Will Orion Jumpstart Deep Space Exploration?

Orion Launch

Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls

Will Orion Jumpstart Deep Space Exploration?
| published December 8, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Talk of a manned space mission to Mars has been around for generations, almost since the dawn of modern science fiction. By the end of the 1960s we had landed men on the moon—half a dozen times—and Mars was the next logical step. But by the late 1990s the discussions had taken on a quality that indicated we may never see the goal of putting humans onto the surface of the Red Planet achieved during our lifetime—or the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

In the meantime, politics and real-world events have a way of changing that trajectory, so to speak. The American space program—which means mostly NASA—has become almost entirely dependent on Russia to get rockets into space. With the discontinuation of the shuttle program, U.S. lifting capability ended—though the need to get into Earth orbit remained a critical part of the U.S. agenda. A post-Cold War ally, Russia welcomed a partnership which meant that the U.S. would contract for the use of Russian rockets.

The Ukrainian crisis put an abrupt end to the comfort level that once existed between Russia and the United States. Worse, a Launchpad disaster in Virginia in late October, and the crash of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft on October 31, combined to cast a pall over a period expected to be the start of a boom in space activity—brought on by increasing demands by military, research and communications companies to get hardware into Earth orbit. After a long dispute with the United States Air Force and several major corporations (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin), Elon Musk won his chance to compete on a level playing field for the chance to compete for just such contracts.

But recent setbacks—most especially the explosion of that Orbital Sciences supply ship meant to carry supplies to the International Space station—harkened back to a time in the earliest days of the space race when U.S.-made hardware was so unreliable (and explosive) as to call into question American resolve and ability.

But if that accident at the Wallops Island, Virginia launch complex marked a low point (some might argue that Virgin Galactic’s horrific crash was worse, since the life of a pilot was lost), NASA’s successful launch of its new Orion spacecraft in early December seemed to breathe new life into the narrative.

Talk of going to Mars gained new momentum in the early aught years, but political fighting and budgetary concerns intruded for much of that time. The Great Recession of 2008-2010 put the brakes on the Mars program altogether, through the research, development and testing trudged forward slowly. Then, on Thursday, December 4, millions waited…and waited. There were delays, then, the flight was rescheduled.

But on Friday, December 5, the new Orion spacecraft was successfully launched in an early-morning liftoff at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Orion module—designed to carry astronauts into space but unmanned for the purposes of this test flight—sat fixed atop a multi-chamber rocket system using a Delta IV rocket. The lifting and propulsion system is designed to carry much heavier loads into high Earth orbit, for the Orion crew module is engineered to carry up to six astronauts into space.

NASA described the liftoff as flawless, but what was more significant was what came two hours after liftoff: the firing of the second stage boosters which pushed the rocket even higher into orbit, and placed it at an altitude of roughly 3,600 miles above the Earth. Orion reached an altitude 15 times higher than the International Space station, and much higher than the thousands of other satellites now circling the Earth. It was the highest positioning of a spacecraft rated for human travel since 1972, when the last of the Apollo moon mission was launched. The extremely-high altitude launching will be necessary for the orbital slingshot required to propel Orion on its long journey toward Mars—a mission which NASA hopes can be achieved by the middle part of the 2020s. NASA says it intends to test the entire launch and capsule system—with astronauts on board—in 2021.

Orion made two complete high-altitude orbits of the Earth, then, splashed down right on its assigned target in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego. Engineers will now spend months examining data collected by Orion’s onboard computers and sensors, and will look to determine how well the heat shield—the largest ever created for a capsule designed for human use—held up under the extreme conditions of re-entry.

Orion bears a vague resemblance to the Apollo capsule, except that it is much larger inside—an additional four feet of interior diameter--which roughly doubles the space inside the spacecraft. With room enough for six crew members, the Orion module must also allow for enough space for food, water, and other supplies for many weeks. The current Orion configuration will be sufficient to carry a crew of six for at least 21 days. With future tweaking and engineering adjustments, missions could last even longer.

Virgin Galactic’s “SpaceshipTwo” broke-up during a test flight over the California desert in October, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another who managed to eject from the spacecraft as it disintegrated. Although large sections of the winged spaceship were found immediately after the crash, other pieces have still not been located. Aviation experts say that Virgin Galactic debris may be scattered over a 35 mile area.

The explosion in Virginia at the Orbital Sciences launch complex, by contrast, resulted in a relatively small debris field, though experts have warned that many toxic and unstable materials and trace elements may be scattered near the coastal launch site. The Cygnus supply rocket exploded about 11 seconds into its flight. It had barely cleared the tower when its upward momentum seemed to stall, then, fireballs began to erupt from the rocket‘s fuselage. In a media statement, Orbital Sciences said that the final explosion was the result of automated and manually implemented self-destruct sequences. The Cygnus supply rocket was perched atop a Russian-made engine, which some experts have said is to blame for the disaster.

The Cygnus rocket was loaded with re-supply materials for the International Space Station, which at that time was host to two Americans, three Russians, and one German astronaut.

NASA hopes that the Orion program will serve as the first page of a new chapter of space exploration. Last week’s test flight was atop the Delta IV rocket systems, but NASA engineers hope to soon complete development and construction of a much larger heavy-lifting system, called Space Launch System (SLS). Parts of the SLS prototype have already been built, including major components in Alabama, California and Florida. NASA intends to integrate the Orion crew module with the SLS system, and sometime in 2019 or 2020 it will test the combined system’s readiness by sending Orion around the moon and returning it to Earth. NASA hopes that the moon slingshot test will be the final stage before putting astronauts on board the combined system for a mission to Mars or to a nearby asteroid or comet.

An important part of the Orion and SLS package is the abort system, large parts of which have been developed and built by private contractors at The Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The companies include Lockheed-Martin, and also several Alabama firms, including Arcata Associates, InfoPro, Teledyn Brown Engineering, and General Products.

Related Thursday Review articles:

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

Google Goes Into Space; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; June 16, 2014.