Looking to Orion

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As early as the 1980s, NASA was looking to the future of human spaceflight, seeking a successor to the space shuttle orbiters. Lockheed Martin was one of many companies developing new human spaceflight vehicles, building on a legacy of a space exploration stretching back to the Space Race of the 1950s.

But even with a track record of building Mars landers, rockets, the shuttle’s massive external tank, and deep space probes, Lockheed Martin was a bit of an underdog when it came to developing the space shuttles’ replacement, as the company had never built spacecraft designed for human space exploration.

An Enthusiastic Response
All the same, Lockheed Martin moved ahead with preparations for a contract bid in 2004. If the bid proved successful, Lockheed Martin and its subcontractors would need up to 1,000 staff members with the appropriate skills in place to immediately begin working. When the call went out for potential positions, human resources was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response—more than 32,000 qualified candidates expressed their interest in working on the nation’s next generation human spaceflight vehicle.

And soon, they would be put to work. The years of innovative engineering and scientific prowess that went into proposed shuttle replacements and aeroshells for Mars landers paid off.  In 2006 Lockheed Martin won the contract for what would become the first human interplanetary spacecraft – the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

State of the Art
Projected to carry a crew of four to six, Orion looks more like the Apollo spacecraft than recent space shuttles. But there are major differences “under the hood.” Though the Apollo program was one of the premiere achievements of humankind, the technology used to run the spacecraft had less computing power than today’s cell phones.

Orion is state of the art, utilizing advancements in computing, design, architecture, and safety. Its systems are so evolved that even if every astronaut leaves the craft as part of the mission, Orion will continue to function. Solar panels eliminate the need for heavy fuel tanks, making the craft more maneuverable than Apollo-era craft, even though it is 30 percent larger. Orion’s interior will be roomier than the Apollo capsules, and its ascent and re-entry procedures are being designed to be ten times safer than the space shuttles.

The Apollo missions focused on a single purpose: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely home. They far exceeded that goal by landing 12 men on the moon. Orion is being designed to travel well beyond the moon and transport astronauts to and from distant destinations such as asteroids, the moons of Mars, and even the red planet itself. But beyond that, Orion is being designed to perform missions that have not yet even been dreamed of.

NASA’s future exploration endeavors will demonstrate the true harmony of robust human and robotic missions. Orion’s advanced technical ability will enable the astronauts to focus their time and attention on problem-solving, exploration and new discoveries. According to Orion Deputy Program Manager Larry Price, “Orion is going to be safer than any previous spacecraft. It’s all about exploring our universe, and returning safely home to share that experience with the world.”


Sources and Further Reading

 

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highlights
  • As early as the 1980s, NASA was looking to the future of human spaceflight, seeking a successor to the space shuttle orbiters.
  • Projected to carry a crew of four to six, Orion looks more like the Apollo spacecraft than recent space shuttles.
  • Orion is state of the art, utilizing advancements in computing, design, architecture, and safety. Its systems are so evolved that even if every astronaut leaves the craft as part of the mission, Orion will continue to function.

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