We’ve been regularly sending men and women into space since the Space Shuttle program began with the launch of STS-1 in 1981. While this was a great step forward in space travel, we never went any further than the orbit of our own planet. Even now, the only manned space travel consists of shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space Station in Soyuz capsules launched from Kazakhstan. The Orion spacecraft was designed to change that, potentially becoming the first deep space manned capsule since the Apollo missions.
What is Orion?
Orion is the spiritual successor to the capsules used by the Apollo astronauts. This advanced craft is designed to push the boundaries of space flight, carrying astronauts beyond the Moon, to Mars and maybe even further as the technology advances.
It will also be able to carry the astronauts home after a long space voyage, utilizing a new type of heat shield to protect the astronauts and their equipment from the extreme heat of reentry that occurs at these higher speeds. The main pieces of the cockpit are welded together, requiring a finer degree of abrasive finishing that ensures the heat shield coatings adhere properly. Even the smallest variation in the hull at the speeds that the craft will be traveling could create a failure point — one single point on the shield superheats and causes the heat shield and potentially the hull itself to fail during reentry.
These capsules could potentially turn humanity into a truly space faring species, so successes during these test and preparation phases are essential.
2014 — First Flight
December 5th, 2014 marked the first test flight — unmanned — of the Orion Capsule. Attached to the enormous Delta IV Heavy Rocket, the capsule was successfully launched and performed two orbits of the planet before splashing down and being recovered from the Pacific Ocean.
This slight wasn’t designed to test the capsules survivability, but to determine if all the equipment would function properly once the craft was outside of Earth’s atmosphere. It also monitored temperature and radiation levels both inside and outside of the capsule to ensure that the shielding was working properly and would be able to protect any potential astronauts.
2018 — Test Flight 2
The second planned unmanned test flight for the Orion capsule is supposed to take place in 2018, but it is running into some delays. While the first test was successfully launched with the Delta IV Heavy, the spacecraft is designed to be launched by NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS). As of the time of this writing though, the SLS is unfinished and still untested. It may not be ready in time for the next unmanned test flight which could push the launch window further back.
These delays are primarily due to a lack of funding — the project only has $6.7 billion to last until the first manned mission. At this point, though, NASA is planning to do both the testing of the SLS and the next unmanned Orion flight in 2018.
2021-2023 — Manned Missions
Depending on the outcome of the next unmanned Orion flight, NASA is optimistically planning on their first manned mission with this spacecraft no later than April 2023.
The delays in the manned mission might present a funding problem but they also improve the potential outcome of the mission — the more time NASA can spend testing the Orion capsule and the SLS rocket that will carry it, the smaller the chance of a catastrophic or fatal error occurring during the actual mission.
The tentative plan for the first manned Orion mission includes a variety of maneuvers in space as well as a lunar flyby where the spacecraft will circle the dark side of the moon before returning home.
2030 and Beyond — Mars Bound
The primary goal of the Orion tests and missions is to get human beings to the surface of Mars. This probably won’t happen until the early to mid 2030s at the soonest, but the Orion tests are the perfect example of us taking a step in the right direction.
Once we reach Mars and figure out how to survive there, we can look into exploring the rest of the cosmos. We just have to take one step at a time, and the first step is to get the Orion program off the ground. This program will be the first steps that we’ve taken outside our own orbit since Apollo 17 carried astronauts to Mars. Whether we will become a truly interstellar species or we’ll just spread out throughout our solar system remains to be seen. The future is not set in stone but for anyone who’s ever looked up at the stars and wondered what was out there, this is extremely exciting news.
We’re not there yet, but we’re taking our first baby steps out into the cosmos and that is an amazing thing.