Orion Capsule Embarks on Cross Country Public Tour

Orion Test Capsule at Practice for Pad Abort 1 Test. The Orion test capsule is now on a cross country tour from New Mexico to Florida with stops in Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama. Ground teams in White Sands, New Mexico, practice stacking test versions of Orion and its launch abort system. This was being done in advance of Orion’s launch abort system test. Credit: NASA or National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Here’s your chance for a birds-eye view of an Orion capsule, up-close and personal ! Catch it if you can !

A full scale test version of one of NASA’s Orion spacecraft has embarked on a cross country tour from White Sands, New Mexico, across several states in the southern United States that ultimately lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Starting today, Jan. 27, an Orion spacecraft is open for viewing by the public in Texas at Victory Park and the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Orion fans in Texas
The Coopers from Southlake meet NASA astronaut Nick Patrick by the Orion crew module now on display at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX.

The display continues throughout this weekend after a well received visit to Oklahoma at the Science Museum Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.

Roller Derby team visits Orion test capsule now on public display in Texas

The next stop on the cross country journey is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala on Feb 1-2.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human spaceflight vehicle that will eventually replace the space shuttle and loft astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond to deep space destinations such as the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. It can also dock at the International Space Station (ISS).

The Orion crew module journey is a wonderful and fun opportunity for individuals and families to see real space exploration hardware with your own eyes and learn all about the goals and plans of the US Space Program and your investment in it as a taxpayer.

Knowledgeable Orion experts will be on hand to speak with visitors in easy to understand ways. This includes astronauts, engineers, program officials and press spokespeople from NASA, Lockheed-Martin (Orion prime contractor) and other companies involved in building the Orion capsule and other components that will rocket the vehicle to orbit.

Veteran NASA Astronauts Nick Patrick and Clay Anderson will be on hand at the Dallas stop. NASA Astronauts Doug Hurley and Jim Dutton will attend the Alabama display.

Hurley was the pilot for the final shuttle mission by Space Shuttle Atlantis for the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station.

Orion fans in Oklahoma. Credit: NASA

The Orion tour also includes colorful and informative display panels and fun kids activities that I’ve personally witnessed on several occasions. In past years the Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) engaged in similar trips.

This Orion test vehicle was used by ground crews preparing for the PA-1 launch abort system flight test that took place in New Mexico in 2010.

The first orbital flight test of an unmanned Orion is scheduled for 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster..

Orion fans in Dallas, Texas - Mike, Darnell and Akeem
Orion Test capsule with test facility workers at White Sands Facility, New Mexico. Credit: NASA

Look here for more information on the Orion stops in Texas and Alabama

American Airlines Center: http://www.americanairlinescenter.com/

U.S. Space and Rocket Center: http://www.ussrc.com/

NASA’s future has suddenly become a hot topic in the GOP Presidential Debates. Orion is at the center of that debate on whether Americans will ever return to the Moon.

This is your opportunity to see history in the making

NASA’s Next Crew Vehicle Will be Based on Orion

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being assembled and tested at Lockheed Martin's Vertical Testing Facility in Colorado. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin


NASA has made a decision on their next crew vehicle, and now have plans to develop a “new” spacecraft called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced today that the system will be based on designs originally planned for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle which was being built to return humans to the Moon. This decision shouldn’t come as a surprise, and it is not a huge leap or a big change for NASA — the Orion crew vehicle has been in continued development by Lockheed Martin and the company was already making changes in the vehicle for a proposed asteroid mission.

“We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there,” Bolden said. “The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration. As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy lift launch vehicle, we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track.”

Artist's rendering of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle on a deep space mission. Image credit: NASA

NASA said that Lockheed Martin will continue work on development of the MPCV, since they already have a test article built of the Orion. The spacecraft will carry four astronauts for 21-day missions and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. The spacecraft will have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, with 316 cubic feet of habitable space.

It will serve as the primary crew vehicle for missions beyond low Earth orbit and be capable of conducting regular in-space operations (rendezvous, docking, extravehicular activity) in conjunction with payloads delivered by a launch system for missions beyond LEO. The MPCV could also be a backup system for ISS cargo and crew delivery.

A 21-day mission might get astronauts to a nearby asteroid, but there would not be enough time for a longer-duration, far-away asteroid mission and certainly not to Mars. It would get you to the Moon, allowing astronauts to stay a couple weeks and then return home, which was what Constellation was going to do in its first stages.

UPDATE: During a press conference today, Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate said that the approach on the MPCV vehicle is that it primarily will be for launch and entry with in-space capabilities for only certain periods of time. “For long term missions, we would assume that we have an in-space habitation in a larger compartment or module since the crew would need more space for longer periods of time. So whether they are going to lunar orbit or near earth asteroids, this vehicle would be maintained in a dormant mode while the crew would be in another volume that would be capable of longer term use, but this vehicle would be used as launching to a larger volume, or for reentry.”

The Orion vehicle at one time had been pegged to be a rescue vehicle for the International Space Station. Cooke said that this new vehicle is not being designed for that, but another vehicle could be in designed for that.

One big selling point is that the new MPCV is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle.

“This selection does not indicate a business as usual mentality for NASA programs,” said Cooke, “The Orion government and industry team has shown exceptional creativity in finding ways to keep costs down through management techniques, technical solutions and innovation.”

Now, NASA just needs a rocket that can take the MPCV somewhere — as well as a new name for the MPCV. (Cooke said a name for the vehicle hasn’t been their top priority.) Cooke said they hope to make an announcement in July about the launch system that will be used.

The current rumor is that the new Congressional-mandated launched system will be based on the Ares 5, the heavy-lifter NASA began designing in 2006 for manned Moon missions which was canceled by President Obama along with Orion…

Learn more about the MPCV at this new NASA webpage.

Lockheed Accelerates Orion to Achieve 2013 launch and potential 2016 Manned Lunar Flyby

American astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft could be launched on a Lunar fly by mission in 2016 atop NASA’s Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle. Credit: Credit: Lockheed Martin

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Despite utilizing just half the work force originally planned and cutting back further on the original test program, Lockheed Martin is now accelerating the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) launch schedule and aiming to achieve an Earth orbital flight by 2013 and a human crewed flight as early as 2016. The first Orion crew cabin has been built and construction of the second spacecraft has begun.

What’s more is that a bold “manned mission beyond low Earth orbit and even a lunar fly by is possible in 2016 if NASA’s new heavy lift rocket is developed in time,” says John Karas, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Human Space Flight programs, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. A bipartisan majority in Congress recently approved funding for the Heavy lift booster and mandated that the first flight occur in 2016.

“In order to go to the moon, we need NASA’s new heavy lifter,” Karas explained. Orion was designed with the capability to fly human crews to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station, as well as beyond to deep space, the Moon, Asteroids, Lagrange Points and Mars.

Orion is NASA’s next generation crew vehicle and is intended to someday replace the Space Shuttle program, which will be fully retired just three months from now.

The second to last shuttle flight – STS 134 – is slated for launch this week on April 29 and President Obama and the entire First Family will attend.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion under a multi-year contract awarded by NASA in 2006.

First Orion Crew module
Orion crew module during recent installation of back shell panel at Lockheed Martin’s Vertical Test Facility in Denver, Colorado. Credit: NASA

Karas told me that the streamlined test program would involve flying one Orion mission per year – of increasing complexity – from 2013 to 2016. “Lockheed Martin is working with NASA to determine what are the right launch vehicles and the right missions.”

American astronauts could return to the moon in 5 years after a more than 40 year long hiatus.

Orion crew module at Lockheed’s Denver Space Faciilty. First Orion Crew module being outfitted with doors, windows and thermal protection system and more at Lockheed facilities in Denver. Credit: NASA

“Right now we are building a brand new crew cabin for the first Orion mission; OFT-1. But everything depends on the budget.”

“For the inaugural Orion test flight in 2013 NASA is considering a Delta IV Heavy booster rocket,” Karas said. “The Atlas V is not powerful enough to send the whole 50,000 pound spacecraft into orbit. With an Atlas we could only launch an Orion crew module. You would have to have delete the Service Module (SM) and /or other subsystems.”

“Orion would be lofted some 7,000 miles out, and then sent back for Earth reentry to simulate something close to lunar velocity, around 80% or so. So we would definitely be testing the deep space environment. Therefore the test flight would be a lot more involved than just a simple Earth orbital reentry.

“For the first Orion mission, we will put as much capability on it as possible depending on the budget,” Karas amplified. “But it’s unlikely to have solar arrays without a few hundred million more bucks. The capability is money limited.”

“The 2014 flight could be a high altitude abort test or perhaps something else.”

“Then a full up unmanned test flight would follow in 2015,” Karas explained.

“If we have a heavy lifter, the 2016 flight with the first human crew could be a deep space mission or a lunar fly by lasting more than a week.”

Orion crew module boosted by upper stage to the Moon and deep space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed has already constructed the initial Orion crew vehicle – known as the first article or Ground Test Article (GTA). The Orion GTA first article was built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, LA where I inspected it after the structural framework was welded into one piece.

Following the installation of mass and volume simulators and a successful series of pressure tests, the first article was then shipped in February this year to the company’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) located in Denver, Colorado.

“At Denver, we are going to finish the assembly of the first article by July of this year so it looks like a spacecraft – adding the doors, windows, thermal tiles and more,” Karas said. “Then it undergoes rigorous acoustics tests until September – known as Shake and Bake – to simulate all aspects of the harsh environment of deep space.”

The next step after that was to send it to NASA Langley for intensive water drop landing tests. But that plan may well change Karas told me.

“The first article – or GTA – is flight worthy. So we don’t want to break the spacecraft during the water landing tests. In the newly revised plan it may be used on the 2nd Orion flight in 2014 instead of reserving it for ground tests only. It would fly with a service module, but not solar panels. The first article could even be the first flight vehicle if the program funding is insufficient.”

Orion prototype crew cabin - GTA
Orion cabin view with astronaut crew hatch and window openings at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA is now undergoing testing and integration at Lockheed’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We have only half the budget for Orion that was planned earlier by NASA,” Karas stated.

“1500 less people are working on Orion since 1 year ago from the start to the end of 2010 – and that number includes all the subcontractors. We had to lay off a lot of people, including some folks we intended to hire.”

“MAF is now focused on building the composite structures of the first Service Module with about 200 people. That’s about half of what should have been about 400 folks. The earlier work at Michoud (MAF) focused on the metallic structures of the cabin for the first article,” said Karas.

To a large degree, launching astronauts to deep space is more a matter of sheer political will power then solving technical issues. And it all comes down to the bucks.

If NASA’s Heavy lifter is not available an alternative scenario with other expendable rockets would have to be developed to achieve the escape velocity required to send a crew of astronauts to the Moon.

Lockheed Martin has independently proposed a stepping stone approach that would send astronauts in Orion spacecraft to challenging deep space targets such as the Moon, and elsewhere such as Asteroids, Lagrange points and Mars that have never been done before and which I’ll feature in upcoming articles.

“Exploration missions that are affordable and sustainable will inevitably lead to technological innovation, to scientific discovery, and to public inspiration and spark an interest in STEM careers that can help the United States counter the overwhelming numerical disadvantage in college graduates it faces in these disciplines in developing third-world nations,’ says Karas.

Read my recent Orion and Shuttle articles:

NASAs First Orion Capsule and New Space Operations Center Unveiled

NASAs First Orion Capsule Ships for Crucial Deep Space Tests

President Obama to Attend Endeavour’s Last Launch on April 29

Shuttle Endeavour Photo Special: On Top of Pad 39A for Final Flight

NASA Selects Museums in Florida, California, New York and the Smithsonian for retiring Space Shuttles

‘In Flight’ Shuttle Orbiter retirement display planned by Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Orion manned capsule launch atop Heavy Lift Booster
Orion could launch on a lunar flyby mission in 2016 atop NASA’s new Heavy lift booster from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Lockheed Martin.