and other provisions—a problem which took NASA back to conventional forms of propulsion and combustion.

NASA’s immediate work is to analyze and digest the volumes of data collected on Orion’s maiden launch. Last week’s mission was merely a test of the Orion crew module, as well as a test of the capacity required to lift it and sustain it in high orbit. NASA’s ambitious plan for Orion includes more test launches near the end of this decade—a manned launch which will orbit the Earth and return, and several tests of the massive SLS now under construction at various contractor facilities around the country. The next step will be a “slingshot” test sometime around 2020 or 2021. Orion will be thrust into space atop the new SLS, then, thrown into a fast orbit of the Earth for several spins before it speeds off toward the moon. Orion will then circle the moon and return to Earth, presumably proving it can meet all the system requirements and all the engineering challenges well before that first mission to Mars tentatively slated for the late 2020s.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Will Orion Jumpstart Deep Space Exploration?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 8, 2014.

U.S. Space Travel Without Russia?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 15, 2014.