With the phasing out of the shuttle missions, NASA has turned its focus to manned space exploration of interstellar bodies. NASA is looking to better understand the origins and history of the Universe along with continuing the human drive lifelong drive to explore the unknown and discover new worlds. Orion is the first crew vehicle intended for exploration to the moon, near-Earth asteroids, Mars and for missions deeper into space. It is also intended to serve as a back up to the commercial space shuttle missions to the International Space Station.
Orion is a multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) that is comprised of three main components: the launch abort system, crew and service module. Attached to the top of the crew module is a tower that houses the launch abort system (LAS). It is meant to protect the crew in case of an emergency during launch and ascension to orbit. It is designed to react within milliseconds to propel the module to safety, it also protects the crew module from dangerous heating and atmospheric loads; and once the crew module reaches a safe altitude, the LAS jettisons.
The crew module is the portion of the spacecraft that houses the crew along with storage for the research instruments and supplies. The module also has a docking port for crew transfers and is the only part of spacecraft that returns to Earth. The service module stays with the spacecraft until reentry. It provides the crew module with water, oxygen and nitrogen. It also provides attitude control, propulsion capability for orbital transfer and high altitude ascent aborts while generating and storing electrical power.
Orion is a large part of NASA’s Stepping Stones program. This program is comprised of multiple exploration missions which lead to the long-term goal of human Mars exploration. The preceding missions are meant to develop the capabilities necessary for a Mars mission which will require a heavy lift launch, operating on a low-gravity body, the ability to maintain crew health for many months and cryopropellant storage. Orion’s missions may include a trip to the dark side of the moon, to a number of near Earth asteroids and then ultimately to Mars.
Orion just completed a parachute drop test to assess how the system would respond if one of the three parachutes inflated too quickly. The next major step will be in 2014 when an Orion spacecraft will launch for a flight test where it will travel 3,600 miles above the surface of the Earth. The main purpose of the flight test is to evaluate the heat shield’s performance while returning from deep space.
Orion is the next major step in space exploration, and while NASA may have handed over the space shuttle missions to commercial companies, they maintain their place at the forefront of interstellar research and discovery. NASA has focused its sights on moving forward in order to better understand the solar system we inhabit and the planets that neighbor us. This next leap will undoubtedly result in new, better technologies that will assist in our everyday lives while deepening our understanding of the Universe around us.