Human Mission to an Asteroid: The Orion MPCV

Back in 2007, when the Constellation program to return to the Moon was still the program of record for NASA, a group from Lockheed Martin began investigating how they might be able to use the Orion lunar capsule to send humans on a mission to an asteroid. Originally, this plan — called Plymouth Rock — was just a study to see how an asteroid mission with Orion could possibly serve as a complement to the baseline of Constellation’s lunar mission plans.

Now, it has turned into much more.

The Orion MPCV being built and tested at Lockheed Martin in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: John O'Connor, NASATech.net. Click for super-large, pan-able image.

Thanks to John O’Connor from NASATech.net, we are able to show you some views of the Orion MPCV inside Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Boulder, Colorado. If you click on the images, you’ll be taken to the NASATech website and extremely large versions of the images that you can pan around and see incredible details of the MPCV and the building.

After canceling Constellation in February of 2010, two months later President Obama outlined sending astronauts to a nearby asteroid by 2025 and going to Mars by the mid-2030’s.

In May of 2011, NASA confirmed that the centerpiece of those missions will be the Orion – now called the Orion MultiPurpose Crew Vehicle. The repurposed Orion lunar vehicle would now be going to an asteroid, just like Josh Hopkins and his team from Lockheed Martin envisioned in their Plymouth Rock study.

Hopkins is the Principal Investigator for Advanced Human Exploration Missions, a team of engineers who develop plans and concepts for a variety of future human exploration missions.

“Normally when you take a spacecraft or a piece of hardware that has been designed for one job and you try to figure out how to use it for a different job, you discover there are all these details that don’t work out quite right,” Hopkins told Universe Today. “But we were pleasantly surprised that when we took this lunar version of Orion and applied it to an asteroid mission, it is a really flexible and capable vehicle and a lot of the requirements for the lunar mission match pretty well with the asteroid mission.”

Concept drawing of the Plymouth Rock mission to an asteroid. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

The Plymouth Rock design called for using two specially modified Orion spacecraft docked nose to nose in order to provide enough living space, propulsion, and life-support for two astronauts heading to an asteroid. But NASA has said the MPCV will be used primarily for launch and entry while a larger habitation module would be docked to the MPCV to enable a crew of 4 to travel to deep space.

Shuttle astronaut Tom Jones was impressed with the Plymouth Rock concept, but knows a larger companion vehicle will be needed for a trip to an asteroid. “Plymouth Rock is the minimalist approach to do an asteroid mission,” he said. “That’s one way to solve the redundancy problem in the short-term.”

But even developing an in-space habitat could be a matter of repackaging things we already have. “The hab module could be derived directly from what we’ve done for space station, or it could be a commercial inflatable like from Bigelow, so that might be tried out by a commercial station or hotel in the next 10 years, so that would be demonstrated technology,” Jones said.

The Orion MPCV along with some of the people on the team that is developing and testing the capsule at the Lockheed Martin facility in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: John O'Connor, NASATech.net. Click for large, pan-able image.

“Basically the tradeoff between a larger in-space habitat module versus the dual Orion approach is that by having a separate habitat you have more living space, more storage space, and there is the potential that it would be better for performing spacewalks,” said Hopkins. “But then you have to invest the costs for developing that system.”

Hopkins added that when he and his team initially conceived the Plymouth Rock mission, they were trying to figure out how to do an asteroid mission for as little as possible. Using two Orions was cheaper than developing a module specific to an asteroid mission.

“For Plymouth Rock, we had spelled out the need to basically increase the amount of food, water, oxygen and storage in the spacecraft, and some of that is accomplished by the fact of having two spacecraft,” Hopkins said.

For now, NASA hasn’t yet changed many of the requirements for the MPCV from what they previously were for the lunar vehicle, and as the mission design evolves, so might the MPCV. But so far, the lunar design seems to be working, and Hopkins said there are several design features already in Orion that make it very capable as a deep space vehicle.

For lunar missions, Orion was designed for basically 21 days with a crew on board going from Earth to the Moon and back and having a roughly have a six month “loiter period” while the crew was down on the lunar surface. That scenario would work for an asteroid mission, as a crewed flight to an asteroid would likely be about a six-month roundtrip journey, depending on the destination.

“So in things like reliability, leak rate of atmosphere in the cabin, and protection from radiation and micrometeorites, Orion is already designed for 6-7 month missions for the hardware,” Hopkins explained. “It is just not designed to have people for that long of time period.”

Orion has solar arrays rather than fuel cells like Apollo, which enable longer missions. Another big selling point is that the MPCV is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle.

“The reentry speeds are just a little bit faster for an asteroid mission than a lunar mission,” Hopkins said, “but current the thermal protection system we have should be able to handle it.”

At look inside the hatch of the Orion capsule at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans. Credit: John O'Connor, NASATech.net. Click for large, pan-able image.

Inside the MPCV is 9 cubic meters of habitable volume. “That is not total pressurized volume of the structure, but the space that’s left after computers, seats, supplies are all accounted for,” said Hopkins. “That’s about twice the size of a modern passenger van, like a Toyota Sienna.”

One big challenge is to figure out how use every nook and cranny to package a lot of supplies in a small amount of space, as the Orion could serve as a storeroom of sorts. “We think it’s possible,” Hopkins said. “We’ve done initial calculations that we can pack a reasonable amount of volume but it would be a pretty tight fit and we also have to think about the secondary things that need to be included, so that’s work that is ongoing.”

Logistically, the Orion MPCV could even support doing an EVA from the hatch on the capsule.

“We have a hatch that is big enough that an astronaut in a space suit can get out,” Hopkins said, “and the internal systems in the spacecraft are designed to tolerate the cabin being depressurized. We don’t rely on air circulation to carry the heat away from the electronics – they have their own cold plates to take the heat away. The knobs are designed to be manipulated with spacesuit gloves on, not just bare hands. A lot of those features just worked out to be pretty applicable to the asteroid mission because it was designed for a similar set of mission requirements.”

Lockheed Martin’s Space Operations Simulation Center in Colorado can simulates the MPCV docking with an asteroid. Credit: John O'Connor, NASATech.net. Click for large, pan-able image.

Hopkins knows the requirements and capabilities the Orion, as well as the in-space habitat will likely change over time, depending on the destination and the timeline. “If the plan is to go to the moons of mars or distant asteroids relatively soon, say in the late 2020’s or early 2030s, you might go ahead and build a relatively large, capable in space habitat, because you will definitely need it for those more distant missions. But if the idea were to go to the easiest asteroids to get to and do that relatively soon, then you might stick with a smaller simpler habitat module, or perhaps even the twin Orion approach.”

When the MPCV does return from a mission to an asteroid, it will likely land in the Pacific Ocean. NASA has begun some at NASA’s Langley Research Center to certify the vehicle for water landings. Engineers have dropped a 22,000-pound MPCV mockup into the basin. The test item is similar in size and shape to MPCV, but is more rigid so it can withstand multiple drops. Each test has a different drop velocity to represent the MPCV’s possible entry conditions during water landings.

So while these tests are happening and while Hopkins and his team from Lockheed Martin are working on and testing the Orion MPCV, NASA is still trying to decide on a heavy-lift launch system capable of bringing humans beyond low Earth orbit and they have not named anyone to lead the design of a human mission to an asteroid. The NASA website doesn’t even have any official information about a human asteroid mission; it only mentions “beyond low Earth orbit” as the next stop for humans.

“We’re talking about something that is going to happen in 2025 so we haven’t even decided on a spacecraft yet,” said Michael Braukus from NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate via a phone call. “We’re planning on the asteroid mission happening; it’s just that we haven’t designated a person to be responsible for the asteroid mission itself. We have the Orion MPCV under construction and we are awaiting on the decision of a space launch system, which will be the rocket that will carry it to deep space, and we’re progressing down the road, but haven’t reached a point yet where we have actually assigned someone to start developing the mission.”

So, that appears to be NASA’s current biggest hurdle to a human asteroid mission: deciding on the Space Launch System.

Previous article in this series: Human Mission to an Asteroid: Why Should NASA Go?

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

Human Mission to an Asteroid: Why Should NASA Go?

Imagine, if you can, the first time human eyes see Earth as a distant, pale blue dot. We’ve dreamed of deep space missions for centuries, and during the Apollo era, space enthusiasts assumed we’d surely be out there by now. Nevertheless, given the current state of faltering economies and potential budget cuts for NASA and other space agencies, sending humans beyond low Earth orbit might seem as impossible and unreachable as ever, if not more.

But NASA has been given a presidential directive to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, a mission that some say represents the most ambitious and audacious plan yet for the space agency.

“The human mission to an asteroid is an extremely important national goal,” Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart told Universe Today. “It will focus both NASA’s and the nation’s attention on we humans extending our capability beyond Earth/Moon space and into deep space. This is an essential capability in order to ultimately get to Mars, and a relatively short mission to a near-Earth asteroid is a logical first step in establishing a deep space human capability.”

And, Schweickart added, the excitement factor of such a mission would be off the charts. “Humans going into orbit around the Sun is pretty exciting!” said Schweickart, who piloted the lunar module during the Apollo 9 mission in 1969. “The Earth will be, for the first time to human eyes, a small blue dot.”

But not everyone agrees that an asteroid is the best destination for humans. Several of Schweickart’s Apollo compatriots, including Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, favor returning to the Moon and are concerned that President Obama’s directive is a “grounding of JFK’s space legacy.”

Compounding the issue is that NASA has not yet decided on a launch system capable of reaching deep space, much less started to build such a rocket.

Can NASA really go to an asteroid?

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has called a human mission to an asteroid “the hardest thing we can do.”

Excited by the challenge, NASA chief technology officer Bobby Braun said, “This is a risky, challenging mission. It’s the kind of mission that engineers will eat up.”

A human mission to an asteroid is a feat of technical prowess that might equal or exceed what it took for the US to reach the Moon in the 1960’s. Remember scientists who thought the moon lander might disappear into a “fluffy” lunar surface? That reflects our current understanding of asteroids: we don’t know how different asteroids are put together (rubble pile or solid surface?) and we certainly aren’t sure how to orbit and land on one.

“One of the things we need to work on is figuring out what you actually do when you get to an asteroid,” said Josh Hopkins from Lockheed Martin, who is the Principal Investigator for Advanced Human Exploration Missions. Hopkins leads a team of engineers who develop plans and concepts for a variety of future human exploration missions, including visits to asteroids. He and his team proposed the so-called “Plymouth Rock” mission to an asteroid (which we’ll discuss more in a subsequent article), and have been working on the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which would be a key component of a human mission to an asteroid.

“How do you fly in formation with an asteroid that has a very weak gravitational field, so that other perturbations such as slight pressure from the Sun would affect your orbit,” Hopkins mused, in an interview with Universe Today. “How do you interact with an asteroid, especially if you don’t know exactly what its surface texture and composition is? How do you design anchors or hand-holds or tools that can dig into the surface?”

Hopkins said he and his team have been working on developing some technologies that are fairly “agnostic” about the asteroid – things that will work on a wide variety of asteroids, rather than being specific to an iron type- or carbonaceous-type asteroid.

Hypothetical astronaut mission to an asteroid. Credit: NASA Human Exploration Framework Team

A weak gravity field means astronauts probably couldn’t walk on some asteroids – they might just float away, so ideas include installing handholds or using tethers, bungees, nets or jetpacks. In order for a spaceship to stay in orbit, astronauts might have to “harpoon” the asteroid and tether it to the ship.

Hopkins said many of those types of technologies are being developed for and will be demonstrated on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, the robotic sample return mission that NASA recently just selected for launch in 2016. “That mission is very complimentary to a future human mission to an asteroid,” Hopkins said.

Benefits

What benefits would a human asteroid mission provide?

“It would add to our body of knowledge about these interesting, and occasionally dangerous bodies,” said Schweickart, “and benefit our interest in protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts. So the human mission to a NEO is a very high priority in my personal list.”

Space shuttle astronaut Tom Jones says he thinks a mission to near Earth objects is a vital part of a planned human expansion into deep space. It would be an experiential stepping stone to Mars, and much more.

“Planning 6-month round trips to these ancient bodies will teach us a great deal about the early history of the solar system, how we can extract the water known to be present on certain asteroids, techniques for deflecting a future impact from an asteroid, and applying this deep space experience toward human Mars exploration,” Jones told Universe Today.

“Because an asteroid mission will not require a large, expensive lander, the cost might be comparable to a shorter, lunar mission, and NEO expeditions will certainly show we have set our sights beyond the Moon,” he said.

But Jones – and others – are concerned the Obama administration is not serious about such a mission and that the president’s rare mentions of a 2025 mission to a nearby asteroid has not led to firm NASA program plans, realistic milestones or adequate funding.

“I think 2025 is so far and so nebulous that this administration isn’t taking any responsibility for making it happen,” Jones said. “They are just going to let that slide off the table until somebody else takes over.”

Jones said he wouldn’t be surprised if nothing concrete happens with a NASA deep space mission until there is an administration change.

“The right course is to be more aggressive and say we want people out of Earth orbit in an Orion vehicle in 2020, so send them around the Moon to test out the ship, get them to the LaGrange points by 2020 and then you can start doing asteroid missions over the next few years,” Jones said. “Waiting for 2025 is just a political infinity in terms of making things happen.”

Jones said politics aside, it is certainly feasible to do all this by 2020. “That is nine years from now. My gosh, we are talking about getting a vehicle getting out of Earth orbit. If we can’t do that in nine years, we probably don’t have any hope of doing that in longer terms.”

Can NASA do such a mission? Will it happen? If so, how? Which asteroid should humans visit?

In a series of articles, we’ll take a closer look at the concepts and hurdles for a human mission to an asteroid and attempt to answer some of these questions.

Next: The Orion MPCV

For more reading: Tom Jones’ op-ed in Popular Mechanics, “50 Years After JFK’s Moon Declaration, We Need a New Course in Space”; More info on OSIRIS_REx,