Lockheed Martin Wants to Launch Orion Spacecraft – on a Delta IV Heavy

by Jason Rhian on December 1, 2010

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If everything goes according to their plan - Lockheed Martin would have their Orion spacecraft launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Image Credit: NASA

After the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) one of the proposals to reduce the space flight ‘gap’ between the shuttle program and the Constellation Program was to attach the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to a Delta IV Heavy rocket. With all the political wrangling this simple solution appeared lost – or so it was thought. The idea of man-rating a Delta IV heavy never seemed to quite fade away and now a plan is under way to launch the Orion spacecraft on top of one of these massive launch vehicles – within the next three years.

More importantly by launching these test flights, NASA will be able to review up to three-quarters of the technical challenges involved with a flight to either the moon or to an asteroid – without risking a crew. Some of the elements that would be checked out on this unmanned test flight would be:

• Spacecraft stabilization and control.

• Parachutes used for reentry and other systems used to recover the spacecraft.

• Micrometeoroid shielding along with other systems used to protect the vehicle.

The manufacturer of the Orion spacecraft, Lockheed Martin, plans to have the first flight take place as soon as 2013. This test flight would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37. If all goes well? Astronauts could be riding the Delta IV heavy to destinations such as the moon or an asteroid by 2015. For now though these plans are still in their infancy.

If all does go according to how Lockheed Martin human spaceflight engineers plan – the first mission to an asteroid could beat the 2025 date that President Obama set during his April visit to Kennedy Space Center – by ten years.

Each successive flight after the first unmanned mission would shake out the technology more and more until crews fly into orbit. The first unmanned flight, as envisioned by Lockheed Martin, would emulate many of the elements of a mission to either an asteroid or to the moon.

For long-time followers of the space program, witnessing a man-rated launch of a Delta IV heavy will very much be a blast from the past. In the early days of the space program astronauts rode Atlas and Titan rockets into orbit (these rockets were actually man-rated Cold-War missiles). Attached atop the Delta IV would be the Orion capsule and on top of that would be a Launch Abort System (LAS). This last component is a small mini-rocket that would pull the capsule up and away from the Delta if there is an emergency.

Once the flight is completed, the Orion will splashdown in the same general area as Space Exploration Technology’s (SpaceX’s) Dragon Spacecraft – the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

The Orion Spacecraft has proved itself to be a survivor. President Obama initially promised to support NASA’s lunar ambitions on the campaign trail – a promise he went back on once elected. He then attempted to cancel all elements of the Constellation Program of which Orion was a key part. This proposal landed with a resounding thud. He then attempted to gain support for his space plan by resurrecting Orion as a stripped down lifeboat for the International Space Station (ISS) – this too met with little support. Eventually, after much Congressional wrangling, Orion emerged as the one element of Constellation – which Obama could not kill.

Congress has put some support behind his plan to have commercial space firms provide transportation to low-Earth-orbit (LEO). However, these firms have no experience whatsoever launching men and material to orbit – and Congress wanted to have a backup plan – that meant Orion. As the launch vehicle that would have hefted Orion to orbit was effectively dead another rocket was required – the best candidate was the Delta IV heavy.

Within three years a Delta IV Heavy like this one could launch the first Orion capsule. Photo Credit: Universe Today/Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com

Brett December 2, 2010 at 10:38 AM

TerryG and Gopher65 –
You guys are conspicuously absent when UT does EXTREMELY left leaning commentaries, which is actually – and sadly – quite often, considering this is a science site. The article is about getting manned flights via the Orion capsule up and running, and the overhaul of our space exploration program is a big part of the story. There is nothing that is inaccurate in the article on how Orion almost ceased to be. Please, Gopher65, take your own advice and stop trying to politicize.

Jason – I’m just glad somebody at UT was finally willing to lift the ban on critical reporting and stop offering platitudes to the current administration wherever possible. The problem with our manned spaceflight program is not political, but practical – as in, NASA goes over time and budget on every single project it has ever been involved in – sometimes by an order of magnitude or more. That may be an overstatement, but it’s not far from the truth. When NASA can start showing some fiscal responsibility, we may find a more workable budget in its future.

Jason Rhian December 2, 2010 at 12:57 PM

TerryG – What I wrote had nothing to do with either me or my ego. It just ruffled feather’s because it slaughtered a few sacred cows.

I find it amusing that when I write a piece that is pro SpaceX it is lauded, but whenever I point out the massive flaws in what has been done to NASA – suddenly I need to be taught how to ‘properly’ do things and I have an issue with my ego.

Given this, again, inconvenient fact – I’m not sure that I’m the one who needs to check either his ego, or his narrow world-view at the door.

Sincerely and with warmest regards, Jason Rhian

Emilio December 2, 2010 at 2:46 PM

>The first shuttles were manned. YES! that is what makes Young and Crippen the best test pilots yet.

Test pilot, do you think rocket is something you fly with joystick? When NASA developed Space Shuttle, they used aircraft qualification approach to cut cost. Did you know NASA built like 50 Apollo capsule to man rate it? They should have built like 25 Shuttle for testing to properly space quality it. Shuttle was never space qualified. That is why it blew up twice!

ND December 2, 2010 at 7:50 PM

50 capsules? Unfortunately the Apollo 1 fire showed it wasn’t ready to be man rated yet :(

lacalaca December 3, 2010 at 9:04 AM

Whoa, I’m not very familiar with US politics but I never thought it can be reduced to who likes commercial space or the good ol’ NASA folks (Constellation, etc.).

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb December 3, 2010 at 1:05 AM

TerryG said;

“The problem with our manned spaceflight program is not political, but practical…”

I’d strongly disagree. The problem in the US is a financial one and trying to stop the increasing problematic debt crisis. Obama has absolutely done the right thing (and is being hammered for it in the polls) in trying holding back the government spending and is focussing on the short falls like health care, unemployment and worrying grow of its population reaching the poverty line. While getting Orion up and running might seem to be a priority for US technology and employment in the aerospace industries, there is a long way to go before it is “practical’ and economic. Frankly NASA is have enough problems keeping the established space projects going other than taking on new ones.
If America works harder on its social and economical woes, the time to return to its more ambitious projects and goals will be much shorter. Attempting to strive imagining new unaffordable dreams is plain nuts IMO!

Torbjorn Larsson OM December 3, 2010 at 9:29 AM

Very disappointing slanted article:

there is nothing factually inaccurate in what I wote

But there is. And even if there wasn’t, you have concocted a (political) story that places facts in an unreasonable context.

And how many times do we need to point to the very open fact that Obama didn’t make the Moon unattainable early, according to the independent Augustine report it was impossible given the facts.

So let us look at those “sacred cows” that didn’t get slaughtered:
1) President Obama didn’t “initially” promise “to support NASA’s lunar ambitions on the campaign trail”. He was not mentioning the Moon, but wanted to delay Constellation.

Before election and, I would guess, among criticism, he changed his mind, and endorsed “the goal of
sending human missions to the Moon by 2020
(pg 3 of Obama’08 “ADVANCING THE FRONTIERS OF SPACE EXPLORATION”).

2) Obama didn’t back out of any lunar ambitions. As said (many times) Augustine et al concluded that 2020 was impossible, even with an impossibly large increase in investment:
“As assessed by the Committee, this case delivers Ares I/
Orion in late 2016, achieves human lunar return by the
early 2020s, and a human-tended lunar outpost a few years
later. These are very close to the dates held internally by the
Constellation Program. However, the Committee’s analysis
indicates that in order to achieve the milestones on that
schedule, the implementable Program of Record requires, in
real-year dollars” (p 83).

Seeing that his endorsed goal was unattainable, and given a better option by Augustine, he made a compromise that goes along “the Flexible Path” strategy, which leaves options for going to the Moon.

If anything, it was a letdown when Obama tried to compromise by keeping Orion as rescue vehicle. And of course the current compromise, which diverts resources from successful program to one which has proven to not meet given goals.
Finally, the unambiguous factual incorrectness:
“However, these firms have no experience whatsoever launching men and material to orbit ”
For example Space-X has launched material, more precisely satellites.

As in science, you don’t promote alternative theories by trying to critique the working ones (commercial space endeavors). You do it by showing your own theory/technique/venture competitive.

And btw, why would UT run slanted articles anyway? It is a science site, we like straight up reporting of facts!

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb December 3, 2010 at 1:36 AM

Attempting to strive imagining new unaffordable dreams is plain nuts IMO!

I meant

Attempting to strive or imagining new unaffordable dreams is plain nuts IMO!

Brett December 3, 2010 at 7:29 AM

Hon. Crumb – that was actually my comment, not Terry G. I would argue that it is indeed a practical matter, as it specifically pertains to manned spaceflight. I’m not referring to the problems in the US in general. This was not meant to be a political discussion. The problem with NASA is that it spends more money than it receives. That’s a practical matter. It’s a political matter regarding the amount of funding allocated, but it’s a practical matter in terms of a) how NASA choses to spend it, and b) how NASA choses to manage its budget. If anyone could ever show me a fiscal year in which NASA managed its budget effectively, then I’d love to discuss the politics of the situation. However, until NASA decides to get its financial and project management responsibilities in order, the amount of NASA’s budget is inconsequential.

I don’t complain to my boss if I can’t pay my bills.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb December 3, 2010 at 8:14 AM

Hon. Crumb – that was actually my comment…

Oops! Just a simple err. Sorry.

You might also be right about NASA. It’s hard to cut back on your budget when you have been use to high-life for so long!

One point though… economics is not necessarily about being political

Brett December 3, 2010 at 7:56 PM

Hon. Crumb – “One point though… economics is not necessarily about being political.”
Thank you, kind sir. In a round about way, that’s basically all I wanted to say. I hate that politics always seems to rear its ugly head for no good cause in otherwise important discussion; and, this is important stuff we care about.

Paul Eaton-Jones December 6, 2010 at 3:44 AM

Great story. Let’s hope this actually happens. Btw, I think the new layout is appalling.

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